September 18, 2011

By dslater82

For all the talk about how football is driving conference expansion, the ACC struck first today in the latest round of expansion today by adding two schools that will improve its profile as a basketball conference – Syracuse and Pittsburgh.

The new 14-team ACC, whenever it actually starts play with that alignment, will be a challenge and an asset to schools like Virginia Tech. Syracuse and Pittsburgh will be two tough opponents, but their addition makes the ACC probably the best basketball conference in the country – and thus, more attractive to recruits.

“I’m very impressed that the league, under the radar, got done what other leagues have been trying to get done in public for the last three months,” said Tech basketball coach Seth Greenberg. “It just shows the power of the ACC, that schools like Syracuse and Pitt would seek out membership. It makes this basketball league without a doubt the most powerful basketball league in the country.

“The ACC is a challenge no matter who is in it. You’re talking about two of the most successful programs in college basketball over the last, what, 15 years – and for Syracuse, forever, really. It’s more opportunities to build your profile and create the culture that you want to create.

“Let’s face it: It’s not like our league is not rich in tradition as it is, but I think the more great teams in your conference, the better it is for your conference. I think that is best represented by what happened in the Big East the last two years [with getting teams in the NCAA tournament – eight teams in 2010, a record 11 in 2011].”

ACC commissioner John Swofford said he isn’t sure how scheduling will work with a 14-team league, but he is weighing options. The ACC isn’t even sure yet when Pittsburgh and Syracuse will join. Will they have to honor their 27-month departure notice agreement with the Big East? Or can they wiggle their way out of that?

Fourteen teams means the ACC almost certainly will increase its number of basketball conference games from 16 to 18.

The Big East, which had 16 basketball teams before the departure of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, plays 18 conference games. So does the Big 10, even before Nebraska joined for this season to boost the league’s membership to 12. The Pacific-10 added two members for this season to become the Pacific-12, but even with 10 teams, that league played 18 conference games.

Like the ACC, the Big 12 played 16 league games last year. So did the 12-team Southeastern Conference. Among the major conferences, the Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12 are the only ones that played an 18-game conference schedule last season.

“I don’t think there’s even a debate about that,” Greenberg said of going to 18 league games, something he has advocated. “I think that we’ll go to 18 games, and who knows what could happen? It’s interesting [to see] what’s going to happen with the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. I’m wondering about this just like you guys are. Are they [Syracuse and Pittsburgh] joining next season? I know one thing: the Big East media day is going to be interesting.

“I’m going to sit down with [coaches] that have played an 18-game schedule. You’re going to play your exempt games, you’re going to play your ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and then from there you’ve got to figure it out. I think you’ve still got to play one or two made-for-TV games. We do as we’re building our brand.

“I think if the league is good, [an 18-game conference schedule] really helps you [for getting more teams into the NCAA tournament]. My biggest concern about making my schedule is it seems like the committee puts so much emphasis on who you play out of conference. Again, when you’re playing in a league like ours, that’s really not an issue because you’re playing so many quality opponents within your conference.

“I’ll do my research and talk to [coaches in] different leagues that have an 18-game schedule, try to get a feel for what they’re doing to build their profiles. If the landscape of college athletics changes and you’re looking at 16-team leagues, then the selection process [for the NCAA tournament] is going to also have to change because it gives you fewer windows to play non-conference games.

“And it goes back to the same thing: The thing that makes the ACC, the Big East, the Big Ten, all these conferences, is not the one game, it’s not the Duke game, it’s not the Carolina game. It’s the cumulative effect. When you’re playing 18 conference games against teams at that level, you can’t simulate the cumulative effect of that in other conferences. Just can’t do it.”

When Tech left the Big East for the ACC in 2004, the school had far more football traditional in that conference than basketball tradition. The Hokies were one of the eight original members of the Big East football conference in 1991. But for basketball, the Hokies didn’t jump from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East until 2000. So they played just four unremarkable years of basketball in the Big East and went 17-47 in league play.

Syracuse and Pittsburgh, on the other hand, were not only original Big East football members, but also longtime basketball members. Syracuse was one of the Big East’s seven original members in 1979, when it began as a basketball-only league. Villanova joined in 1980, and Pittsburgh came in 1982. Throughout the 1980s, the Big East was a basketball powerhouse – and continued to lead the college basketball world over the past couple years in its 16-team format.

Moreover, Jim Boeheim has been Syracuse’s basketball coach since 1976 and has a close relationship with the Big East. So this move to the ACC will certainly be odd for him, as well as the school’s longtime fans. (Jake Crouthamel, Syracuse’s athletic director from 1978-2005, was one of the Big East’s founders.)

“I remember when the first expansion was being discussed [in 2003], in the one Big East meeting I did attend, [Boeheim] was vehemently against leaving the Big East,” Greenberg said. “He felt that was their identity. I think the landscape of college athletics has changed so much. Jim Boeheim’s a very bright guy and he sees what’s happening. I think he looks and sees that the ACC, long-term … He has a great passion for Syracuse, and the ACC long-term is the best destination for Syracuse. I just think he did not want to be in the Big 10. That was my gut feeling, and there was some conversation about the Big 10 [during the first round of expansion], and he definitely did not embrace that.”

Swofford said he would consider having Madison Square Garden – site of the Big East tournament since 1983 – in the rotation for ACC tournament sites. But Greenberg, a native New Yorker who loves the Garden as much as anybody, can’t envision that actually happening. The Big East tournament’s run at the Garden makes it the longest-running conference tournament at one site in college basketball.

“That sounds great, but the Big East isn’t going to give that up,” Greenberg said of the ACC tournament being in the Garden. “There’s no way that’s happening. That’s the one thing that those guys have, is they have the tournament. They have the rights to the Garden.”

For what it’s worth, Greenberg sees the Big East continuing as a basketball conference, regardless of what happens in football. He believes the Big East will pluck a couple teams from the 14-team Atlantic 10.

“They’ll end up taking Temple and they’ll end up taking Dayton,” he theorized.