It took years but the ACC finally smartened up, Nas, and eliminated divisions for football. Our long national (Coastal?) nightmare is over and the balance in competitiveness is back-adjace in conference play. This decision has made it so every 4 year player in the ACC would’ve faced every team twice and been to every opposing venue once. It has also made it much less likely that teams like Lousiville and Syracuse, who have fielded transformative players or have garnered breakout seasons, would still be 2 of 3 programs to never play in the Championship game due to the misfortune of competing yearly with the one world beater in the league. Even more so, it can help build new rivalries, create more fun home atmospheres, and lead to much more exciting end-of-season races for the top 2 spots.
All that said the primary reason this was finally done (or agreed to) is to open more opportunities for the ACC to get spots in the upcoming 12-team playoff. No more 12-0 Clemson’s versus 8-4 *insert Coastal team here.* Every year the hope is that two 10+ win teams will face off so that if a 12-0 Clemson loses in the ACC title game to say, I don’t know, 10-2 NC State, both squads would make the playoff. This would strengthen the conference as a whole in national perception which is of value before the next round of media rights comes up. It’s a no-brainer.
That’s a lot of words for an article about basketball, especially on something we’ve all been aware of, but the ACC needs to be forward-thinking with its other major revenue sport by ensuring it receives as many bids as possible in the NCAA tournament. The simplest solution would be to bring in more revenue so programs can spend more on quality coaching, staff, and recruiting to free up more alumni’ NIL dollars as the SEC has done, but all this is unlikely to happen soon. The ACC has tried in other areas but none of it has worked the way they intended. (Note this is much less a problem for the women as the league is deep in quality and championship-level programs so thanks for holding us down ladies as usual!)
For example in football, increasing the number of league games has been considered but with the mediocre-to-poor quality of much of the league that could be more detrimental to the conference’s success than helpful. Right now the same could be said for basketball going from 16 to 18 and now 20 games in the ACC…which, for this season, teams like FSU & UofL will prove to be more landmines than resume boosters.
The Conference’s core has gotten weaker and expansion has not helped either. Over the past 10 NCAA tournaments, the ACC has received 6 or fewer bids six times, twice only receiving 4 bids to the tourney. This includes many years post conference expansion where solid programs (at the time) like BC and ND joined along with legacy programs like Syracuse and Louisville which made it look like the ACC would be the strongest basketball league in the nation. As of now, none of those “newer” programs look to be on track to make the NCAAs in 2022-2023.
More recently the metrics for earning a bid have changed as well. RPI has been replaced by the NET which gives a more comprehensive, analytical outlook of a team’s resume. Before, based on pedigree alone, it felt like finishing in the top 8 or 9 in the ACC would nearly guarantee you a bid with a decent RPI as a buffer. That is no longer the case with more objective measurements. This is along with the subjective lobbying of the media on behalf of the mid-major Cinderella narratives they want to cover during March Madness. It’s more and more likely nowadays that some of those last spots are getting thrown to fun mid-majors who had good years rather than average P5s in mediocre years (and fair or not, that hurts the ACC).
The league can’t force its teams to hire better coaches, recruit better, or perform better but just like in football the ACC should look to adjust its postseason to benefit the league members in spite of themselves. The ACC tournament is broken in many ways beyond what will be discussed here. So not only has it been historically biased towards the Top 4 seeds since the double bye was implemented, but it hurts bubble teams during the last chance they have in a season to boost their resume. Let’s take a look at just one way this presents a problem.
Assuming on most occasions the top 4 seeds in the ACC tournament will make the NCAAs and everyone else is on the bubble, would it be better to be seeded 5th or 7th in the current format? The current layout of the ACC tournament on paper gives a 5 seed the easier path to the title as they get the weakest of the day 1 winners (assuming chalk) along with the 4 seed the next day. The 7th seed faces the strongest day 1 winner (assuming chalk) and must play the 2 seed. Notice the 5th seed has an easier path theoretically to the final day but its the 7th seed that has more opportunities to add to their resume for the NCAAs. It is much more likely that the 5 seed is facing a Q3 or Q4 opponent during their first game. A 7th seed could very easily be facing a Q2 team in the top 100 of the NET on day 2. Both of them would have games against Q1 opponents if they win, allowing the 7th seed to pickup potentially two resume boosts in back-to-back games, leaving the 5th seed with only one. If a 5 seed is on the bubble then it is at a disadvantage come tournament season due to “earning” its spot in the ACC tournament. Also its important to note that in most recent years the 2nd seed in the ACC has been either tied or only separated from the 4th seed by a game or two, so the level of difficulty may be a wash between the two on day 3.
Now it must be said this is about seeding and not record. Due to their record, a 7 seed may naturally have no shot at the NCAAs compared to a 5 seed, but with the league as spread thin as it is there have been many occasions where a 2 or 3-way tie has only come down to head-to-head matchup in determining seeding. It is not out of the realm of possibility that a 7 seed has the same conference record as a 6 or 5 seed but lost both of their singular matchups in a 15-team league (and consider the variables, were the games on the road? Were there injuries? etc). For example, in Kevin Keatts’ first season there was a 4-way tie for 3rd place and State was seeded 5th just outside the coveted double-bye spot. In fact, every year since Keatts has been coach there have been multiple ties, many of them between 3 or more teams. As razor-thin the margins are for making the NCAA, fixing this potential problem matters for the health of the league in this new college basketball landscape.
While I am not married to any potential solutions and welcome other ideas, I think there must be some greater considerations made regarding the faults of the ACC tournament and it hurting the ACC. One consideration includes eliminating the double bye for multiple teams which would create more quality matchups early on. Another could be re-seeding after each round, which could ensure a meaningless cinderella run by a lower double-digit seed doesn’t derail a bubble team. It’s a non-starter, but not allowing teams seeded 10-15 or so to compete would also help avoid non-quality games. On a separate note, with the ACC-SEC Challenge beginning, both leagues should work with ESPN to schedule teams strategically for resume building, especially after they already have determined their made-for-TV ratings matchups (i.e. get ready for UK to rotate between Duke, Chapel Hill, and UVA every season!).
In the final analysis, the ACC made a massive, if reactive, change to its conference schedule and postseason for football. It will only help the league’s viability in the long run (or at least extend its life for a bit longer). Basketball should do the same and be proactive, recognizing the more irrelevant the ACC basketball brand becomes the more it hurts its programs. TV contracts won’t change overnight to bring in more revenue…that’s a long-term goal… but getting more of its programs making deep runs in March, providing more reasons for casual fans to tune in to games, and enhancing the chances its soft middle have to be displayed when the most eyes are on college basketball should be a serious consideration moving forward.