The fact is, ACC basketball is not what it used to be. The regular season is unbalanced, with numerous traditional rivalries only commencing once a year, and with the vagaries of the unbalanced schedule having a material effect on who finishes where.
It is absolutely absurd, for instance, that North Carolina and Wake Forest do not play home-and-home every year. North Carolina is Wake Forest’s main rival, historically, and there is no good reason why either school should be flying out-of-state once a season rather than rolling down the road to renew a series that has produced many compelling games over the years. As it stands now, Carolina and Wake play home-and-home just once every three seasons.
Similarly, it used to be very clear what it meant to have a 10-6 or even 9-7 record in a home-and-home format; now it is not, as Virginia Tech found out last year. Each team now plays five home-and-home series per year, and 6 schools only once. Each school has two “permanent” rivals with whom they play home-and-home every year; of the nine remaining schools, three are played each year home-and-home on a rotating basis. Which opponents a school happens to have to play twice in a given year can have a clear impact on the overall record.
Beyond this, very few people really focus on the exact ranking of teams in the conference standings, or think it makes a huge difference whether one finishes 4th or 6th, 7th or 9th. The season itself has become simply an extended audition for the NCAA committee, with each team ultimately evaluated based on its individual resume. The games are meaningful primarily insofar as how they impact each individual team, not how they impact a bigger conference picture. Put another way, there’s no real reason for a fan of UNC or Virginia or Clemson to tune in to Miami-N.C. State on a Sunday afternoon, unless it’s to “scout” an upcoming opponent (which is why I turned on the last part of the second half).
The result is while more ACC games are on than ever—more than almost any person with a day job could ever watch—interest in most particular games is fairly low. In addition, it’s harder now to be a fan of the whole conference and to get to know all the teams and players well when your own team plays half of them only once a season.
Beyond the problem with the unbalanced schedule, the ACC regular season is too short. Why is Virginia Tech playing Longwood in January? Or North Carolina playing St. Francis? It would be in the interests of the ACC as a league to have more games against one other, rather than against weaker out-of-conference opponents. A longer schedule would also make it possible to restore more home-and-home rivalries—and if done creatively (see below), also make the individual games more meaningful.
Finally, the ACC Tournament has also lost its luster, as reflected by ticket sales and increasingly indifferent fan interest in recent years. The event is too long, and too often serves as the graveyard for bubble teams rather than a setting for epic confrontations between top teams.
It doesn’t have to be this way! Here are two proposals for reform, one radical and almost certain to be rejected by the powers that be. The second is more moderate, and I would hope has greater chance of being taken seriously. It is also more elaborate, so I will spend most of the article on this second proposal.
The first proposal is this: restore a true home-and-home league conference season, while at the same time abolishing the ACC Tournament. Each team would have 22 conference games. At the end of the season, the standings wouldn’t lie, and the team in first place would have unquestioned claim to be called champion. Any team managing a winning record would have a great argument for inclusion in a 68-team field. The season would be a long, hard slog, but every team would come out of it battle-tested.
The reasons why this proposal has little chance of gaining acceptance are obvious (leaving only 5-9 nonconference games per team, doing away with the tradition of the tournament). Personally, this would be my first choice, but it’s hard to see it happening in the foreseeable future.
So here is the second proposal. First, expand the schedule from 16 to 18 games. Second, divide the conference into three “divisions.” The divisions would be organized as follows:
Boston College, Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech
Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Wake Forest
Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami.
Here is how the regular season would be organized. Each school would play the other three schools in their division—in most cases, their natural primary rivals, and all the key arch-rivalries in the league—home and home every year. That would be six games.
Then, each school would play home-and-home against two schools in each of the other divisions (eight games total), and one game each against the other four schools (two from each division) for a total of 18.
Here’s is how it would work in a typical six year cycle for teams in the ACC Piedmont division.
In year 1, North Carolina and Duke would play Boston College, Maryland, Clemson and Florida State home-and-home, while North Carolina State and Wake Forest would play Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Miami home-and-home.
In year 2, North Carolina and Duke would swap home-and-home series with NCSU and Wake and play schedules the inverse of year 1 (Carolina and Duke taking on Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Miami home-and-home).
In year 3, the sequence would change, with the goal of rotating through different possible combinations of schedules over a six-year time period. North Carolina and Duke would play BC, Virginia, Clemson, and Georgia Tech home-and-home while Wake and NCSU play Maryland, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Miami home-and-home.
In year 4, North Carolina and Duke again swap series with NCSU and Wake, so that the schedule is in the inverse of year 3.
