Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Virginia finishes first with easier ACC schedule; Will the league soon be the ACC's Five & Dime?

So, Tony Bennett will win the 2014 Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year because his University of Virginia basketball team will end up in first place after regular season play is completed. At 16-1 in the ACC with just Sunday’s finale at Maryland remaining, the Cavaliers have had a tremendous season after being picked to place fourth in the pre-season poll at ACC Operation Basketball last October. In that survey of the media who attended the annual gathering, Duke was picked first followed by Syracuse and North Carolina. Review the poll at this link: 2013-14 ACC Pre-season Basketball poll. 

Much of Virginia’s success has to do with the even-keel, talented players who have been willing to play Bennett’s way, but please attribute some Virginia conference wins to the ACC’s unbalanced scheduling. Virginia was lucky not having to play twice against Duke, Syracuse or North Carolina, the other three teams in the preseason and final top four of the league. Just as each of the 15 ACC members, Virginia played one game against the other 14 teams. But their two-timer opponents were Florida State, Maryland, Notre Dame, and Virginia Tech, a distant last place in the conference. As it turns out, Virginia played just one game against each team in the 2-6 spots in the league standings.

If Virginia, which got stronger as the season progressed, had played at Syracuse in early January, the Orange would have won, no doubt, and it could have changed Virginia’s course of winning. If Virginia had played Duke in February, even in Charlottesville, the Blue Devils would have won just as Duke did in mid-January in Durham. And, while the Cavaliers hosted North Carolina in January and handed the Tar Heels a fourth conference loss in five games, the story would have been completely different if the two had played in Chapel Hill in February if the Tar Heels played to the level they played against NC State recently in Raleigh. Yes, Virginia lucked out with a weak ACC schedule.

I’m not suggesting the Cavaliers should have had all three of those teams on its schedule for two games each, but how about two games with at least one? Syracuse had two games with Duke and two games with fifth-place Pittsburgh. Duke’s schedule includes two games each with Syracuse and North Carolina. The Tar Heels schedule includes Duke twice. The Cavaliers had just one game with each the teams placing 2nd, 3rd and 4th, all teams picked to finish ahead of Virginia in the pre-season vote. And while one more loss would not change the current conference standings, one more loss—depending when it happened—could have led to another loss and then another loss, as the bubble burst. Winning creates winning; just ask the Tar Heels. Losing creates losing; ask a number of teams.

The schedule might have been considered when the media made those selections last October, thinking that Virginia would place fourth because of its schedule, but it’s doubtful the media—save one or two scribes—think that deeply. There will be more media consideration next season. Right now, it’s time to consider different ACC scheduling. Even though it would do away with two games a season between my NC State Wolfpack and OUR rival, North Carolina, as well as the annual two-game Battle of the Blues (yuck!), it’s time to drop permanent partners and develop a  format that evens out the schedule over 3.5 years. With 18 conference games, no team should face another twice in a three-year period. In three seasons, everyone would have played 12  teams twice and in the fourth season, the other two before starting to repeat the process. But wait, there’s more.

A couple of weeks ago, while on an occasional bike ride around Apex Lake, just hours before the return bout of Syracuse-Duke basketball game, I was listening to ESPN Radio, 99.9 on my FM dial in the Holly Springs NC market when the announcer (I have no idea of his name) proclaimed to be a college football fanatic, said some college basketball coaches across the country where disappointed in conference expansion, that it was ruining college basketball, and begged to differ with those coaches.

Actually, he said (something like) it’s great for college basketball because now we get a second game this season between Duke and Syracuse. Think about it. Every year, we’ll get Duke-Syracuse twice in the regular season, Duke-North Carolina twice, Syracuse-Louisville twice, Syracuse-Pittsburgh twice, North Carolina-Syracuse twice, North Carolina-Louisville, Pittsburgh against Duke and North Carolina twice…it’ll be great for college basketball.

