ACC men’s basketball coaches reject narrative of conference decline


AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Pitt’s Mouhamadou Gueye, left, grabs a rebound in front of Louisville’s Matt Cross (33) during the second half of a men’s basketball game on Saturday, Jan. 15 in Pittsburgh.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey, his words dripping in sarcasm, bemoaned the lack of respect the Atlantic Coast Conference gets in the world of men’s college basketball during Monday’s head coaches conference call.

“Am I back in the America East?” the former Delaware head coach said. “Is this a one-bid league?”

The statement, delivered by one of the ACC’s longest-tenured coaches, was dismissive of what he thinks is a tired narrative — that the conference his Fighting Irish play in is “down” and has been now for a few years.

Even though Brey and his counterparts laughed it off on Monday, the “down” label assigned this season to the ACC could have some tangible consequences by the time the regular season ends. ESPN bracket guru Joe Lunardi predicts right now that just five ACC teams will make the NCAA Tournament field, the second lowest total of any major conference.

In any of the exhaustive men’s college basketball rankings out there — KenPom, T-Rank, NCAA NET, BPI, RPI, among many others — it’s undeniable that the ACC does not look good on paper.

Duke rests in a familiar spot — anywhere between No. 10 and 15 in most overall rankings which more or less aligns with its No. 9 ranking in the latest AP Top-25. But if you want to find the next highest-rated team from the ACC, you have to slide down about 20 spots to Wake Forest, who floats around the No. 35 to 40 positions in overall efficiency.

Florida State and Miami — the league’s current frontrunners — currently sit at No. 55 and 62 in the KenPom rankings. Notre Dame, who entered this week tied with Duke for second, is rated the nation’s 57th-best team.

ACC squads have won four of the last 10 national titles, and, as recently as 2019, the ACC sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament as the top seeds in their regions. Beyond the modern success, there is a rich history of dominance on the hardwood that made this league into one of the best in men’s college basketball.

So what is behind this perceived decline in conference fortitude? If you ask the conference’s head coaches, whatever struggles that exist are nothing more than a changing of the guard.

Leonard Hamilton, head coach of a Florida State team that has vaulted to the top of league standings after underwhelming non-conference results, said Monday that he thinks this is more of a lull than a drop-off for the ACC as a whole.

Hamilton is one of the conference’s veterans. Through 20 years on the job, he’s seen the conference pecking order fluctuate wildly.

During his now two-decade-long tenure, Duke and North Carolina have mostly lived up to their billing as league bullies, but over the past decade challengers have toppled them often.

Hamilton’s Seminoles won a conference tournament title in 2012 and have finished with a winning record against ACC opponents in all but two of the past 13 seasons while consistently finishing near the top of the standings. Virginia, Miami, Notre Dame and even Georgia Tech have all won the ACC Tournament at least once in the past decade.

With an indirect reference to recent struggles at North Carolina and Duke, the ACC’s flagship programs, Hamilton claimed that national perception is unjustly skewed because the traditional powers have not dominated.

“I think that we have become accustomed to the same teams being at the top,” Hamilton said. “And it’s taken a while for everyone to adjust, even the national media. … The perception is that if the top two teams that have traditionally been at the top are not at the top, then there’s something wrong with the league and that’s not true.”

Pitt head coach Jeff Capel concurred with Hamilton. He added that player turnover has contributed to the tight mid-conference standings. Capel expects that as teams begin to gel, the quality of play will rise.

“I think the league is a very tough league,” Capel said. “We may not have the star power across the league that we’ve had in the past, but there are really good players. And I think that teams are emerging. We have a lot of new guys, whether it’s transfers or guys that were sitting out. So sometimes it takes them a while to find the rhythm of college basketball.”

Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner — who has a reputation for being relentlessly complimentary about his team and opponents — thinks that the ACC’s poor reputation is manufactured by those who don’t actually follow the conference closely. He claimed that the success of the traditional powers is what drives perception.

“People get so fixated on Duke and Carolina,” Pastner said. “If those two aren’t going undefeated in the league every year, they think there’s a problem. No, the league is really good. … Anyone who says otherwise is not watching ACC basketball.”

But this is what makes evaluating the strength of a conference so difficult — the same facts can yield wildly different narratives. Conference parity is either a sign that good teams are cannibalizing each other or evidence that no one is good enough to separate themselves from a mediocre middle — it all depends upon who you ask.

In either case, parity leaves you with little more than an indistinguishable pile of near-.500 records — a bunch of puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit together. It’s an exercise that is not fully complete until the dust settles on a long season, according to Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga.

“The ACC regular is a marathon, not a sprint,” Larrañaga said. “So there are a lot of ups and downs. You have to overcome a lot of adversity over the course of a season.”

Duke’s pretty good and Boston College is not, that much is clear for now. But aside from the ceiling and the cellar, consensus on the conference hierarchy is hard to come by.

Florida State just handed the Blue Devils their second loss in four games to an unranked opponent last Wednesday. Notre Dame — the same team that lost by 18 to now-last place Boston College — is half a game back of the leaders. Miami, picked 12th in the preseason poll, is tied for first place. Preseason No. 13 Wake Forest has the most wins in conference of any ACC team.

With roughly six weeks left until the end of the regular season, it’s tough to make anything definitive of this mess of conference play. Is no one good or is everyone good? Because the rest of the season consists only of conference games, whatever narrative one chooses to run with will be self-fulfilling.

But the coaches remain unfazed. Larrañaga is certain that when it matters most, the ACC will begin to resemble its dominant form of the past. 

“Yeah, we lose games,” Larrañaga said. “But I think when it’s all said and done, come March when the Big Dance begins, there’s going to be a bunch of ACC teams in there and ACC teams winning a lot of games.”