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Featherston: The Best Conference Ever

I rarely disagree with Mike Krzyzewski when it comes to basketball matters. Believe me, I know that his knowledge and understanding of the sport goes far beyond mine.

That's why I was so taken aback last week when, during a press conference to discuss his reappointment to coach USA Basketball, he dropped in a comment about the new 15-team ACC:

"We're going to be a 10-bid conference. We're going to be the best conference in the history of the game."

That's a bold statement.

And, as intimidating as it is to dispute the judgment of the winningest coach in college basketball history, I think he's dead wrong … at least about the first part of that statement.

But I do think that he has a chance to be right about the second part.

Before we can examine that premise, we have to determine: What was the best conference in the history of the game than the new ACC will be competing against?

That question has an easy answer - the old ACC.

Specifically, between 1980 and 2005 - a 26-year period - the ACC was the best conference in the history of the game.

Let me be clear here. I'm not arguing that the ACC was the absolute best every single season in that 26-year span. In fact, in 1985, the Big East had the best single-season showing that any conference has ever day - a 17-4 NCAA Tournament record, three Final Four teams and the national champion (and a 4-0 head-to-head tournament record against the ACC).

My point is that over that extended period, the ACC was more consistently successful than any other conference has ever been. And it's not even close.

Here are the numbers for the 1980-2005 period:

NCAA titles by conference:

  • ACC - 8
  • Big East -5
  • Big Ten - 4
  • SEC - 3
  • Pac 10 -- 2
  • Big 8/12 - 1

Final Fours by Conference

  • ACC- 26
  • Big Ten - 16
  • SEC - 14
  • Big East - 13
  • Big 8/12 - 11
  • Pac 10 - 7

Overall NCAA wins

  • ACC - 256
  • Big Ten - 207
  • Big East - 206
  • SEC - 169
  • Big 8/12 - 115
  • Pac 10 - 112

NCAA Tournament winning percentage

  • ACC - 67.9
  • Big East - 62.8
  • Big Ten - 60.7
  • Big 8/12 - 59.0
  • SEC - 58.3
  • Pac 10 - 54.6

And it's not just NCAA Tournament success (although that is the ultimate proving ground). A check of the final AP polls of the period finds that the ACC had more final No. 1 ranked teams (10) than the other five major conferences did put together (9). The ACC had more final top 10 teams in the period (48 - the Big East is second with 35) and more ranked teams overall (89 - the Big Ten was second with 82).

So no other league is close for that time period.

The ACC's reign ended in 2006 - partially as a result of the ACC's expansion. That's not to blame newcomers Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College for the decline - although they added little to the league's basketball profile.

However, by stealing three teams from the Big East, the ACC provoked that league to expand … and the Big East added basketball powers such as Louisville, Marquette and Cincinnati. It became a 16-team juggernaut and for eight seasons, the Big East was perceived as the best conference in the country.

But not the best of all time, although some commentators have tried to make that case.

To understand the fallacy of that argument, compare the 2006-13 Big East with the much-weakened ACC during the same time period.

Between 2006 and last year, the 16-team Big East won just two national titles (while the "watered-down" ACC won two) and had an 93-52 NCAA record over that span - a 64.1 winning percentage that is significantly lower than the 67.9 percent that the ACC averaged in its Golden Age.

Put it another way -- even in the 2006-2012 era when the Big East was in its 16-team glory and the ACC was struggling, the ACC has had as many national titles, more No. 1 AP teams (2-to-1) and exactly the same number of top 10 teams (16 each). Only in overall ranked teams has the deeper Big East outpaced the 12-team ACC (44-22).

Ken Pomeroy has been rating conferences since the beginning of the century. During the 2006-2013 period, he's rated the Big East as the nation's best conference exactly once - in 2006. By contrast, he had the ACC No. 1 in 2007 and 2010. Overall for that seven-year period, the Big East's average conference ranking on the Pomeroy scale is 2.9 … the ACC's is 2.8 - almost identical.

I'd like to bring up one other point. A lot has been made of the Big East's "record" 11 bids in 2011. That is a record number - but 11 of 16 teams is less than two thirds of the conference.