In year 5, the sequence changes again. This time North Carolina and Duke play BC, Virginia Tech, Clemson and Miami home-and-home, with NCSU and Wake playing Virginia, Maryland, Georgia Tech, and Florida State home-and-home.
Year 6 again has the inverse schedule of year 5.
In year 7, the initial sequence starts over (possibly reshuffling the ordering of the pairings). I have here made the assumption that the conference would designate six “primary rivalries”—two archrival teams who will always have symmetrical schedules. These would be Duke-Carolina, State-Wake, Virginia-Virginia Tech, Maryland-BC, Clemson-Georgia Tech, and Miami-FSU.
An alternative approach would be to change the linkages from one six year period to the next, so that in the second complete cycle Carolina and NCSU have identical schedules and Duke and Wake are paired, and in the third complete cycle Carolina is paired with Wake (and so on). I think it would be better to make the initial pairings permanent, though doing it this way does assure that over time only certain possible schedule permutations will be used.
Consider what this schedule does. First, it assures each team will play the exact same schedule of one other team—their primary rival, in most cases—making for easier and more valid comparisons of performance. Second, it increases from two to three the number of rivals one plays home-and-home every year. Third, even for schools outside one’s division, it increases the regularity of meetings. How often would Carolina play Maryland at home—or travel to College Park? 3 out of every 4 years (compared to 2 of every 3 years today). Fourth, it would inject some geographic rationality into the schedule by maximizing the number of games requiring limited travel.
Even bigger benefits would be realized by combining this schedule format with three further changes: First, officially honor the champions of each “Division.” Second, link seeding in the ACC Tournament to the divisional standings, so that the 3 division winners get seeds 1-3, the division runner-ups seeds 4-6, and so forth. Third, limit the number of teams that qualify for the ACC Tournament to a total of 9 (the top three teams in each division).
These additional moves would make both the regular season and the tournament more meaningful, and increase interest in each regular season game. The creation of divisional champions would give teams up and down the league (not just Duke and Carolina) something meaningful to play for. Being a divisional champion would provide local bragging rights, and help bolster tournament resumes. It would also provide more markers of tangible success for programs that are not currently at the level of competing for final fours and national titles, but aspire to be.
To make the divisions have bite, however, there should be real, not just symbolic, rewards for success, and real penalties for failure. The real reward for winning your division is a top 3 seeding in the ACC Tournament (meaning you could avoid the #1 overall team until the final). The real penalty for doing poorly in the tournament is you are deprived of the right to compete for the league title at the end of the year. (Tiebreakers would run as follows: first head to head results, second division records, third overall RPI.)
This combination would give fans of both successful and less successful teams reason to follow the standings closely throughout the year. It would give fans reason to follow closely the fortunes of their three most immediate rivals. And it would lend extra weight to each rivalry game.
This proposal would make the regular season more meaningful, and it would improve the ACC Tournament as an event, in three ways. First, having fewer teams would make it possible for each participating school to have more fans there. Second, having only the better teams would assure a stronger slate of games in the quarterfinals and a more rigorous overall test for the eventual champion. Third, a smaller tournament would serve the interests of teams on the tournament bubble.
Let’s take the last point first, as it may be the most important. One can never say never, but the chances of a 10, 11, or 12 seed ever winning an ACC Tournament outright (four games in four days) are not much higher than zero. What the 10, 11, and 12 seeds can do is win one game and knock their conference brethren off the bubble and into NIT-land.
If you are a 6 seed with an RPI of say 50 going into the ACC Tournament, a win against the 11 seed in the preliminary round is not going to improve your prospects—but losing that game would almost certainly be fatal. What will help you is the opportunity to play and defeat a 3 seed. Chances of doing so are enhanced if you don’t have to beat an 11 seed first just to get to the 3 seed, then have to play that (rested) 3 seed on tired legs. The current tournament format does a disservice to good, capable teams in this situation, in order to provide the worst teams an illusionary “chance” at qualifying for the NCAAs via the league tournament. A smaller tournament would create stronger games and actually create more opportunities for bubble teams to play their way in by garnering one or two more quality wins.
No proposal is without its costs of course, so consider three possible objections to this proposal.
First, some may object to linking the tournament seeds to divisional results rather than the overall conference standings. Consider a plausible scenario where Duke is 16-2, North Carolina is 15-3, and the next best teams (say Maryland and Georgia Tech) weigh in at 12-6. Yes, under this scenario Carolina would be a #4 seed, and would get it a somewhat tougher first round game in the tournament and the prospect of (likely) playing #1 seed Duke in the semifinal.
