If Trevor Cooney can find his jump shot, Syracuse could have a solid chance of dominating the league. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
It’s simple: With all due respect to the Big Ten and its quality, the newly expanded ACC is the kingpin of college basketball. Melding Tobacco Road with two of the most pedigreed Big East programs (once Louisville arrives next season) means that every year going forward, at least one of Duke, North Carolina, Louisville or Syracuse will finish, at best, in fourth place. Those are all top-10 national programs in terms of prestige, history, current capabilities, etc. Inheriting the old Big East’s spot on Big Monday is the icing on the cake in terms of national positioning. It’s going to be a fascinating league to watch every year, and even more so if the following happens...
What made the Big East so compelling and difficult most years is not just having some quality at the top, but that the middle of the league toughened up significantly. The haves devouring the have-nots led to the Big East garnering a record 11 NCAA bids in 2011, and where that line of demarcation is annually in the ACC will be an interesting sidebar to the scrum at the top.
In Year 1 of this new-look league, that line isn’t going much past the halfway point. If the bottom half of the league continues to build in capability, though, that line will shift and a year with eight or nine bids definitely will be possible. RPI points galore will be available if you take care of nonleague business.
The other sidebar to this is the (re)building programs are in a race against each other. You don’t want to be one of the handful of perpetually bad teams in a loaded conference. Even with money distribution being more equitable than the old Big East, that’s a tough spot to escape from.
Player to Watch
There is a number of interesting talents in the league this season, but if I only had one pick and had to nail a choice to end up first-team all-ACC at season’s end, I’d take Virginia’s Joe Harris.
JOHNSON: Virginia could be surprise in ACC
The only returning member of last season’s first team, Harris shot 47/43/74 for the season while using more than 28 percent of Virginia’s possessions (per KenPom.com), which is highly impressive efficiency for that usage rate. He did wear down a bit toward the end of the season, with his 36-point tour de force against Duke the only time in his final 10 games he even scored 20 points, and this year’s team will need him to be a better closer than that as the league competition stiffens.
The Cavaliers return their top five scorers from last season and absolutely should be an NCAA tournament team this season. Virginia gets a couple of prime Big Monday slots early against Duke (Jan. 13) and North Carolina (Jan. 20), so if the nation somehow isn’t familiar with Harris’ work by now, it certainly will be by then.
After changing my mind somewhere between 20 and 100 times, I’m going with Syracuse, in large part because I think the Orange have a more favorable unbalanced schedule than Duke. On a neutral floor, I’m probably taking the Blue Devils head-to-head and Duke may be the “better” team, with ample perimeter quality and depth being supplemented by athletic wing slashers in the frontcourt, but Duke has difficult road games at Notre Dame, Pitt, Syracuse and North Carolina in league play. The Orange don’t play at UNC or Notre Dame, although they do have a road tilt at Virginia, too. Mix in the unfamiliarity with the Syracuse zone, and I’ll take the Orange, barely, to win the league, with the caveat that Trevor Cooney has to find his jump shot and Tyler Ennis is solid as expected at the point.
All that said, Duke very easily could win the league if things come together like many think they will. In fact, there’s a strong likelihood that my Twitter followers will prove me wrong sometime in late February when Duke’s three games up on the rest of the league. Let’s move on ... If North Carolina has P.J. Hairston back in some semblance of form by league play, they have enough talent and developing younger guys to make a decent run. It’s hard to see anyone else truly challenging for the crown -- even UNC is a bit of a stretch, in my opinion -- but there are at least a couple more solid teams that will be a problem most nights.
We discussed Virginia earlier, and the Cavaliers certainly could push for a top-three league finish. Another other team will some surprise potential is Notre Dame, which returns Jerian Grant, Eric Atkins and a host of others in various sizes and qualities, and brings in point guard Demetrius Jackson. The ACC will find out very quickly how inhospitable the Joyce Center is for visitors.
In terms of second-level depth, I also expect Maryland to be improved, even after losing Alex Len to the NBA draft. A settled season for Dez Wells plus Seth Allen, big man Shaq Cleare and others means Maryland’s final ACC season should be a solid one. Boston College also may be ready to take a leap into NCAA tournament contention. The Eagles have one of the better 1-2 punches around in Olivier Hanlan and Ryan Anderson leading a young, improving team.
Three Big Questions
1) What’s the best part of the new mega-ACC?
Well, it makes the annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge a lot more compelling, as the depth of quality matchups should be really good going forward, but I think the freshness of the league matchups will be the main appeal. As good as Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry games like that could be, stylistically they (and the Big East, in my opinion) had grown stale. Now we get annual (almost) round-robins between Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and Syracuse, with Notre Dame, Pitt and others providing additional foils, especially at home. You have four of the game’s legendary coaches all in one conference. It should be spectacular, at least as long as K, Jim and Roy want to stick around.
2) Should the ACC move its tournament to Madison Square Garden?
The league is contracted to play in Greensboro for the next two seasons, and obviously the historical footprint of the league is on the mid-Atlantic seaboard. I’ve been torn on this, in part because my personal belief (as a native New Yorker) is that the Garden is really overrated as a college venue.
I have been to some dreadful atmospheres for college hoops at “The Mecca.” The Big East tournament had good crowds there principally because Syracuse, UConn and (sometimes) St. John’s fans made it that way. Take away the latter two, add in Duke’s tri-state area support, and do you have a good atmosphere in what’s a decidedly unmodern arena even with recent renovations? Is the “New York Media Market” so important to a league of the ACC’s stature that it would propel the entire league more into the national picture than it already is?
With a conference spanning from Boston to Miami, there’s no neat solution that works best, and I’m not averse to change -- some of the realignment stuff has been totally fine by me. This one feels a little wrong to me, though. The roots of the ACC are in North Carolina, and I’d like to see the new Big East maintain its presence at the Garden. That’s where that tournament belongs.
3) How many NCAA bids are we talking?
The bottom half of the league doesn’t look good enough for the tide to lift everyone this season, but getting half the league into the dance seems like a very reasonable proposition. If B.C. makes the jump, maybe they get one more than that. Call it good for seven, with eight being a very realistic possibility.