When Syracuse edged Pitt not too long ago in the Carrier Dome, an exuberant Jim Boeheim told ESPN's sideline reporter, "This was a Big East game … forget about the ACC."
I was disappointed by his comments, but not surprised. Boeheim has yet to play a real ACC game. At that point, his Orangemen had beaten lightweight Miami and an up-and-down North Carolina team at home, while winning road games at Boston College and Virginia Tech - easily the two worst teams in the league.
More significantly five of his first six "ACC" games (counting the victories over Pitt and the rematch with Miami) were against teams that he knew from the old Big East.
Let him lecture me about the difference between the old Big East and the new ACC after he finishes up his regular season with games at Duke, at Maryland, at Virginia and at Florida State. We'll see if he feels like a member of the ACC after Saturday's home game with surging Duke.
But if Boeheim's comment was understandable, the words I heard come out of Seth Greenberg's mouth Monday night were not.
It was halftime of the Duke-Pitt game, with the Blue Devils fighting back from an early deficit to take a two-point lead in an extremely hostile venue.
"Duke was playing Pitt in an ACC game and a Big East game broke out," the former Virginia Tech coach said.
I think he was 180 degrees wrong.
A better explanation was that Pitt was playing Duke in a Big East game when an ACC game broke out. It was Duke that imposed its style on the Panthers - just as Krzyzewski imposed his style on the rest of the ACC more than a quarter century ago.
Greenberg should have known better. He had enough confrontations with Krzyzewski when he was at Virginia Tech to understand the peculiar combination of toughness and skill that has been the hallmark of the best ACC teams. Duke was tough enough to beat Pitt on the boards and skilled enough to murder the Panthers from the 3-point line. No, the ACC was never as rough and brutal as the Big East was in the late 1980s and early 1990s (back when the conference experimented with a six-foul rule) - but that style proved a disastrous failure (based on lack of postseason success) and the Big East adopted a more conventional approach. Yes, it was still rough and tumble, but so was the Big Ten ... and, in many cases, the ACC.
How big a difference in style can there really be when the ACC and Big East have shared refs for more than a decade?
Far too much has been made by uninformed commentators about how the Big East newcomers have taken over the ACC. It's true that before Monday night, Syracuse and Pitt were one and two in the standings and unbeaten in ACC play (except for the one game against each other). It's that kind of superficial observation that has led so many commentators down the wrong path.
Take a closer look at that that "dominant" start by the three Big East newcomers:
First, it doesn't include Notre Dame. Mike Brey's Irish had won double-digit Big East games in every season since 2010. True, the Irish lost star Jerian Grant to academics just before the start of conference play, but Brey still retained one of the most experienced teams in the new ACC.
Notre Dame made its ACC debut with a thrilling victory over Duke at home, but then ran into trouble - losing at home to N.C. State. To N.C. State? Worse followed - four straight ACC road losses sandwiched around a narrow homecourt win over bottom-feeder Virginia Tech. And only one of those four road losses came to a team that will make the NCAA Tournament (FSU).
The Irish dropped to 2-6 in the league after a lopsided home loss to Virginia.
-- Pitt was rolling along before Duke's visit, but how much of that 18-2 record was reality and how much illusion?
As of this moment, Pitt does not have a top 50 RPI win, although Stanford (the Panthers' best non-conference victory) is close. Their non-conference strength of schedule was 190th nationally.
Their ACC start has been a little better.
They do have home wins over mid-level ACC foes Clemson, Maryland and Wake Forest, plus they've gone on the road to beat Georgia Tech, N.C. State and Maryland - three more mid-level teams. The Panthers haven't fattened up on the dregs of the conference, but in their only two games against top-level ACC teams, they lost a close one at Syracuse and got manhandled at home by Duke.
Don't get me wrong. I believe Pitt is a solid team. I merely want to put its early success into perspective, something most commentators have refused to do.
