Even before Sunday night’s East and Midwest Regional finals tip off on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bracket, the Atlantic Coast Conference is guaranteed of being represented in the championship game in Houston. That’s because this half of the Elite Eight could be the semifinals of the ACC Tournament, with North Carolina facing Notre Dame and Virginia battling Syracuse.
Cue the ACC trumpets hyping that conference as the basketball gods’ gift to the sport’s fans. But also take time to notice that two of those four teams — Notre Dame and Syracuse — moved to the ACC three years ago along with Pitt, and Louisville followed a year later after the destruction of the old Big East Conference.
While football drove conference realignment across most of the country, it was the ACC’s desire to regain the prominence in basketball it had ceded to the Big East that was behind ACC expansion to 15 teams. The ACC had a history of poaching from the Big East, as previous moves by Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College demonstrated, but Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and the powers that be at ESPN seized on the split between football and basketball schools in the old Big East to make a push to complete the job.
This season, the ACC put seven schools in the NCAA Tournament and would have had eight if not for Louisville’s self-imposed sanctions. It can’t match the Big East’s greatest season, when Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s reached the 1985 Final Four, but it’s close.
“The top half of the league is just off the charts this year,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Saturday. “I do believe it’s the best league in basketball, and I think it will stand the test of time. [Since] we first went to 15 teams, I think the first 10 or 15 years will surpass anything any other league has ever done.”
That will take some doing because the former 18-team Big East routinely earned eight or nine NCAA bids every year and brought home an all-time- record 11 in 2011. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said that when he was at his house in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware, during the summers as a Big East coach, it was a comfort to know “if I get to the top nine, I’m in. My sanity was pretty good then in the summer.”
In the first two seasons after expansion, the ACC managed just six bids each year, but the improvement in numbers this season likely is a trend that will continue. While it can be argued that the football programs at Louisville, Syracuse and even Pitt would have been better off in the American Athletic Conference, which has four former Big East football schools, there’s no question the basketball programs at those schools have benefited.
Brey joked that only Big East diehard Jim Boeheim at Syracuse might disagree with that assessment, but he winked and added, “If you’ve got him privately off the record, [Boeheim would agree] it’s been good for all of us. I get back to playing the blue bloods, Duke and North Carolina. You get shots at them. It’s great for recruiting. It’s helped our Midwest recruiting.”
Now that the ACC has skimmed the cream off the top of the old Big East, it’s challenging the new Big East to a turf war by moving the conference tournament to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center the next two years, where it will play directly opposite the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.
“We’re the sexiest league,” Brey said. “Everybody talks about our league now and the matchups. It’s going to be interesting to see when we bring the show to Brooklyn.”