By Al Featherston
Digger Phelps must be loving the ACC's misery.
Most of you know that the ESPN commentator - more famous for his color coordinated highlighters and pocket handkerchief than for his rare insights - used to coach basketball at Notre Dame. While he was there, his dislike for the ACC was well-known.
Phelps used to snarl about how overrated the league was. When ACC teams regularly pummeled his best Notre Dame teams, it only provoked more venom from the frustrated coach.
He had a particular problem with Duke, going 2-8 against the Blue Devils. His first good Notre Dame team in 1973 (which finished runnerup in the NIT at a time when the NIT meant something), was trounced 86-74 by a 12-14 Blue Devil team coached by Bucky Waters. His best Notre Dame team in 1978 was bounced from the NCAA Final Four by Bill Foster's youthful Duke squad - which included Philadelphia freshman Gene Banks, who had picked Duke over Notre Dame after a nasty recruiting battle. Mike Krzyzewski beat Phelps with regularity, winning six of seven games in head-to-head matchups against the Irish blowhard.
The last quarter century has been hard on Phelps. As much as he might dislike the ACC, only a basketball moron (Doug Gottlieb, I'm talking to you!) could fail to recognize college basketball's most consistent power conference. Between 1980 (when the NCAA expanded its field to allow an unlimited number of teams per conference) and 2005, the ACC won more titles, produced more Final Four teams, won more NCAA games and enjoyed the best NCAA winning percentage of any conference - by a wide margin.
Obviously, that has changed in recent years. Starting in 2006, the ACC's postseason performance has declined to mortal levels. Despite the back-to-back national titles won by UNC in 2009 and Duke in 2010, the ACC's cumulative NCAA performance over the last five seasons has been decidedly average (compared with the other five BCS leagues).
That postseason decline has finally reached the regular season.
That wasn't the case for the first five years of the ACC's "decline." Between 2006 and 2010, the ACC remained a regular season juggernaut. In that span, the league compiled the best non-conference winning percentage of any major league and had a winning head-to-head record against the other five BCS conferences. Its cumulative ranking in the three best computer polls (Pomeroy, Sagarin and RPI) was the best of any conference.
That's not the case this season. It does no good to deny it - even though last week a parade of ACC coaches did line up to pretend it wasn't happening.
"Our league's not any more down than it ever has been," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said last Monday. "Duke and Carolina have been the flagship teams in our league for years and they've earned the right to be there. A lot of us are striving to try to get to where these two perennial powers have been. Nationally, people automatically think that if those teams are not one and two (in the ACC) or top five in the country, then maybe something's wrong."
N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe tried to sing the same song.
"I think everything is perception," Lowe said. "I don't think it's a decline. I think that when we don't have some of the teams that are normally ranked in the top five or top 10, then people tend to think that the ACC is down. I wouldn't say we're down."
Now, you can't blame coaches for trying to spin the bad news in a favorable way - you never know when an NCAA Selection Committee member is listening - but their perception of reality is clearly skewed.
By every objective measure, the ACC is down this season. The league's non-conference winning percentage (117-48, 70.9 percent) is the second-worst it's been in 30 years - exactly 10 percent lower than it was a year ago (80.9 percent). The league has had one team in the top 25 for the last eight weeks - before this season, that had happened just three weeks total in the previous 30 seasons. The ACC is below .500 against the other BCS leagues. The league is 5-13 against ranked opponents.
Those are historically bad numbers.
At the anecdotal level, it's even worse. We have a Boston College team that's fighting for the ACC lead losing at home to Harvard and Yale. We have Florida State losing to a truly awful Auburn team just before upsetting Duke. We have Clemson losing to Old Dominion (which, to be fair, is a decent mid-major). We have Georgia Tech losing to Kennesaw State and Siena (which aren't quality mid-majors). We have Virginia losing at home to Seattle and Wake Forest losing to â¦ well, let's not go there.
That's not perception, Sidney â¦ that's reality.
