The Times They Are a Changin'.
I think back to the days of the eight team ACC in the 1980s and still shake my head at how much things have changed since then. As a kid I grew up watching Clemson dominate the ACC in football and largely languish in basketball. When we had a good year in hoops we usually needed a bit of help from an established power slipping a bit. When somebody else won the ACC in football it required the assistance of Clemson screwing something up. Now it seems like Clemson is close to those rare planetary alignments when both football and basketball are challenging for big things on the national stage at the same time. 1990, my freshman year in high school, was the last time those planets really lined up. However, there are some new factors to consider on the basketball side that will make that chance for a really, really fun fall and winter tougher to realize.
FACTOR 1: Exit the Terrapin
Personally I don't shed one tear for the loss of Maryland. I won't get back on that soapbox but to see my full thoughts on this, check out the preview of the Maryland game from back in the winter. Some of the generation before mine think back to Maryland's founding father status in the ACC and get a bit sentimental. I don't pretend to understand it. Maryland has had a couple of stretches of being a serious power in the modern era. First was during the Lefty Driesel era that crashed and burned with the death of Len Bias. The second was when Gary Williams took the Twerps all the way to the top behind Chris Wilcox, Juan Dixon and crew. However, Maryland has largely been a middle of the pack program in the ACC with a few dips towards the bottom mixed in. The ACC replaces them with a program with a better pedigree and current makeup in Louisville. So, it doesn't take an expert to realize that things get tougher on everybody from this move.
Louisville is a top ten program currently and will remain so as long as Rick Pitino roams the sidelines. When Brad Brownell mentioned "IBM" and "Coke" in his last presser, the Cardinals are one of those Fortune 500 type programs that aren't really going to dip much from year to year. The ACC now has four legitimate legends of the college game heading programs in Pitino, Boeheim, Williams, and Coach K. All four have at least one national championship on his resume. You can go ahead and pencil in Louisville between 1 and 4 in the ACC preseason poll next year even with the roster turnover they are going to have. I'll get more into what this means for Clemson later in this piece.
FACTOR 2: Coaching Changes
To me, serious shock waves were sent when Buzz Williams left Marquette for the Virginia Tech job. This is akin to Bret Bielema leaving Wisconsin, an established Big 10 power program, to go to Arkansas, a middle to lower level SEC program. What this showed was how powerful the SEC has become in football that a program like Arkansas, which really could be considered a stepping stone program rather than a destination program, could lure a guy with Bielema's resume. Virginia Tech has some serious issues in terms of tradition and facilities in respects to basketball. They are very similar to Clemson in this regard, maybe even worse. I just figured VT would get one of the up and coming mid-major coaches looking for a high-major gig. Instead, they lured a guy from a successful major program who is much more established. Williams and his Marquette squad took out the ACC champion Hurricanes in the tourney's sweet 16 just last year. I consider this an absolute home run hire for VT and a real indicator that the new ACC is going to absolutely rule college basketball in this next stretch of the expansion era. I'd be very concerned about this if I was a fan of the Big East. They still had a shot to be a serious power in basketball, but losing one of their better coaches like this is not a good sign at all for them. Williams does a good job of finding tough athletic guys and finding a way to compete against more talented and skilled teams.
Wake Forest is a plum job and really did all of the ACC a favor when they stupidly hired Jeff Bzdelik to replace Dino Gaudio. I compare Wake's screw ups following the death of Skip Prosser to how Clemson nearly self destructed its own football program with the ouster of Danny Ford in 1990. Other programs, especially FSU, reaped the rewards of this. Likewise, Wake Forest followed a pretty successful run with Dave Odom with an even better one under Skip Prosser who was poised to have Wake in the top 10 on a yearly basis. Now they have begun to right the ship, in my opinion, with the hire of Danny Manning. Manning has NBA street cred, played for Larry Brown, and coached under Bill Self. He did a very good job in his first stint as a head coach at Tulsa considering the top two returning players there transferred when Manning came in. We will see if he can keep Wake's talented sophomore group in Winston-Salem, which will be his first recruiting job. This is a program that was cranking out some NBA studs not too long ago in Chris Paul and Jeff Teague. Robert Reinhard at BloggerSoDear, the SBNation Wake site, had this to say on the Manning hire, "He's a risky hire in that he only has two years of head coaching experience...Perhaps we are buying low there. He's also a fantastic developer of big men. If you look at the players he helped develop at Kansas (Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun, Cole Aldrich, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Jeff Withey, Thomas Robinson) only Arthur was a 5 star recruit, yet all 8 of them got drafted."