The ACC schedule really favors Pitt the rest of the way. From this point forward, the Panthers get Virginia, Florida State and Syracuse at home … no trips to Duke or to FSU or to Virginia, not even to Wake Forest, which is a different team at home than on the road. The Panthers' toughest road trips remaining are to UNC and to Clemson.
Pitt is going to finish in the ACC first division and will almost certainly be one of four teams to get a bye into the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. But that's what Pitt has been doing for years - Jamie Dixon has led his team to double-figure Big East wins in 11 of the last 12 years (averaging almost 13 conference wins a season in that span).
-- Syracuse is obviously having a special season - unbeaten and ranked No. 2 in the nation. Its dominance is driving the old Big East>ACC narrative.
But how dominant has the Orange been against the old ACC?
Let me suggest an interesting fact. When you check the RPI strength of schedule numbers it reveals that Syracuse played a tougher non-conference schedule than Pitt. Not a great one -118th nationally, but significantly better than Pitt's 190th. But when you look at overall strength of schedule (which includes conference opponents), Pitt is currently at 60 … while Syracuse is at 96.
That points to how incredibly front-loaded Syracuse's ACC schedule has been.
The Orange did play that very solid Pitt team at home and scratched out a narrow victory. Boeheim's team has also won three ACC road games - at Miami, at Boston College and at Virginia Tech (four teams that will most likely be playing a Wednesday night first-round game in the ACC Tournament). Their other ACC wins were home victories over up-and-down North Carolina and Miami again.
I don't believe in the transitive property of basketball scores - if I did, how can I explain Notre Dame d. Duke in South Bend; N.C. State d. Notre Dame in South Bend; Duke beats N.C. State by 35?
Still, it's interesting that three days after Duke traveled to Coral Gables and blasted Miami by 21 (in a game that was every bit that lopsided), Syracuse visited the 'Canes and trailed by one with just over four minutes to go.
It's easy to read too much into that, but it does point to an interesting fact about the 'Cuse - Boeheim's team, while undefeated in the ACC, has actually struggled to beat some undistinguished opponents.
Both Miami games were dead even at the final TV timeout. The Orange trailed Boston College by five points with 10 minutes to play. Although Syracuse ended up beating Virginia Tech by 20, it was a four-point game six minutes into the second half. North Carolina is the only ACC team that the Orange has handled without second-half drama.
Virginia and Duke both rank ahead of Syracuse in ACC scoring margin - and that's with three losses between them. In its seven ACC wins, Virginia has outscored opponents by an average of 19.7 points. In its six ACC wins, Duke has outscored its victims by 19.8 points (and that includes the four-point win over Virginia).
Syracuse has outscored its first six ACC victims by an average of 10.7 points a game.
What should we make of that?
Well, it suggests that Syracuse is doing a great job of managing end-game situations.
But it also indicates that the Orange has not exactly been proving the Big East's superiority over the ACC.
Let me suggest another measure of the old ACC vs. the three Big East newcomers. Eliminate the bottom feeders and the middle of the road teams and match the three newcomers against the three strongest "traditional" ACC teams - Duke, Virginia and Florida State … the three teams, along with Pitt and Syracuse, that seem certain to be NCAA teams.
Check the matchups between the three newcomers with the top three holdovers. We get:
Notre Dame defeats Duke in South Bend.
Florida State defeats Notre Dame in Tallahassee.
Duke defeats Pitt in Pittsburgh.
Virginia defeats Notre Dame in South Bend.
So the ACC's top teams are 3-1 against the newcomers. If you eliminate Notre Dame, which is not one of the ACC's top teams, you only have one matchup so far between the two top Big East teams and the three quality ACC holdovers - Duke's victory over Pitt.
That shows how protected the newcomers have been by the schedule.
Clearly, there are games coming up that will alter that equation. But right now, it should be obvious to even an ESPN commentator that so far the Big East "bullies" have merely fattened up on the middle and lower end of the ACC.
Is Syracuse better than Duke?
Is Pitt better than Virginia?