However, perception does play a part in how the ACC is being viewed nationally - and even by many long-time fans who grew up in an era when the league was never down. Because the league has slumped this season, some commentators and many fans have tried to make it worse than it really is.
Let's try to a little perspective here - ignoring both the ACC's official all-is-well mantra and the gloating criticism of ACC-haters like Phelps, who have waited a lifetime for the opportunity to kick the league when it's down.
Well, the ACC is down. But how far down is it - really?
The computer polls give us some idea, since the all agree that the ACC is - at this moment - the nation's fourth best conference. Pomeroy ranks the top seven as:
1. Big Ten
2. Big East
3. Big 12
5. Pac 10
7. Mountain West
Sagarin has it:
1. Big East
2. Big Ten
3. Big 12
5. Mountain West
7. Pac 10
The RPI ranks them:
1. Big East
2. Big Ten
3. Big 12
5. Mountain West
6. Pac 10
All three polls have the Big East and Big Ten with a clear margin over the third-place Big 12. But the Big 12 is only marginally ahead of the ACC (and the three leagues in the next three places).
Now, fourth place is the ACC's lowest ranking since the computer models have been formulated, but it's hardly as apocalyptic as some critics and fans have made it seem. Over the years, every other conference has ranked at least that low. It's only newsworthy because the ACC is the one league that's avoided the normal fluctuations of fortune over the years.
Take the uproar over having just one team ranked.
That is unusual for the ACC, but it's hardly unprecedented. In fact, both the SEC and Pac 10 also have just one team ranked in the latest AP poll - and Kentucky (12) and Washington (20) are ranked significantly lower than the ACC's sole entry, Duke (4).
Why is nobody talking about the collapse of projected SEC powers Tennessee and Florida (both preseason top 10 teams) and how their decline has weakened the SEC? Clearly, it's because the SEC is kind of like the ACC in football - expected to be mediocre. On the other hand, ACC basketball is like SEC football - it's supposed to be the epitome of the sport.
So let's try and maintain a little perspective. Yes, the ACC is weaker this season than it has been in a generation. Relative to its own high standards, this season is a disaster for the ACC.
But relative to college basketball as a whole, the ACC is merely average, not terrible. It's as good or better than at least two other "power" conferences and is still better than any mid-major league (including the surging Mountain West).
Personally, I think Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg had the best handle on how the ACC stands.
"There's greater parity in college basketball," Greenberg said. "Everyone wants to point to the ACC. I don't think it's an ACC issue, I think it's across college basketball. For whatever reason, kids aren't as consistent. Kids aren't playing as consistently."
To a large degree, the ACC's early season struggles have been acerbated by an incredible accumulation of injuries. At least six teams have seen their fortunes altered by the absence or limitation of key players. It starts at the top:
-- Duke: No need to tell the readers of this website what the toe injury to Kyrie Irving has meant. With the scintillating freshman at the helm, Mike Krzyzewski had the nation's best team. Without Irving, Duke is still very good, but no longer the overwhelming favorite to win it all in Houston. Coach K is a master of piecing together a competitive team - and he's got at least as many quality pieces as he did a year ago, when he won its fourth national title - but it would be a heck of a lot easier to accomplish with a healthy Irving.
-- Virginia Tech: Picked No. 2 in the ACC in preseason, the Hokes were hurt before the first practice by the loss of senior sixth man J.T. Thompson and talented Florida transfer Allen Chaney, who was expected to contend for the starting center job. The team struggled in November and December as senior guard Dorenzo Hudson and big man backup Cadarian Raines tried to play through injuries. It's funny, but once Greenberg decided to sit both injured players for the rest of the season, the short-handed team seemed to jell. The Hokies have played very well lately (anybody see them demolish Maryland in College Park last Thursday night?), but make no mistake, this team has taken a blow.
"We're just not the same team we thought we'd have last summer," Greenberg said as ACC play began.