The ACC - as a smaller conference - has never had 11 bids. But it has topped the Big East percentage of bids on a number of occasions. In fact, the ACC holds the NCAA record of putting 75 percent of the conference in the field - and the ACC did it four times, putting six of eight conference members in the NCAA field in 1986, 1987, 1989 and 1991.

No other league can match that.

I think it's clear - although the Big East has a legit claim as the nation's best conference over the 2006-2013 period, the best conference in NCAA history was still the ACC in the era of 1980-2006.

THAT is the standard that the new ACC has to match.

I have little doubt that over the next 10 years or so, the ACC will be the nation's best conference. But it has a long way to go to reach the standard that the league set in its glory days.


I wasn't there (I was stuck covering the ACC Baseball Tournament) when Coach K predicted that the ACC would be a 10-bid conference so maybe the transcripts are misleading. Maybe he meant to say that the ACC will - at some point - be a 10-bid league. I'm sure that will happen in the near future.

But next year?

It's not going to happen.

Wednesday of this week, Krzyzewski met with the media for the first day of the K Academy and while he didn't address the "10-bid" prediction directly, he did talk about how the ACC needs to use its prestige to help his team. He wants to see the ACC lobby for more NCAA bids - as the Big East has done for years.

I think that's what he was doing last week - setting a high bar for the ACC to aspire to. He's trying to kickstart the debate about how many ACC teams deserve bids. Obviously, that's something that won't be determined until next March, but until then, his 10-bid prediction will be out there.

But realistically, the ACC isn't likely to get close to 10 bids.

I've been playing around with a rough preseason poll for the 2013-14 ACC. During the baseball tournament, I was able to share ideas with Jim Sumner and Brett Friedlander. Brett and I do most of the ACC for the Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook and we have to decide early how we're going to rank the league - especially which teams will make the preseason top 25 (which require much more extensive previews).

To that end, I've been trying to research the league - what each team has lost; what's coming back; and what talent is being added.

It's actually a bit early to come up with a final ranking, since several schools are still working the transfer market. And a lot can happen over the summer Keep in mind, Maryland added Alex Len in late August of 2011 … Elliot Williams transferred from Duke to Memphis in late June of 2009 and that same summer, Andre Dawkins decided to re-classify and come to school a year early.

But while it's too early to make firm predictions, we know enough to make some savvy guestimates about the 15 ACC schools. Even if N.C. State lands Asheville transfer Keith Hornsby or Pitt gets Vanderbilt transfer Shelden Jeter or Miami gets DePaul transfer Donovan Kirk, it's merely going to tweak their prospects, not fundamentally change their outlooks.

Based on what we know now, what are the likely - and the unlikely - ACC candidates for the 2014 NCAA Tournament?


Okay, there is no such thing as a lock as Duke learned in 1995 and UNC learned in 2010. But barring the kind of disaster that overtook those teams, I think we can talk about five 2013-14 ACC teams being solid NCAA candidates (in alphabetical order): Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Virginia.

Duke, UNC and Syracuse are no brainers. They make every preseason top 25 list I've seen. Looking at their projected rosters I can't see a reason why that trio should not be ranked going into the season.

I will try to make the case to my editors at Blue Ribbon that Virginia should be a top 25 team too. I know the Cavs didn't make the NCAA Tournament last year and aren't showing up on many preseason lists (Dick Vitale doesn't have them in his top 40, but I think Tony Bennett's club is positioned to take off.

A year ago, I made the same arguments about a Miami team that missed the 2012 tournament. In hindsight, I grossly underestimated the 2013 Hurricanes - but as far as I know, we were the only publication that included Miami in the preseason top 25 (we had them at No. 24).

I don't think Virginia will be quite as good next year as Miami turned out to be last year, but I do think the addition of injured guard Malcolm Brogdon and South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill improves their athleticism. The return of Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell give them two skilled veterans. And Bennett has plenty of supporting pieces.

Notre Dame returns four starters off a 25-win team. True, they lost their best player in center Jack Cooley, but Mike Brey has two fifth-year big men, a rising star in Jerian Grant and a talented point in Eric Atkins. I see them as a borderline top 25 team - clearly an NCAA team.