This weekend will provide some insight into those questions as the top two ex-Big East teams meet the top two old ACC teams. But I'm not sure even then that the answers will be definitive since both games are on the newcomers' homecourts.
MATCHING UP CONFERENCES
Unfortunately, much of the commentary is being driven by the myth of the mighty Big East, lauded on ESPN as the "greatest basketball conference ever."
I've written about this before, but that's a bogus claim.
The greatest basketball conference ever was the ACC between 1980 and 2005. That's a 26-year run when the ACC - by any measure - was significantly better than the Big East or any other conference has ever been for any extended period of time.
Unfortunately, the ACC slipped in 2006 and has been a middle-of-the-pack power conference ever since. Worse, by stealing three mediocre basketball programs from the Big East, the ACC goaded that league to expand and bring in such powers as Louisville and Cincinnati.
Between 2006 and 2013, the 18-team Big East might have been better than the 12-team ACC … but not nearly as good as the 8-9 team ACC of 1985-2006. In fact, over the eight-year period we're talking about, the Big Ten was the best conference in America - indeed, if you go by Pomeroy, there was not one year in that span when the Big East was the top-rated conference (Kenpom rated the ACC No. 1 in 2007 … head to head, the slumping ACC was ranked higher than the "magnificent" Big East in four of those eight years).
But ESPN is based in Connecticut, just a few miles from the UConn campus and in the heart of Big East country. While the pervasive all-sports network has been very kind to the ACC (especially promoting the Duke-Carolina rivalry), it has always had a hard on for the Big East.
I'm sure there is some delight - especially from ACC hater Digger Phelps and the bitter Seth Greenberg - about the ACC's continued struggles. The league is not the immediate superpower than it hoped to become with the addition of Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame. Mike Krzyzewski's prediction that the new ACC would be a 10-bid league is going to be way off the mark. It might happen in the future, but not this year. Not by a long shot.
How bad is the ACC?
Kenpom rates the ACC the nation's No. 4 conference at the moment, while the RPI ranks the ACC No. 5. The league is 29-33 against the other power conferences - the first time in years that the ACC has had a losing record in that category.
On the other hand, there are some interesting indicators.
I was watching a tape of last Saturday's ESPN College Gameday from East Lansing, Mich. Naturally, the crew was focused on the upcoming Michigan at Michigan State game - two teams unbeaten in conference fighting for first place in the strongest league in American.
Now, I agree that the Big Ten is the nation's top conference at the moment, although it struck me when Phelps opined that Michigan-MSU was the best rivalry in the country this year that the two Big Ten powers had already fallen to the Duke-UNC rivals - UNC dominated No. 1 (at the time) Michigan State 79-65 in East Lansing, while Duke took care of No. 22 (at the time) Michigan in Cameron.
UNC's win -- along with Tar Heel victories over Louisville and Kentucky - inspired my friend Mark Watson's comment: "What does it say about the ACC that a team that's near the bottom of the league has three non-conference wins like that?"
The ACC has some bad out-of-conference showings too. The bottom of the league is woeful. The middle of the league is soft.
But the ACC has at least four and maybe five (FSU?) or six (UNC?) credible NCAA threats.
Just a few observations from the Duke-Pitt game:
-- I was very disappointed by the famous "Oakland Zoo". Even early, when Pitt was playing well, it sounded like the only got loud when something good happened for the Panthers. Never the sustained noise that we're used to from the great student sections. And when Duke took command midway through the second half, the place died - as if someone had turned off the crowd noise.
That's what all those kids waited in line for?
It was the largest home crowd in Pitt history, but that of course, is merely a prelude for Saturday, when Syracuse officials are expecting the largest on-campus regular season crowd in college basketball history.
-- The most gratifying thing about the game was Duke's surge midway through the second half.
Understand that Duke has led at the half in every one of its losses - in fact, the Devils have led every game this season at the half, except against UCLA (and that was tied at the break). The problem has come near the midway point in the second half, when Duke has too often faded - not only in all four losses, but in several early season wins.