But is this such a big deal? I don’t think so. It would be a rare occasion in which a 5 seed would be much different in quality than a 7 seed (in a 12 team league). If one thinks that the tournament should have marquee matchups between the best teams, note that a Carolina-Duke heavyweight matchup would actually be more likely under this setup, as the odds of both teams making it to a semifinal are higher than the odds of both teams making it to a final. There would be huge local and national interest in a Carolina-Duke semifinal in this situation. And if one thinks that a classic ACC Tournament should end with a Duke-Carolina final, note that a) this once-frequent event (7 times between 1988 and 2001) has actually not happened in quite a long time (since 2001) and b) it is still possible it could happen, if the overall seeding worked out differently than the scenario above.
Second, some may object that it would be unfair to exclude a team that is in last place in its division, even though they may have a substantially better record than a team from another division that is included. It is possible, for instance, that one year NCSU might be 10-8, whereas the 3rd place team in the ACC South was 7-11. Wouldn’t State be more deserving of playing for a conference title?
This is a reasonable objection, but it can be dealt with by creating what might be known as the “NFC West Rule.” The rule would be this: if the strongest 4th place team in a division has a record of .500 or better (9-9), and has a record two games better than the weakest 3rd place team in another division, that 4th place team qualifies for the tournament. If the strongest 4th place team has a record of .500 better and a record one game better than the weakest 3rd place team in another division, and has swept that team in the regular-season (over one or two games), that 4th place team qualifies for the tournament. No 4th place team can displace a 2nd place team, regardless of record; each division would always be guaranteed two entrants to the tournament, and it would be impossible for two divisions to each have four teams in the conference tournament.
A rule like this would prevent severe injustices arising from a year in which the competitive strength of the divisions are severely imbalanced, but does so while continuing to give the divisional format and standings some teeth. (A review of the conference standings during the 12-team era, 2006 to 2010, shows that this scenario would have arisen once, in 2007, when Virginia, Virginia Tech, Miami, and Boston College all finished 10-6 or 11-5.)
Third, some may worry that a logistical problem may arise from the fact that only 9 schools will make the ACC Tournament, whereas tickets must be sold in advance. This problem does not seem insuperable: it is a common practice in pro sports for franchises to sell tickets for playoff games that may never happen, then refund the ticket costs as necessary. It ought to be possible to have a similar arrangement in this case, though assigning actual ticket locations may need to be done at the last minute for at least some of the teams (those who clinch their place in the tournament in the last weekend). This may present a headache, but it ought to be possible in this day and age of electronic ticketing to come up with a way to do this.
It also would be advisable for the ACC to reserve blocks of hotel rooms for fans who make last-minute travel arrangements when their team does squeak in the tournament. Finally, it’s probably a good idea to make a limited number of tickets available to the three schools that do not qualify for the tournament, for use as they see fit (by school officials, uber-boosters who would come even if their own team wasn’t playing, etc.); any tickets of this nature returned can be put on public sale or redistributed among the participating schools. The three excluded schools should also be guaranteed an equal share of any profits from the event that may be distributed to individual schools.
Overall this plan aims to make the regular season more interesting, more fair, more meaningful, and more fun, and to restore the ACC Tournament as a weekend of truly excellent games, a worthy test of the conference champion, and an opportunity for good but borderline teams to burnish their credentials for the NCAA Tournament.
This is not a plan to fix what is not broken. The ACC regular season fails several of the requisites of a fair competition, and also has undermined important rivalries. The ACC Tournament has become a too-long bore. Throughout the conference, per game attendance fell 5% between 2008 and 2010 (from 11, 272 to 10, 713), and the total number of households tuning in to an ACC Sunday Night broadcast fell 14% between 2009 and 2010.
The startling fact is—as evidenced by on-court performance this year—ACC basketball has not seamlessly coped with expansion and its consequences, and is now dangerously flirting with mediocrity: mediocrity in the quality of basketball being played, mediocrity in the organization of its two primary competitions (the regular season and the tournament), and mediocrity in the number of teams qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
Making a 12-team league work in a way consistent with the league’s bedrock traditions requires some thought, more thought than the makeshift approach that is now league policy. The ideas presented here are intended to shake the league office out of its current complacency and provide an example of how to creatively adjust to the new realities in a way that both makes sense from the standpoint of competitive fairness and of re-kindling that which made this league great: sustained rivalries and intense competition and interest in every game, all year long.
Thad has return to Inside Carolina in 2011 as a regular columnist. He is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game: ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.