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Thad Williamson's Modest Proposal For The ACC

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We're really pleased to post this article by Thad Williamson, arguing for reform of the ACC's post-expansion scheduling philosophy.  We hope a lot of you will read it and respond with tweaks or criticisms and that a good general discussion will ensue, one which will perhaps find its way to the ACC office.

Mike Krzyzewski has earned the right to be listened to when he talks about college basketball, and ACC basketball in particular. The league's longest-tenured coach has made a point this month of expressing concern about the condition of ACC basketball, concerns I fully share.

You can measure the problem several ways. Attendance in league games has now declined 4 straight seasons, with about 160,000 fewer total fans attending games this season compared to 2006-07. On the court, the league has gone from regularly having 5 or 6 of 8 teams qualify for the NCAA Tournament 20 years ago to having as few as three or four of 12 teams picked for the big dance. The league has gotten top heavy-Carolina and Duke are at the top and involved in the national picture almost every year, but after that there is a big dropoff.

Those issues are just symptoms of what I believe is the core problem: the ACC simply has not adopted a regular season and tournament structure that both honors the league's core traditions and makes competitive sense for a twelve school league.

The league's core traditions can be stated as follows: First, local rivalries matter a lot, and schools do not just have one rival. Second, fans get to know not only what's going on with their team, but that of all the others as well. Third, competitions must be fair and have a clear meaning.

The ACC desecrated the first tradition by adopting a 16 game schedule, then saying that each school would only play home-and-home each year against two designated rivals. Consequently, North Carolina plays Wake Forest home-and-home only once every three years; Duke similarly plays home-and-home against N.C. State (as well as Wake) just once every third year. Wake Forest has become almost like the long-lost sibling who left home years ago and shows up only on rare occasion. Wake-Carolina games-and Wake-Duke games-were often hotly contested games, and to be able to get a sweep andinnymore.

As to the second tradition, the average fan now knows about his or her own team, and maybe that of one or two close rivals. But it's become all too easy to ignore or give short shrift to schools one plays only once a year, let alone develop the kind of knowledge fans used to acquire about opposing players over a 4 year time period. In 1987, I got to attend the Duke-Virginia game in Cameron in which Tom Sheehey got ejected. As a Carolina fan, I had an appreciation for who Sheehey was, why it was not shocking he would get ejected, and why the Duke fans that night had the reaction they did. No one liked Sheehey very much, but he was familiar, someone I had gotten to know over a 4 year period. That kind of knowledge about opposing players (apart from one's archrival) is just rarer to come by these days, which is a real loss to the conference community.

As to the third tradition, everyone knows an unbalanced league competition in which teams do not play identical schedules is not fair. Duke and Carolina deliberately put themselves at a disadvantage every year by playing each other twice rather than once. But the more serious issue is that who finishes where in the standings is obviously shaped by whether one had to play (say) Duke or Wake Forest twice this year. Consequently, especially in the middle of the standings, it's hard to take seriously the league standings as an objective measure of each team's quality. This year three teams finished 9-7, but if the scheduling permutation had been different, maybe those teams' records would be different too. Since the league standings apart from perhaps at the very top and very bottom have little meaning, each game becomes meaningful as an event in the individual teams' quest for NCAA qualification, with little impact on the other schools.

That unfairness in my view extends to the current tournament structure is well. This year Clemson finished in a 3 way tie for 4th, but got the tiebreaker and will get a first round bye. They only have to win 3 league games to claim a tournament title, compared to 4 for Virginia Tech and Boston College-teams with identical records, records that might have turned out differently had the schedule rotation this year been differently. History suggests that it's possible for a team to win three straight as a lower seed to make the final, but extremely hard for that team to win a fourth game in the final itself. The usual pattern is the lower seed's legs give out around midway through the second half of the final.

It really doesn't have to be this way. So here are my two proposals for change, which are detailed at greater length in the Independent Weekly this week.

Proposal one is to scrap the tournament outright and have a true home-and-home regular season of 22 games, and call the winner of that competition the undisputed league champion (with an Ivy League style one-game playoff in the event of a tie). Each team gets to play one another home and home, the competition would be fair, and the meaning of the final standings unambiguous.

Proposal two is more modest and less pristine, but perhaps has greater likelihood of being realized. Here the idea is to, first, divide the conference into three "divisions" of four, including the ACC North (Maryland, BC, Virginia, Virginia Tech), the ACC Piedmont (Duke, UNC, NCSU, Wake) and the ACC South (Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami).

Next, increase the number of regular season games from 16 to 18. Each team would play every other team in its division twice every year, as well as four other teams (two from each division) twice. Which out-of-division teams one would play twice would then rotate each year.

This proposal would restore almost all of the league's core rivalries to an annual home-and-home basis, and would further guarantee that each school would have a home date against all eight non-division teams three years out of every four. Those improvements alone would do a great deal to reweave the traditional fabric of the league. Further, while the schedule would remain imbalanced, each school would be paired with one other school playing an identical league schedule (i.e. Duke and Carolina would play the exact same set of opponents), thus providing a valid basis for comparing schools' records.

I favor going further still by officially recognizing the champions of each division and by linking tournament seeding to divisional standings. Further, I favor reducing the tournament field from 12 to 9, with the last place team in each division failing to qualify for the tournament. This proposal would create a lot of interest in regular season games both at the top and the bottom of the league standings.

These proposals may or may not be the best ideas for change, but my hope is that might be taken seriously enough to spark a serious discussion about this question. At a minimum, something needs to be done to restore the damaged local rivalries, and I also think the league as a whole would benefit a great deal from a longer conference schedule, even if it's just a move from 16 to 18 games. There's not a school in the ACC that doesn't have two excessive cream puff games that no one would miss if they were replaced by games that matter.

The status quo is not acceptable, and I hope the league's leaders will cease standing by and watching while ACC basketball slowly slumps into mediocrity. The way to restore the league's luster is to re-embrace its core traditions, not run further away from them.

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