In this case, Duke led by one point with 9:41 to play and instead of folding, the Devils seized control of the game. Andre Dawkins gets a lot of credit for his 3-point explosion, but keep in mind that Duke's defense also stifled the Panthers - Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson had steals in this stretch, while Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee limited Pitt to one missed shot overall occasions.
-- That leads to another gratifying thing about the win. Duke outrebounded the ACC's best rebounding team. More importantly, Duke grabbed 11 offensive rebounds. Over the last four games, Duke has pulled down 67 offensive rebounds - an average of 16.8 a game, which would lead the ACC by a healthy margin were it sustained.
-- It was funny reading rival message boards Tuesday morning - I saw on UNC, N.C. State and Kentucky boards the same theme repeated over and over: Pitt learned what they've always known … that Duke gets all the calls.
It's amazing how strong the narrative is in the face of contrary evidence. In this case, Duke was out-shot from the free throw line 24-15 by Pitt. And it was actually much more lopsided than that - with 1:02 left and the Blue Devils safely up by 11, Pitt's free throw edge was 22-8. The Panthers committed four quick fouls in the final minute, which had a small impact on the final margin, but not the outcome.
Obviously, nothing can shake the big lie that the refs always favor Duke. A year ago, the Blue Devils had the seventh best FT differential in the ACC (+7 … in ACC play). Yet, fans from UNC (a +69 differential, third in the ACC) and N.C. State (a +89, second in the ACC) are convinced that they are consistently screwed by the refs.
So far this season, Duke is +14 in free throw differential in ACC games. That's sixth best in the ACC. Pitt (+66), Virginia (+39), Syracuse (+28), Clemson (+17) and even Boston College (+15) have better free throw differentials in league games.
But you can't argue with bias - N.C. State might have had the second biggest positive disparity in throws in ACC play last season, but to their fans, they deserved more. Duke may be middle-of-the-pack in free throw differential over the last two years, but rival fans think they should be called for twice as many fouls.
I still remember the words of former N.C. State coach Les Robinson, who told me it's amazing how much better the refs are when you don't care who wins.
Well, I'm biased too, but I think both Jabari Parker and Rasheed Sulaimon are the two most abused players in the ACC as far as not getting fouls called on contact. Against Pitt, Sulaimon played a superb game - he was good defensively, had four assists, no turnovers - but he shot 1-for-7 from the floor. Five of his shots were drives to the hoop and he was hammered on most of them … and never went to the line. Parker shot seven free throws, but five of them were in the final 1:02, when Pitt was fouling intentionally. He drew one shooting foul in 13 shots in the paint.
-- Pitt hit 5-of-11 3-pointers against Duke, which is pretty good for the Panthers and makes me think Coach Krzyzewski changed his defensive focus coming into the game.
Not long ago, Duke was right at the top of the ACC in 3-point percentage defense, allowing opponents to hit less than 30 percent from beyond the arch. But in ACC play, that number is up to 35 percent, a number that ranks Duke 9th in the league.
But here's the funny thing - Duke is allowing significantly less 3-point attempts than anybody else in the league. That means that Duke is allowing less 3-pointers a game than anybody in the ACC (3.8 a game … Wake has given up the same total number of successful 3-pointers, but in one less game).
That showed up against FSU. The 'Noles entered the Duke game leading the ACC in 3-point percentage in league games. Against Duke, FSU hit just 2 of 6 3-pointers. But the strange thing was not the percentage, but the lack of attempts - just six tries for a team that has averaged 16.0 3-point tries a game in its other six ACC games.
Clearly, denial of the 3-point shot is a key element in Krzyzewski's defensive approach this year.
-- And before you read it somewhere else, Saturday's Duke-Syracuse game will match the two winningest Division 1 men's coaches of all time. Between them, Coach K and Boeheim will have a combined 1,913 victories. That's a record that will stand until their rematch in Durham on Feb. 22.