Tuesday, February 7, 2012

ACC Basketball Schedule: Bad, Good for Pack?

When the Atlantic Coast Conference last week announced the remake of the men’s basketball schedule, expanding it to 18 games and reducing NC State’s annual meetings with North Carolina to just one game a year for two years and then two in a third year of the remake, I was one of the faithful Wolfpackers who immediately was upset. Blasphemy! I was not disturbed at the 18-game schedule though I wanted at least 19 league games; I was bothered by playing our primary rival just once a season.

Since a few years ago when the ACC expanded from nine conference members to 12 and now to 14 (whenever Syracuse and Pittsburgh are available), the NC State-Duke rivalry (yeah, we like to think that’s a meaningful series as well) has been reduced to practically nothing in basketball and football. Imagine living that close to each other (physical distance only; mentally, NC State is a fine southern school with lots of wonderful traditions; Duke is nothing but damn Yankees, enough said.), being in the same conference and playing basketball once a regular season and practically never in football.

I was upset with the ACC’s decision on State-Carolina. My first reaction was to blame it on…well, you decide. This is what I quickly penned upon hearing the decree:
If what I recall from a few weeks ago is what was said, the new Atlantic Coast Conference basketball schedule system is a result of cry-baby Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who, along with crying about the way his players are responding to his coaching these days, said he would gladly go to an 18-game schedule (he took a long, deep breath before he said that) but that each member of the conference should have only one primary partner. In other words, on an annual basis, Duke would only have to play one definite ACC school twice a year instead of the current two. In other words, Mike only wanted to schedule North Carolina twice on a regular basis and rotate duplicate games among the remainder of the league. It’s been UNC and Maryland. To get to 18 games, there will be four other annual duplicates but only North Carolina twice every year.

Because Mike has way too much influence over league basketball proceedings, the ACC—lead by UNC graduate and former Tar Heels Athletics Director John Swofford and his co-conspirators at ESPN, the mega-millions media rights holders to all things ACC—decided to do as Mike wanted. So, that means the natural home-and-home scheduling between NC State and North Carolina is reduced to one game a year for two of a three year rotation and then the two-game schedule in a third year which could be the first, second or third of the three years. No schedule for 2012-13—when the ACC says Mike’s Rule is applied—has been released, so we’re not sure when the Wolfpack and Tar Heels will show on each other’s schedule for a single game. But, it stinks.

This, though, is bigger than a simple complaint about State and Carolina playing only once a year. The Wolfpack has rarely played Duke’s basketball team more than once a season for several years and it seems as if the two haven’t played football but maybe twice in 10 years. (I refuse to look it up, so someone please confirm the true stats.) Here we have one of the most natural of rivals—State-Duke—and the two don’t play football every year. Then in basketball it’s regularly just once a year.

NC State and North Carolina’s basketball rivalry now will be reduced to once a year for two years and then two for one year, or something like that. I don’t’ care if NC State loses most of the time (actually I do). I want North Carolina (and Duke) on my season ticket every year. The price is $34 per conference game this year for my endzone seat and who knows what it’ll be next year and thereafter. The ACC is telling me to watch the Wolfpack play Miami or Clemson or Boston College instead of UNC on State’s home court—the RBC Center or the PNC Arena or whatever its name is these days—away from home (Reynolds Coliseum). That’s nuts. If I had a mind to, I’d tell my fellow Wolfpackers to stop buying season tickets because the schedule just isn’t worth it!

Why did Mike want to do that? Well, first of all, we all know that if he had it his way, the ACC schedule would probably be reduced to 14 games for 14 teams. He’d keep that duplicate game with North Carolina (because it’s two national TV appearances) and play the other 12 league teams and then he’d schedule more games with Rollins College, and UNC-Greensboro, and so on and so forth at home along with those selected “national” tilts such as St. John’s in Madison Square (the place is round) Garden. Ooh! That’s a biggie. At least, this year, NC State played Syracuse, Indiana, Vanderbilt and Stanford. And, the Wolfpack has two games with UNC and one with Duke. That’s tougher than the Duke schedule. Mike and Duke should play a tougher schedule unless of course the players do not play like Duke—whatever that means. If the Duke players, as the Duke players say, don’t play like Duke (that’s when they play like dookie) then they should play a team that doesn’t play well no matter how bad Duke plays. That’s when they don’t play like Duke—whatever that means.