-- N.C. State, expected to give Lowe his first NCAA team, lost big man Tracy Smith for 10 games with a knee injury. During his absence, the Wolfpack lost competitive games with Georgetown, Syracuse (by six points in the Dome) and Arizona. Smith, a second-team All-ACC pick last year, obviously could have made a difference in at least one or two games that might have transformed the Pack from NCAA longshots into at least a legitimate bubble team. He would have provided a veteran anchor for Lowe's talented kids to build around. It's finally starting to happen now that Smith is back in the lineup, but at this point, it's probably too late.
-- Virginia had to start the season without veteran point guard Sammy Zeglinski, who played so well in last year's ACC Tournament. Just when it was looking like the Cavs had something going with a victory at Minnesota, senior forward Will Sherrill went down for five games with an injury. Before he returned, senior power forward Mike Scott, the team's best player (21 points, 13 rebounds in a win at Virginia Tech) had to undergo knee surgery. He came back for one game, then re-injured the knee. He's gone for the season. Without Scott - and with Zeglinski and Sherrill still less than 100 percent - any hopes Virginia had of having a breakthrough season seem to have vanished.
-- Wake Forest. Okay, the Deacons are terrible. And they weren't going to be an NCAA team anyway. But maybe they wouldn't be the worst ACC team in the modern era if freshman point guard Tony Chennault had not broken his foot and missed 17 games. Now, don't get me wrong - Chennault is not Kyrie Irving â¦ his prep reputation is closer to that of Tyler Thornton (both were borderline top 100 prospects who quarterbacked winning teams in high school and were honored as player of the year in their respective cities - Thornton in Washington and Chennault in Philadelphia). He was the only point guard on Wake's roster - in his absence, wing guard C.J. Harris, who has never played the position (not even in high school) had to try and play the point. Not only is Harris a subpar playmaker, his focus there appears to have hurt his own offensive production.
Winston-Salem sports writer Dan Collins, who saw Chennault play last summer and in preseason, thinks that the young guard could have helped a lot.
"Nobody knows just how much of a difference Chennault might have made," Collins wrote in his blog, "but the glimpses we got in practices and a turn or two against Stetson were tantalizing. He is a pass-first point with a low center of gravity and a desire to get into the lane whenever he can -- or in other words â¦ just what the Deacons have been missing."
Adding to the woes of new coach Jeff Bzdelik, freshman forward Melvin Tabb, projected as a key contributor for the young Deacs, was sidelined early by a mononucleosis (he also had an academic issue that cost him some time).
Nobody is saying that Chennault and Tabb would have made the Deacs a first-division ACC team, but their presence - especially Chennault's - may have prevented at least a couple of the horrifying losses to the likes of Presbyterian, Stetson, VCU, Winthrop and UNC-Wilmington.
-- Florida State. The Seminoles have survived the loss of starting center Xavier Gibson - who broke his hand and hurt his knee in the same game - thanks to the strong play of ex-military star Bernard James. More damaging has been the absence of freshman guard Ian Miller, who was supposed to have provided some badly needed perimeter firepower to an offensively challenged team. Miller provided a hint of his ability with an 11-point effort against Ohio State, but he's missed the team's last 10 games with a sore knee.
-- Clemson. It seems almost minor compared to the rest of the league, but soon after scoring 18 points in a narrow loss to Florida State, senior point guard Demontez Stitt - arguably the Tigers most important player - underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. He missed just two games and the Tigers are 8-1 since his return, so it's hard to argue that the Tigers are crippled. But Stitt was bothered by the knee for weeks before the surgery - how much did it impact him in Clemson's four early losses? He played well in losses to Old Dominion and FSU, but seemed to struggle in losses to Michigan and South Carolina. And last Saturday, the Tigers had to play at Maryland without veteran wing Tanner Smith, who injured his ankle against UNC. You think his absence may have impacted a two-point loss?
Now, injuries are a part of any sport. Coaches and teams must deal with the absence or limitations of players due to physical problems. Florida State and Virginia Tech have surged in spite of their physical problems. Duke has held its own. Still, it's hard to look at the ACC's early season injury list - especially the number of KEY players sidelined - and not understand the impact that's had on the league this season.
