Pitt is moving from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference, but old foe Syracuse is coming with them along with other familiar faces.
By Paul Zeise Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon likes to tweak some of the old guard of the Atlantic Coast Conference when the subject of former Big East teams joining the league comes up by referring to it as a "merger."
Dixon laughs about it because the addition of Pitt, Syracuse, Notre Dame and -- next year -- Louisville is officially an expansion by the ACC and the conference's administrators and power brokers remain in place. But, even though he's joking, Dixon isn't that far off.
That's because the new ACC, when all the pieces are in place, will seem more like a merger considering there will be 15 teams, eight of which were ACC members (North Carolina, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida State, Duke, Wake Forest and Virginia) and seven which came from the Big East (Pitt, Syracuse, Miami, Boston College, Virginia Tech, Louisville and Notre Dame).
"I joke with them about it, and they don't seem to like the word merger, but it is kind of neat that so many teams we are familiar with are going to be in this conference," Dixon said Wednesday at ACC media day at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Charlotte, N.C. "So, for us, it isn't really that much different because we're used to being in the best league, we're used to playing a lot of these teams and we're used to the grind of a schedule like this.
"The thing that I think makes this a little bit unique is that if you look at who was added, this expansion was based on making the basketball conference stronger, and I think that's the first time that has ever happened. Usually, it has been football that has driven it."
The overwhelming sentiment among coaches and players in the conference is that the ACC is now the best league in the country and will be a dominant force come NCAA tournament time.
"You have a great league now," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "You had what was considered the best league in the Big East and you took four of the best teams from it and added it to what was already considered a very good league. It is going to be a very tough league to win."
Dixon agrees that it is the best league right now but he is cautious about declaring it the best ever because the Big East has had some special seasons.
"The one year we had three No. 1 seeds, another year we had 11 teams make the field and the team that finished in ninth place [Connecticut] won the national championship," Dixon said. "So, we have a lot of work to do and we have to go out and win games in order to reach that level. But the potential is here and the teams are here, it is just a matter of going out and doing it."
For the players it is an exciting time because they get to experience different venues and play against different teams, but they don't think the basketball will change much.
"The league was already a tough grind before you brought in three more NCAA tournament-caliber teams," Duke sophomore Rodney Hood said. "Now, it is going to be a battle every night, and the team that wins the championship will have really had to earn it. I think it will be fun.
"I'm especially excited about going to Syracuse and playing in front of a crowd that large, it will be like an NCAA tournament atmosphere."
Said Pitt forward Lamar Patterson, "this first year, everyone will sort of have to get a feel for things, but once the games start, it will be just playing basketball. I like the idea of being in the best league because it means every game is a big one."
What might be different for ACC players will be the extreme cold and snowy conditions that come with being in northern Indiana, upstate New York and Western Pennsylvania in January and February. And, while games are played indoors, Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins thinks that cold weather is part of the Irish's home-court advantage.
"Guys get off the plane or leave the hotel up here and that cold air gets to them and they just want to get back home, they're not thinking about the game," Atkins said, laughing. "I really think that's a part of why some teams struggle in our gym. It gets so cold outside their minds on getting back to where it is warm."