Am I blaming all this on Mike? No, it’s also part of Swofford’s idea of improving ACC football, to try to build a better “brand,” whatever that means. Ha! Ha!
That’s where I stopped writing, putting down the pen for a couple of days, to allow for a further look. So, upon further review…

NC State actually got a better deal than UNC or Duke. Instead of having to play either of those teams more than once a season on a definite basis, the Wolfpack gets to play Wake Forest twice. If the two programs—State and Wake—are where they should be on a regular basis, NC State should get two wins instead of the always strong possibility of a second loss to UNC or Duke. While I appreciate the effort Mark Gottfried is doing at State, not having UNC or Duke twice a season on the schedule means a better chance for another conference win instead of a good chance of another conference loss. To give this perspective, Florida State defeated (demolished) UNC this season and UNC does not have the opportunity to return the favor unless the two meet in the conference tournament. The two teams could finish with the same record and the Seminoles would be top-seeded in the ACC Tournament. Good deal!

On the other hand, when it comes to strength of schedule for an NCAA bid, will the NCAA selection committee hold it against NC State because the ACC didn’t give the Wolfpack additional games against UNC or Duke? That’s to be scene, but a close loss to either would be better than big win against Morehead State.

I’m not suggesting Wolfpack fans stop buying season tickets. We need to buy more. We also need more fans at the games. State fans need to learn to go to the games to watch the Wolfpack and to forget about the team sitting on the other bench. I’m guilty sometimes, but I’ve suffered through plenty of Northeastern, Western Carolina and Delaware State games. We also have too many empty corporate seats during conference games. The good news is that those corporations with the seats between the end lines who live for the UNC game in Raleigh will not always have that game to attend. Good, stay at home. Give up your tickets to someone wearing red instead of hording the tickets and waiting to arrive in baby-blue clothing. While we need you money, we do not need your lack of faithfulness when it comes to attending or sending others to the games.

I still believe Mike, the Duke god (hey, just look at his University title, his ridiculous income and his jet-black, royal-like hair), is the cause of the 18-game schedule. He has little regard for the ACC when it comes to scheduling. He wants the notoriety of playing in the league but not the responsibility of playing a tough conference schedule. He loves to sprinkle patsies in his schedule. In reality, the ACC needs to do more to promote ACC basketball and get it back to the glory days when all arenas were full for conference games. While I would now prefer a 26-game conference schedule, the ACC would be better with a 19-game, two division calendar. Here’s how it would work, creating excellent all-the-time rivalries:

Inside Division: Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, Virginia, and Wake Forest; Outside Division: Boston College, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, Pitt, Syracuse and Virginia Tech. Schedule two games each within the division (that’s 12) plus one game against all teams from the other division (that seven games) for a total of 19 games. ACC Tournament: Divisional leaders get first round byes; Division of the team with overall best conference record plays three games Wednesday; Other Division has three games Thursday; six winners along with Division leaders advance to Friday for four games; Semifinals Saturday; Finals Sunday. That seems reasonable.

Too bad Mike Krzyzewski didn’t come up with this idea. It’s what the league would have done. On the other hand, if he had come up with that plan, I would be the first to say it was a bad idea because it was his idea.

As far as football, with the expansion, there will be some good things that come with 14 teams. There are two seven-team divisions and one cross-over guarantee, I think. That’s seven games a year plus two more (nine total). That means NC State should play UNC every year and Duke every three years. In reality, for fan interest, State and Duke should schedule each other in non-conference football games when not playing each other in league football games.

This is not about ACC football; it’s about ACC basketball which used to be the central focus of the conference from the perspective of everyone outside the league. With expansion to 14 teams (andtwo more in the coming years) and with the 18-game schedule recently announced, the importance of the regular season and the importance of the ACC Tournament has been reduced to lip service. It may be all about how much the ESPN contract is worth; it may be all about how many teams the league qualifies for the NCAA basketball tournament; but along the way, our conference leaders have lost sight of the fans and what’s important to them, those of us who’ve supported the league as it grew to greatness. Swofford may be trying to build a better brand, but along the way, he and others have lost sight of and have changed the formula that made the brand popular.

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