Hmm, just for fun, how about an all-injured team. Let's see, we start with Irving at the point, Tracy Smith and Mike Scott in the post with Dorenzo Hudson and Demontez Stitt on the wing. Off the bench, we could choose from Zeglinski and Chennault at the point, Xavier Gibson and Allen Chaney in the middle with J.T. Thompson and Ian Miller on the wings.
Think that team - assuming everybody was healthy -- could give the ACC a second ranked team?
The real impact of the ACC's decline won't be felt until Selection Sunday.
A year ago, Virginia Tech missed the NCAA field with 23 wins (at selection time) and a 10-6 ACC regular season record. The Hokies were doomed by a weak non-conference schedule and a wildly unbalanced ACC schedule that allowed them to fatten their regular season ACC record against the league's weaker teams.
That could happen again.
On the whole, most ACC teams have played better non-conference schedules this season, but, unfortunately, the ACC has lost most key games. Virginia Tech gets credit for playing Purdue, Kansas State and UNLV - but the Hokies lost all three. N.C. State took on Arizona, Syracuse, Georgetown and Wisconsin - and lost them all. Maryland has been given a lot of credit for playing teams such as Pitt, Villanova, Temple and Illinois tough. The problem is that the Terps didn't beat any of them.
How much credit will the Selection Committee give teams for at least scheduling tough competition?
Balanced against the lack of good wins is the long list of bad losses. Boston College has a quality win over Texas A&M, but also has those two losses to Harvard and Yale. Florida State has a pretty good win over Baylor, but it also has a pretty awful loss to Auburn.
The cumulative effect of the ACC's non-conference failure is going to be the devaluation of any in-conference success.
Back in the 1980s, Jim Valvano used to tell reporters that his goal every year was to finish 8-8 in the ACC every year because that would guarantee him an NCAA bid. He was right - between 1980 and 1999, just three .500 or better team in the ACC failed to make the NCAA Tournament - and no team above .500 fell short. That changed in 2000 when 9-7 Virginia missed the field. That decision sent shock waves through the ACC.
It's happened again twice in the last five years - to 9-7 Florida State in 2006 and to 10-6 Virginia Tech a year ago.
It could easily happen this year, especially if that 9-7 or 10-6 ACC record fails to include a victory over Duke - the only ranked ACC team. That's what happened to Virginia Tech a year ago. They got to 10-6 in the ACC but were 0-3 against the league's three top-ranked schools.
The good news is that right now, most early NCAA projections have the ACC getting four or five bids. That's better than 1999, 2000 and 2003 when the league got just three bids (although, to be fair, three bids in a nine-team league is pretty much the same as four bids in a 12-team league).
There's still a long time to go before Selection Sunday - the big day is exactly 50 days from last Saturday. There's enough time for teams to improve their resumes.
Right now, Duke is the ACC's only NCAA lock. The big issue for the Devils is holding onto a No. 1 seed. North Carolina is a fairly good shape with a signature win over Kentucky, no bad losses and a solid standing in all three major polls. Florida State seems to be close to solidifying its position - that victory over Duke helps - although the 'Noles do have one bad loss (at Auburn) and are in precarious territory in the RPI at the moment (No. 43 - which is usually right on the at-large borderline). Still, as of today, they would be in.
At the other end of the spectrum, Wake Forest is already dead and buried. It's hard to see how Virginia and Georgia Tech can construct any kind of NCAA resume.
Everybody else in the ACC is taking up residence squarely on the NCAA bubble (although N.C. State may be clinging to it by Sidney Lowe's fingernails). For the league's sake, it would be better if two or three of those bubble teams could separate themselves. This is one season where competitive balance is not a good thing.
As of Sunday afternoon, five ACC teams had a 2-3 league record (and two teams were worse than that). Most years, after the league had flexed its muscles outside the conference, that would be no problem.
But in 2011, it's hard to argue that we're watching good teams beat up on each other.
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