That's five - we're halfway to Krzyzewski's 10.


The ACC will have some other good teams … and maybe a couple of breakout teams.

I really like Maryland. I mean, I like Mark Turgeon's roster … as an ACC partisan, I have nothing but disdain for Maryland and I hope they fall apart like a Rutgers administrator (that's two great new additions to your league, Jim Delaney).

But back to basketball - the Terps are big, deep and nasty. The loss of point guard Pe'Shon Howard is addition by subtraction. Alex Len is going to be a lottery pick, but he was hardly a dominant player last year. The Terps will have plenty of size in sophomores Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell and freshman Damonte Dodd. Dez Wells and Nick Faust are as good a pair of wings as there are in the ACC (well, maybe not as good as Hood and Sulaimon - we'll see).

I understand they have point guard issues, but a healthy Roddy Peters could answer that and Seth Allen is not the worst lead guard if it comes to that..

The biggest problem for Turgeon is straightening out his non-conference schedule. A terrible non-conference SOS cost Maryland a bid in 2013. If he can improve his schedule next season, this could easily be an NCAA team.

Pitt is in a state of flux. The loss of big man Steven Adams is a lot like Maryland's loss of Len - the Panthers are losing a potentially great player, but one who has not been more than a nice player so far. A bigger loss is the graduation of fifth-year point guard Tray Woodall, who led the team in scoring and assists.

Transfers have hurt too - Trey Ziegler was a disappointment after transferring in from Central Michigan, but J.J. Moore was a starting wing and the No. 4 scorer on the team. The turmoil explains why Pitt has been so active in the transfer market (although the only success so far as been a juco big man).

The best thing the Panthers have going for them is coach Jamie Dixon, who has had Pitt in the tournament for 11 of the last 12 years. Unfortunately, the one miss was two years ago. The Panthers rebounded to win 24 games a year ago, returning to the NCAA's.

A mystery team - there is a nice core in Pittsburgh, but as of right now, more question marks than any ACC team.

Florida State was a major disappointment in 2013.

After four straight NCAA seasons and a 2012 ACC championship under Leonard Hamilton, the Seminoles slipped to 9-9 in the ACC - and was only that good because Michael Snaer single-handedly pulled out three wins with some last second heroics … and now Snaer is gone. So is perpetually injured power forward Terrance Shannon, who will take his crippled body to VCU.

But Hamilton does have some talent on hand. A year ago, he surrounded Snaer with a collection of kids. There are three seven-footers on the roster. There's a solid - if healthy - veteran guard in Ian Miller. Hamilton is bringing in a quality shooter in Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a prep teammate of Andrew Wiggins.

The key for Hamilton is to re-establish the defensive presence that was the heart of his great four-year run. Last year's team was a defensive zero. But he has the athletes to play the kind of unrelenting pressure he wants.

If FSU could have landed Wiggins, they would have been an NCAA team. But they can still return to the tournament if the 'Noles remember how to play defense.

That's three more potential NCAA teams. I wouldn't bet serious money that all three make it. But give me two of those three and we're up to seven.


I've been a major admirer of Steve Donohue's rebuilding efforts at Boston College and I think the Eagles will continue to make progress in 2013-14. I love the backcourt of Olivier Hanlan and Joe Rahon, Ryan Anderson is one of the most versatile forwards in the league (better in every way than his counterpart, the more-celebrated James Michael McAdoo) and Eddie Odio is emerging as an explosive frontcourt player.

But is that enough to transform a 16-17 team that lost to Bryant College into an NCAA Tournament team?

Donohue's best addition will be 6-7 Notre Dame transfer Alex Dragicevich, a good 3-point shooter. But the key to their season will be the health of Dennis Clifford.

As a freshman in 2012, Clifford looked like a budding star - an agile 7-footer with good skills who only needed to add a little strength to become a standout. When BC made an overseas trip before last season, Clifford was the team's best player. Unfortunately, his 2013 season was ruined by a pair of bad knees. After averaging nine points and five rebounds in 25 minutes a game as a freshman, he was limited to 15 minutes (three points and three rebounds) as a sophomore.

