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Friday, November 30, 2012

Could Wake Forest be the biggest loser in new, expanded ACC?

Posted by on Fri, Nov 30, 2012 at 9:19 AM

Wake Forest soccer player Julian Valentin, after the Demon Deacons won the 2007 College Cup in Carys WakeMed Soccer Park.
  • File photo by D.L. Anderson
  • Wake Forest soccer player Julian Valentin, after the Demon Deacons won the 2007 College Cup in Cary's WakeMed Soccer Park.
As expected, the ACC moved swiftly in the past week to replace Maryland. Louisville is in, and conference presidents almost certainly made the right choice in picking the Cardinals over UConn and Cincinnati.

But UConn and Cincy need not despair entirely. The league is now at 15 schools for basketball and 14 for football, and logic might dictate an eventual move to an even 16.

On the other hand, logic doesn’t seem to play much of a role in anything to do with conference realignment. Perhaps a 15-school league might actually work in basketball. There could be three divisions of five teams each; an eighteen-game league schedule would consist of a double round-robin within each division and then one game apiece against the 10 schools in the other divisions.

One could even replicate the old Big East/ACC rivalry by putting Notre Dame, Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville, and BC together in the same division. Then you could have the five Carolina schools altogether (the Big Four + Clemson) in another division, and Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, FSU and Miami in a third division. Not a perfect geographic division, but that approach would preserve and strengthen some of the traditional rivalries.

It might also, equally important, assure that some of the weaker programs in the existing league are not consigned to basketball oblivion. A point of pride of ACC basketball traditionally is that every school has the capacity to field strong, NCAA Tournament-quality terms on a periodic basis. Some schools manage it every year, and for others success is more cyclical, but traditionally each school was capable of attracting high quality talent and staff and periodically being in the mix for the league title.

The case I have primarily in mind is Wake Forest: a relatively small private school that has managed to win ACC championships, sign and develop great players like Tim Duncan and Chris Paul, and establish a regular presence in the NCAA Tournament.

Between 1991 and 2006, the Demon Deacons made sixteen consecutive postseason appearances, including four trips to the NCAA Sweet 16 or farther. In 2010, the school felt that it needed to fire coach Dino Gaudio even though he had taken the school to back-to-back NCAA tournaments, because the team had not performed well enough in late-season games.

Wake is 24-45 since the move to replace Gaudio with Jeff Bzdelik, a former NBA head coach who was coming off three straight losing seasons at Colorado. Things don’t look likely to get better this year for Wake, currently 3-3 and picked to finish 11th in the conference by league media.

A short down period is not abnormal for the likes of Wake, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Virginia. What is worrisome is whether Wake will ever be able to bounce back up in the new-look “ACC.”

Consider: the ACC traditionally boasted, year in and year out, two national Top Ten programs (Carolina and Duke), and often a third. The new ACC will have four schools with major basketball traditions who would be on most people’s list of top 10 national programs: Carolina, Duke, Louisville and Syracuse. And the other new additions, Pitt and Notre Dame, have basketball histories at least the equal of Wake’s.

So here’s the question: not whether Wake will ever return to winning ways—in time they will, under the current coach or a new one. The question is whether Wake will ever have a realistic shot at winning an ACC basketball championship in the new league. If not, what does that mean for that program’s fans, for its ability to recruit stars, and for overall interest top-to-bottom in the league?

ACC basketball may have gotten stronger at the top. The risk is that in doing so it has become top-heavy, to the detriment of the league’s balance and the ability of all schools to maintain a realistic hope and occasional realization of championships. It would be a shame—and yet another blow to the league’s tradition—if a permanent basketball underclass were to emerge in the years ahead.

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ACC basketball may have gotten stronger at the top. The risk is that in doing so it has become top-heavy, to the detriment of the league’s balance and the ability of all schools to maintain a realistic hope and occasional realization of championships.

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