The jury will be out on Boston College and new hire Jim Christian. This type of hire was what I was expecting out of VT. Christian has spent the majority of his career in the MAC where he had success at Kent State and Ohio. Mixed in the middle was an unsuccessful stint at TCU, which would have been considered a fringe high major program at the time. Like Manning at Wake, we will see how much of BC's core sophomore group he can keep in the program. (Note: BC has already begun losing players to transfer). It remains to be seen if Christian has the goods to be a factor at the high major level. There is some talk that Christian will bring in Twerp assistant Scott Spinelli that has some of their fans excited. You can check that out on BC's SBNation site here.
It is going to be a terrain similar to the 80s-90s stretch in the ACC when getting to .500 was a major accomplishment. In those days you had to deal with playing everybody twice and that usually meant six to eight games against a serious top 15 team. Since the big expansion and unbalanced scheduling, it became a luck of the draw type thing in terms of who you played twice and what road games you got. Clemson had pretty good luck this past season in that regard in that we only drew UNC, Duke, Syracuse, and Virginia once. Now you factor in the addition of Louisville in place of Maryland and the recent coaching upgrades at Wake and VT (at least) and you are back to banking on at least 7-8 brutal games in the conference a year no matter what the draw. It is going to be a tremendous challenge to compete consistently. Thankfully the administration has made some moves to help Brownell get the facility upgrades he desperately needs to recruit in the shark infested waters. The ACC is quickly going to return as the absolute number 1 draw for basketball recruits going to college. That had been challenged in the 2000s with the Big East's rise in hoops and the Big 10 in particular. If the one and done rule is abolished, it will become even more interesting if guys are staying 2 years minimum. My hope is the baseball rule will go into effect in basketball where they can be drafted out of high school but if they go to college it is a three year minimum.
Here's my ACC hierarchy in terms of program strength.
1. Duke: They get the top spot despite what happened last year in the tourney. Coach K has parlayed his USA Basketball gig into being back in the hunt for the absolute best players in America after slipping a bit just a few years ago. Now he's had Kyrie Irving and Jabari Parker with the Okafor kid coming in next year. Simply put, NBA guys vouch for K and it is paying dividends with the upper elite.
2. UNC: The Tarholes still have the best pedigree in the ACC with NBA legends all over the place out of their program, not to mention the ultimate Ace in the Hole in Michael Jordan. Williams has struggled just a bit getting the proper chemistry with his highly rated recruits so it will be interesting to see how it goes with another heavyweight entering the ring in Louisville. It is amazing to think a guy like Williams with two rings might not even be in the top four in terms of coaches in his own league.
3. Louisville: Pitino is probably the best coach in the ACC in terms of total package. He's won with a mega talented roster before but has also taken Louisville to the top without the benefit of a lottery pick talent on the roster. With Purnell and Gary Williams not in the ACC, nobody really presses much, but that will change with the Cardinals coming in.
4. Syracuse: It always seems like the Orange get to the brink of the glory but don't quite get over the mountain. They have the one title when Boeheim caught lightening in a bottle with Carmelo Anthony. They probably should have gotten one more but Indiana broke their hearts. Still, they have a system that works and recruit well to it and as long as Jim is roaming the sidelines and bitching about restaurant choices they will be a factor nationally.
5. Virginia: I actually rank Tony Bennett in the top 3 of ACC coaches and he's got some very good facilities to work with in Charlottesville. UVA is coming off an ACC title and #1 seeding in the NCAA and are not going anywhere as long as he is on the sideline. We will see if Bennett can start to lure top 50 level recruits into his program.
6. Pittsburgh: The Panthers have had a good run of sustained success and are in the middle of a very fertile recruiting ground for hoops. They have an urban campus which is a plus for basketball recruiting. Their fans are rabid for basketball and it is hard to see Pitt really falling below 7th in the league most years.
7. NCST: The Wolfpack have been able to lure consistent four and five star talent to Raleigh with Sendeck, then Lowe, and now Gottfried. The problem for them has been coaching up that talent to any consistent level of play. It seems each of those coaches would have teams that would underachieve in the regular season and then find it either in the ACC tournament or the NCAA tourney. Still, as long as you can attract top flight talent consistently, your program should be considered pretty strong. I'm just glad they don't have a Tony Bennett or Brad Brownell coaching their program.