As of last spring, Donohue was not sure if Clifford would ever fully recover. Without him, I can't see BC as an NCAA team.

A month after the season, it looked like N.C. State was going to fall off the face of the earth. T.J. Warren flirted with the NBA draft and there were rumors that freshman point guard Tyler Lewis, recruited over by Mark Gottfried, was thinking transfer,

But somehow, Gottfried has restored order in Raleigh and added a few pieces that might - MIGHT - make N.C. State an NCAA contender.

Warren and Lewis are staying, providing a solid foundation to build upon. LSU transfer Ralston Turner, a nice 6-5 wing, practiced with the team last year and will be eligible. And Gottfried has picked up a juco prize in high scoring guard Desmond Lee. Throw in highly regarded incoming point guard Cat Barber and it's clear that Gottfried will have plenty of backcourt options, even if one of them is playing two tiny point guards together.

Up front, it's a different story. Warren is a natural wing, but he proved he could be effective down low as a freshman. Fifth year Australian big man Jordan Vandenberg averaged 2.0 points and 2.7 rebounds in his best season (2012), but he's no more than a stop-gap.

Then there is recruit BeeJay Anya. The 6-9 DeMatha product is a nice prospect, but like UNC recruit Kennedy Meeks, he may have a problem. Gottfried recently told a fan gathering that Anya "weights 800 pounds … he's got to lay off the cheeseburgers."

Maybe next year when N.C. State and UNC meet, instead of opening the game with a jump ball, Meeks and Anya can face off on a mat for a brief Sumo duel!

Georgia Tech has a more balanced team with three solid post players and a nice collection of wings. Unfortunately, the Jackets lack any semblance of a point guard. Brian Gregory has three potential candidates, but none are very highly regarded.

Too bad ACC teams can't trade - if Georgia Tech could send one of its big men to N.C. State for one of Gottfried's two talented point guards, both teams might be strong contenders to make the NCAA field.

As it is, both teams have major flaws that make an NCAA bid - while possible, extremely unlikely.

That's three more teams, but even being extremely optimistic, I can't see more than one of them putting it together to earn an NCAA bid.

So right now, I can possibly see eight NCAA teams from the ACC next year.

And that's it.


There are four teams left.

I'd be hard pressed to imagine any one of the four making a serious run at earning an NCAA bid.

Okay, Wake Forest did improve from 8-24 to 13-18 in Jeff Bzdelik's second year. But the Deacons flattened out at 13-18 again in his third year.

There were a few moments of promise - homecourt wins over Miami and N.C. State, plus a close homecourt loss to Duke. And Bzdelik did bring in some nice young players, especially big man Devin Thomas.

But the Deacs lost their best player - guard C.J. Harris was their best scorer, their best playmaker and their best 3-point shooter. There's not much coming in - two 3-star recruits and a transfer from Robert Morris who ought to be able to replace 3-point specialist Chase Fisher off the bench.

Miami lost the top six players off their ACC championship team.

Jim Larranaga did pick up a quality transfer in second-team All-Big 12 guard Angel Rodriguez from Kansas State, but it's not clear yet whether he'll have to sit out a year or will be eligible next season. Even if he does play, he'll have Rion Brown and maybe oft-injured wing Garius Adams to work with, along with a bunch of underwhelming recruits. If they get Kirk - who actually started his career at Miami before going to DePaul - it will help, but remember, we'll talking about a guy who averaged six points and four rebounds for a 2-16 Big East team.

Clemson has an impressive coach, some big bodies, but not a lot of talent. And the less said about Virginia Tech, the better - they were the worst team in the conference last year despite the presence of ACC player of the year Erick Green. How good will they be without him?

I'm sorry, I can't see 10 NCAA teams in the 2013-14 ACC. I'd love to see it happen, but an awful lot of things would have to go right for an awful lot of borderline teams.

Eight bids is my guess - although I think seven is more likely than nine.

And I'd dismiss 10 bids as a pipe dream if the guy dreaming it wasn't Mike Krzyzewski.