Can you name the leading scorer for all 12 ACC teams (without googling)? Can you name the starting five for each team? And more important, do you even care?
If you answered no to any of those questions, you are not alone.
The fact is, ACC basketball is not what it used to be. Twenty years ago this season, six of eight ACC teams were invited to the NCAA Tournament; five (including all four Big Four schools) won their first game, and two teams (including the eventual national champion) advanced to the Final Four. It was the fourth time in six seasons the league had six tournament entries, and the eight consecutive season with five or more invitees.
This year only three ACC teams of 12 are considered locks for the tournament, and most expect that the conference would be lucky to get as many as five big dance bids.
The annual ACC Tournament, which this weekend will be played for the 58th time, in Greensboro, N.C., has also lost its luster, as reflected by declining attendance and increasingly indifferent fans. The event is too long, and too often serves as the graveyard for bubble teams rather than a setting for epic confrontations between top contenders.
ACC basketball's present struggle for relevance can be traced to the growth of the league into 12 teams stretching from Boston to Miami. That move simultaneously destroyed the integrity of the regular season and created an unwieldy conference tournament. As a result, the regular season is unbalanced, with numerous traditional rivalries only occurring once a year and with the vagaries of the unbalanced schedule having a material effect on who finishes where. It's harder now to be a fan of the whole conference and to get to know all the teams and players well, when your own team plays half of them only once a season.
It is absolutely absurd, for instance, that North Carolina and Wake Forest do not play home-and-home every year. North Carolina is Wake Forest's main rival, historically, and there is no good reason why either school should be flying out-of-state once a season rather than rolling down the road to renew a series that has produced so many compelling games over the years. As it stands now, Carolina and Wake play home-and-home just once every three seasons.
Similarly, it used to be very clear what it meant to have a 10–6 or even 9–7 record in a home-and-home format; now it is not, as Virginia Tech found out last year. Each team now plays home-and-home series against five schools each year, and plays the other six schools only once. Each school has two "permanent" rivals with whom they play home-and-home every year; of the nine remaining schools, three are played each year home-and-home on a rotating basis. Which opponents a school happens to have to play twice in a given year can have a profound impact on the overall record.
Beyond this, very few people really focus on the exact ranking of teams in the conference standings or think it makes a huge difference whether one finishes fourth or sixth, seventh or ninth. The season itself has become simply an extended audition for the NCAA committee, with each team ultimately evaluated based on its individual résumé. The games are meaningful primarily insofar as how they impact each individual team, not how they impact a bigger conference picture. Put another way, there's no real reason for a fan of UNC or Virginia or Clemson to tune in to Miami–N.C. State on a Sunday afternoon, unless it's to "scout" an upcoming opponent. The result is that more ACC games are on than ever—more than almost any person with a day job could ever watch—but interest in most particular games is fairly low.
Beyond the problem with the unbalanced schedule, the ACC regular season is too short. There is no good reason for Virginia Tech to be playing Longwood, or North Carolina to be playing St. Francis, in January. It would be in the interests of the ACC as a league to have more games between these teams, rather than against weaker out-of-conference opponents. A longer schedule would also make it possible to restore more home-and-home rivalries—and if done creatively, also make the individual games more meaningful.
Here then are two proposals for reform, one radical and almost certain to be rejected by the powers that be. The second is more moderate, and I would hope it has a greater chance of being taken seriously.
The first proposal is this: restore a true home-and-home league conference season, while at the same time abolishing the ACC Tournament. Each team would have 22 conference games. At the end of the season, the standings wouldn't lie, and the team in first place would have the unquestioned right to be called champion. And any team managing a winning record under this scenario would have a great argument for inclusion in a 68-team field. The season would be a long, grueling affair, and every team would come out of it battle-tested. But it also could be a gripping competition: Imagine the excitement and interest if, after 21 games, the conference race and the official league championship came down to, say, a final weekend confrontation between Duke and UNC (or N.C. State and Florida State). And in case of a tie in the final standings, the ACC could take a page from the Ivy League playbook and stage a one-game playoff on a neutral site.
In many ways this is the best solution. The final standings would make it crystal clear who deserves postseason consideration and who does not, and it would assure that the season's most important games are played before good crowds in campus environments. Dull cream puff nonconference games designed to pad the overall record would be minimized, and no one would miss them. Above all, the final outcome would be fair and unambiguous, and there would be only a single conference champion.
Nonetheless, the reasons why this proposal has little chance of gaining acceptance are obvious: Schools would have only seven to nine nonconference games per year, and the conference would have to put to an end the tradition of the conference tournament, a tradition that has made the ACC what it is. It's easy to imagine the league's coaches complaining that they need more time to tune their teams up before diving into the games that count, and league and school officials may be reluctant to say good-bye to the party that is the league tournament.
So here is a second, more modest proposal. First, expand the schedule from 16 to 18 games. Second, divide the conference into three "divisions." The divisions would be organized as follows:
Here is how the regular season would be organized. Each school would play the other three schools in its division—in most cases, the team's natural primary rivals, and all the key archrivalries in the league—home-and-home every year. That would be six games.
Then each school would play home-and-home against two schools in each of the other divisions (eight games total) and one game each against the other four schools (two from each division) for a total of 18.
Consider what this system does. First, it assures each team will play the exact same schedule of one other team—its primary rival, in most cases—making for easier and more valid comparisons of performance. It also increases the number of rivals a team plays home-and-home every year, from two to three. And it would inject some geographic rationality into the schedule by maximizing the number of games that require the shortest trips for visiting teams.
Even bigger benefits would be realized by combining this format with three further changes: First, officially honor the champions of each division. Second, link seeding in the ACC Tournament to the divisional standings so that the three division winners get seeds 1–3, the division runner-ups seeds 4–6 and so forth. Third, limit the number of teams that qualify for the ACC Tournament to a total of nine (the top three teams in each division).
These moves would make both the regular season and the tournament more meaningful, and increase interest in each regular-season game. Fans of both successful and less successful teams would have reason to follow the standings closely throughout the year, especially the fortunes of the team's three most immediate rivals. Each rivalry game would carry extra weight and excitement as well.
This proposal would improve the ACC Tournament as an event. Having fewer teams would make it possible for each participating school to have more fans there. Having only the better teams would assure a stronger slate of games in the quarterfinals and a more rigorous overall test for the eventual champion. And finally, a smaller tournament would serve the interests of teams on the NCAA bubble.
These are not plans to fix what is not broken. The ACC regular season fails several of the requisites of a fair competition and also undermines important rivalries. The ACC Tournament has become a too-long bore. Throughout the conference, per-game attendance fell 5 percent between 2007 and this year (from 11,903 to 11,279), including declines in each of the last four seasons. Meanwhile, the total number of households tuning into the ACC Sunday Night broadcast fell 14 percent between 2009 and 2010.
The startling fact is—as evidenced by on-court performance this year—ACC basketball has not seamlessly coped with expansion and its consequences, and it is now dangerously flirting with mediocrity: mediocrity in the quality of basketball being played, mediocrity in the organization of its two primary competitions (the regular season and the tournament) and mediocrity in the number of teams qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
Making a 12-team league work in a way that's consistent with the league's bedrock traditions requires some thought, more thought than the makeshift approach that is now league policy. The ideas presented here are intended to shake the league office out of its current complacency and provide an example of how to creatively adjust to the new realities in a way that makes sense both from the standpoint of competitive fairness and of rekindling what has made this league great: sustained rivalries and intense competition and interest in every game, all year long.
This is a revised and shortened version of a column that was first published by Inside Carolina on Jan. 24, 2011. Thad Williamson is an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and the author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many.