ACC basketball not living up to its expectations

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The ACC's addition of Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame was supposed to be a shot in the arm for the conference's men's basketball league and was marketed by members as "The Best just Got Better."

It was assumed by adding those three to what already was a strong league, it would vault the league back to its spot as the best basketball in the country. Furthermore, the theory went, grabbing those teams would destroy its main competition for the honor, the old Big East.

The reality looks different.

The No. 2 Orange (17-0, 4-0 ACC) and the No. 22 Panthers (16-1, 4-0) have held up their end of the deal, but not the "old" ACC teams, and that includes the two "blue-blood" programs, North Carolina (10-6, 0-3) and Duke (13-4, 2-2).

Pitt will visit Syracuse Saturday at the Carrier Dome, and the winner will take sole possession of first in the conference.

Other numbers tell a different story:

• Only five of the 15 ACC teams are in the top 50 of RPI.

• The Big 12 is the top-ranked conference by RPI with seven of 10 teams in the RPI top 50. For now, the ACC ranks fifth in conference RPI.

• Syracuse is No. 7 in RPI, followed by Pitt (16), Florida State (19), Virginia (23) and Duke (25). Two other ACC teams are in the top 70 -- North Carolina (52) and Wake Forest (59). If the NCAA tournament were held today, the ACC would have a shot to get at least six teams in the field of 68. But there is no guarantee North Carolina and Wake Forest would get in.

That is a far cry from the eight or nine teams that the league hoped to get in annually when it expanded to 15. By comparison, the Big East averaged nine NCAA tournament teams a year the past four seasons.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said the ACC grabbed the four schools from the Big East (Louisville will join the league next season) because they were good in basketball, but he added that the league is not defined by the top but, rather, by how strong the middle and bottom are. He said that is what separated the Big East from other leagues. .

"When the Big East [came] together [in 2004, when it was rebuilt], everybody knew it would be good but nobody knew it would be as good as it became," Dixon said.

"Some teams got better, but it became tough for some teams to start moving up in the league because there wasn't a drop from the top teams.

"There is just a fine line, and nowhere else was that more evident than in the Big East, where you have a team like Connecticut, that finished ninth one year and won the national championship."

The ACC hasn't had a Final Four team since 2010 when Duke beat Butler for the title. It has had six teams make the past 10 Final Fours, but only Georgia Tech in 2004 was not named North Carolina or Duke.

In addition, eight of the 15 league teams have coaches who have been with their current teams four years or less and five have been with their current teams three years or less.

Only two ACC teams other than Duke and North Carolina have had a coach in place five years or longer, Virginia (Tony Bennett is in his fifth season) and Florida State (Leonard Hamilton is in his 12th). Not surprisingly those two join Pitt, Syracuse and Duke as the only teams from the ACC considered NCAA locks. And Dixon said the coaching turnover is one reason he cautioned people that the ACC may not quite be ready to do the great things it was predicted to do when it was re-formed two years ago.

"I said two years ago that there are a number of new coaches in the league and so to pigeon hole them as ACC style of play and put them in there before they have even coached a game and got their players and recruits in there is a bit premature and inaccurate at the same time," Dixon said. "Teams are still finding their way, like the coach at Georgia Tech, who we just played.

"He is in his third year there and he has some guys still he didn't recruit, some he did and he has had some injuries and so they still are trying to find themselves and their style of play hasn't been developed yet.

"I think our conference will continue to get better because there are some coaches who are rebuilding."

While Duke and North Carolina have carried the load for the ACC in recent years only four "old" ACC programs (Duke, North Carolina, Maryland and Boston College) since the 2001-2002 season have had a winning record in conference games.

Although the "new ACC" basketball league has gotten off to a slow start, the football league got off to a good start with an NCAA-record 11 teams in bowl games. Each of those 11 finished with seven wins or more. Two ACC teams (Florida State and Clemson) won BCS bowls, with the Seminoles grabbing the national championship.

The ACC bowl record was 5-6, but Maryland (a bowl loser) is on its way to the Big Ten and Louisville, the team replacing the Terrapins, finished 12-1. Obviously, the Cardinals, who won the NCAA tournament last season, will give ACC basketball a boost, too.

But for now ACC basketball has shown no signs of approaching the heights the league had anticipated and seems to be a conference in search of an identity.


Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1720 or Twitter: @paulzeise.

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