8. Wake Forest: I might be thinking too highly of the Deacon program, but it is hard to think a school that had Tim Duncan and Chris Paul go through it isn't a real threat to be very good in basketball. The Deac fans have suffered lately and are very hungry for a return to relevance. Danny Manning has some good talent to work with and should be in good shape to reap the benefits of the ACC's return to the top in basketball as a conference.
9 (tie). Georgia Tech: GT could potentially be as high as 5 on this list if it really got its act together. Atlanta is a major hotbed of basketball talent and quite frankly a very popular city in African American pop culture. How GT hasn't lured a true superstar coach there is a bit baffling to me. Bobby Cremins was not an elite coach but WAS an elite recruiter and put GT on the map as a result. The Hewitt era was as head scratching as it gets in that GT was still pulling serious talent but screwed it up more than NCST has been doing. Brian Gregory is a pretty good coach and I'd certainly rank him ahead of Hewitt in that regard, but he isn't the electric personality that would make GT into the type of force it could be. Put a guy like Bruce Pearl in Atlanta and there would be trouble for the ACC for sure. Sleeping Giant.
9. (tie) Notre Dame: ND is a football first school, like the remaining schools on the list, but has had more overall success as a program than any of the others. The Irish are a national brand and that helps with basketball, especially since they have good facilities in that regard (compared to the other football first ACC schools). They have a good coach in Brey and made a couple of waves this year with some wins against the top level teams even after losing their best player. I think had we lost K.J. McDaniels we would have won maybe 4 to 5 ACC games at the most.
11. Clemson: This really becomes hard when you get to the football first schools in the ACC. You could easily put FSU here or Miami. I give Clemson the edge thanks to the facility upgrades on the way and the presence of Brad Brownell, who is in my opinion the perfect fit for Clemson. Brownell is not a coach accustomed to elite talent and has made a living doing more with less, which is what you have to do to make it at Clemson. His defensive prowess assures that the Tigers will always be consistent on that end of the floor and as a result never out of many games. When he sprinkles in enough skill and shooting to the roster, you begin to see a program resembling UVA's in a lot of ways. Brownell is not an ego maniac who would struggle long term in the shadow of the football program. Clemson is lucky to have him because SC is a terrible state for basketball talent, being rural hurts you more than helps you in basketball recruiting, and the program as a whole has a very poor legacy.
12. Miami: I think very highly of Jim Larranaga as a coach and therefore rank the Canes ahead of FSU. I'm not sure how long Larranaga will coach but as long as he's down there they will be dangerous. Miami indirectly has benefited greatly from the Miami Heat's success. It doesn't go unnoticed when LeBron James shows up to your games like he did during Miami's ACC title run in 2013. South Florida also produces a good amount of talent for basketball.
13. FSU: The Noles have a coach who is no stranger to AAU recruiting shenanigans. As a result, they have kept a pretty good stockpile of talent in Tallahassee for basketball under Leonard Hamilton. This has been vital considering FSU has some of the worst facilities for basketball around. But make no mistake, FSU is a football school and basketball is a serious afterthought and it is hard to see that changing anytime soon. Now that football has returned to prominence, there is less pressure on the basketball program to do anything.
15. VT: VT is way behind on facilities for basketball and are not in a particularly strong area for recruiting. Blacksburg isn't what you would consider urban either. VT faces many of the same challenges Clemson faces in terms of being a factor in basketball. I do think highly of Buzz Williams and felt VT outkicked their coverage big time with that hire. He will make them much more competitive and at least get them where Greenburg had them four years ago.
16. Boston College: I remember a lot of folks scoffing when Skinner got an interview for the Clemson job when Purnell left even though he got fired at Boston College. However, looking back at what Skinner was able to do at BC compared to what has happened since is eye opening. I am not blown away at all by the Christian hire there and feel VT is now in better shape thanks to getting Buzz Williams. BC's talent is lower tier because they lack athleticism to be good on defense even though they are skilled. Donahue miscalculated the need to be able to really guard folks at this level. As a result, BC had to be hitting 3's consistently to really have a shot to win and that made them vulnerable to several bad losses the last two years out of conference as well as in. Christian has his work cut out for him.
Certainly this list is very debatable and I welcome the debate. If nothing else, you see several programs that could really suck, such as ours and Miami, being boosted considerably by the coaching. Mix that with programs with advantages in legacy and resources and the four blue bloods at the top and you have a murderously difficult conference for the foreseeable future. Clemson could have a much better team next year but end up with a similar ACC record or worse. The ACC should again see 6-9 NCAA bids a year which was the norm in the 90s and hopefully Clemson will parlay this into another stretch of NCAA tourney bids.