I started to laugh at the ignorance of the announcer, but then I realized he works for ESPN and maybe he knows for sure what most of us think: That ESPN runs the ACC, that Commissioner John Swofford and his staff in Greensboro NC are just puppets for the Worldwide Leader in Sports as are the 15 Athletics Directors and equal number of chancellors/Presidents of the Colleges and Universities that make up the ACC. If ESPN, which owns broadcast rights to ACC basketball, has its way, those match-ups listed in the previous paragraph would be scheduled every year. Duke, Louisville, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Syracuse would play each other twice a year during the regular basketball season, all in prime time on nights that do not conflict with any other college games or NFL games. That’s 10 regular-season games ready for Prime Time and big ratings. Can you say $$$$$$$!?

If that happens, eight of the 18 regular season games for each of those five schools would be pre-set. Those four would become each other’s permanent partners, all other schools be damned. Which means with 15 teams in the league, those five schools would play each of the remaining 10 schools one time each season. There would not be two games between NC State and UNC, or between Wake Forest and Duke, or between Duke and State. Virginia would play each of those top five once along with four of the remaining 10 teams twice each season.

This may not seem right, but actually it may be a good thing. Why should Miami have to play Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Duke or North Carolina more than once a year? NC State, as it tries to build an upper-ACC echelon team, would play only once a year against each of Dick Vitale’s ACC Fabulous Five and 13 games against the remaining nine teams. In other words, some of the teams in the bottom 10 could actually have a chance to build programs sans multiple games against the top five. The name of the conference could be changed to the ACC’s Five & Dime!

This season, Virginia got the benefit of the doubt with its schedule: No doubling-up against Syracuse, Duke, North Carolina, or Pitt. Next year, with those four as permanent partners along with Louisville, Virginia, just as it did this year, could lose one game to one of the Five and still win the ACC regular season. Heck, two losses to those five could result in first place if you sweep the Dime. That could be the case for any of the 10 remaining ACC schools. The Five could beat up each other playing head to head while a couple of the Dime could slip past the Five in the standings. So, let’s do it! (Until Coach K comes up with a points formula that assures those five of always being in the top five, even if all lose once to each other, creating four losses on their records. It would be great for college basketball, K would tell the beat reporter for The News & Observer.)

That ESPN announcer may want the glamour teams to play twice a year, but that shouldn’t happen. How the conference solves this scheduling dilemma is to be seen, but I have a suggestion. (Who would have thunk it?) The ACC needs a 21-game conference season. All teams would play each other once, that’s 14 games, and have home and home games with seven others. The next year, the rotation would switch. The one-game opponents would become two game foes the next season and vice versa. One year Duke and North Carolina would be scheduled for one game and the next season for two games. Positive outcome: Putting up with the Battle of the Blues media love affair would be reduced from two times to one time every other season.

The fans may not like giving up a second game to long-time rivals (State-UNC or Duke-UNC) but they would like the idea of playing three more conference games and three fewer high school opponents (North Carolina Central is not a high school team.); the athletics directors would not like taking the hit in the pocketbook from cheap date income but ESPN might pony up a few more dollars for more conference games; and the coaches would veto it because they resemble a common barnyard animal. The players would love it. That's why they decided to attend college in the ACC in the first place, to play lots of games against ACC teams; academics is a distant second reason, but that's a story for tomorrow's edition, and the next day's edition, and the next day's edition (you get my drift) of The N&O. 

On the other hand, next year, when Clemson or Virginia Tech or any of the Dime don’t play multiple games against the Five (Duke, Louisville, North Carolina, Pitt or Syracuse) but win the regular season, or maybe when two of the Dime place first and second, a better and fairer method of scheduling will come about. Until then, congratulations to Tony Bennett and Virginia for taking full advantage of the schedule and for placing first in the regular season. You've had a good year but I suggest for the Cavaliers to come from behind this scheduling cloud Virginia must win the ACC Tournament. Now that's incentive. Good luck!