ACC men's basketball is enduring one of its worst seasons in decades. How did it get here?

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Whether it was an extra cup of coffee that morning or just the eternal optimism he perpetually exudes, Josh Pastner joined the ACC men’s basketball coaches teleconference on Jan. 17 with a certain zeal.

Before even being asked a question, the sixth-year Georgia Tech coach, unprompted, launched into a two-minute defense of his conference. At first, he heaped praise upon North Carolina, which had beaten his Yellow Jackets by 23 two days earlier and caused Pastner enough stress that a pimple had emerged above his left eyebrow. As he continued, his soliloquy extended to the rest of the ACC, which Pastner viewed as the subject of unwarranted criticism.

“People want to talk about the ACC being down. I think that’s crazy,” Pastner said. “The ACC is really good. There are so many great teams top to bottom. The amount of great coaches in this league and great players ... the league for some reason, people are attacking it this year. It’s ridiculous. Duke and North Carolina can win the national championship. They’re good enough to win the whole entire thing. They both might be in the Final Four.”

Fewer than 36 hours after Pastner’s plaudits, North Carolina was blown out by Miami, 85-57, handing the Tar Heels their most lopsided loss in conference play in 10 years.

For the league, it was a snapshot of what has been an uncharacteristically poor year.

A conference that’s home to four of the 10 winningest programs in men’s college basketball history and a combined 18 national championships between its members has attracted a growing number of critics lately to whom coaches like Pastner have had to answer. For 11 consecutive weeks, Duke has been the ACC’s lone team ranked in the Associated Press poll. An NCAA tournament bracket projection from ESPN on Friday featured just four ACC teams, which would be the conference’s lowest mark since 2013, when it had three fewer members than it does now. The number of top-100 recruits joining the conference and NBA draft picks leaving it has waned in recent years.

Those relative struggles raise larger questions about a pillar of the sport that has historically been above blistering critiques. Between an underwhelming present and an uncertain future, with so many of the conference’s coaching luminaries at or near the end of their careers, the ACC is in an unsettling and unfamiliar position.

“It’s a little bit of everything, but I also think it’s cyclical,” said ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg, a former coach in the conference at Virginia Tech. “This is an abnormality. You had some things that were out of the ordinary for sure for this conference. But it can’t happen two years in a row.”

It’s not necessarily an isolated, one-year occurrence in which seemingly everything that could have gone wrong for the ACC has. This season, though, the dip has been especially pronounced.

Entering the weekend, Duke was the lone ACC program ranked among the top 30 teams on KenPom.com. None of the sport’s five other major conferences had fewer than three teams in the top 30. Of the league’s four projected NCAA tournament inclusions as of Friday, three were slotted as a No. 10 seed or lower by BracketMatrix.com, making an already low figure that much more tenuous. In non-conference play, the way by which the relative strengths of leagues is often measured, ACC teams went 18-30 against major-conference opponents this season (a win percentage of 0.375) after going 23-26 (0.469) during the 2019-20 regular season and 30-25 (0.545) in 2018-19.

“I know we’ve gotten a little bit of a knock. Are we a one-bid league this year? Am I in the America East? I’ve heard so much about our league being down that I’m like, ‘Am I back in the America East?’” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said sarcastically. “C’mon, now. I know the outside, ‘Well, they don’t have one seeds.’ All I know is the 15 guys coaching in this league, we know how hard this is.”

The question of how the league got here comes with an array of answers, many of which intersect to paint a larger, disheartening picture.

Some of the conference’s problems are perceptual. While Duke has been a top-10 team throughout the season, many of the ACC’s other preeminent programs have fallen short of their lofty reputations.

Barring a miraculous late-season push, Louisville will miss the NCAA tournament for the third time in four attempts after making the field in 13 of the previous 15 seasons (and one of those years it missed was due to a self-imposed postseason ban). Three years after winning a national championship, Virginia is on pace for its fewest regular season wins since 2010-11. After going 32-30 the previous two seasons, North Carolina has shown improvement this year, but has been trounced in many of its bigger games. At 10-11 entering the week, Syracuse was off to its worst 21-game start since the 1968-69 season. In recent years, unexpected NCAA tournament runs masked steps the Orange had taken back since coming over from the Big East. This year, it doesn’t appear as though even that will be possible.

“I think what has happened is we have become accustomed to the same teams over the years being on top,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “That’s no longer the case.”

The ACC has also experienced a rather uninspired stretch of coaching hires. Over the past 10 offseason hiring cycles, there have been 13 coaching changes in the ACC. Only two of those coaches won or have won at least 60% of their games at their school.

And yet the coaches roaming the sidelines don’t mean nearly as much as the players taking the court.

“It’s huge, but that’s the chicken, not the egg. The egg is the recruiting,” said Mike DeCourcy, a longtime college basketball writer for The Sporting News. “The egg is the level of talent that’s in the league and how they came to have that issue.”

Even in recent years, the ACC was a haven for NBA talent, accounting for a record 10 first-round NBA draft picks in 2017 and six of the first 11 picks in the 2019 draft.

Last year, however, just seven ACC players were drafted, the league’s lowest mark since it moved to its current 15-member configuration in 2014. No first- or second-team All-ACC selections last season were among the draft’s 60 picks. ESPN’s most recent 2022 mock draft includes only six ACC players, five of whom are from Duke.

That lack of output to the NBA can be tied to a decline in high school recruiting. ACC programs landed 16 of 247 Sports’ top 100 recruits in the 2021 class, the lowest figure under the league’s existing membership structure. In the previous five classes, the ACC brought in an average of 20.6 top-100 prospects. Additionally, the conference had only two members secure top-15 recruiting hauls in each of the past two classes after averaging 3.8 in the six years prior.

The league fell short in the transfer portal last offseason, as well, landing only five of the top 50 available transfers, as ranked by Stadium. It lost more talent than it brought in, as seven of those 50 players were leaving ACC programs.

“College basketball and the culture of college basketball is changing,” Greenberg said. “It changed drastically, let’s face it, last spring when super seniors and the emergence of the transfer portal in terms of immediate eligibility. I don’t think the league did a great job. The schools that did a good job with it are the ones we’re talking about.”

As the ACC has slid, the SEC — the major conference with which it has a sizable geographic overlap — has risen, with five teams in the top 20 on KenPom entering the week. Some in the sport believe the fates of the leagues are intertwined.

Once dismissed as purely a football conference, the SEC has seen many of its members devote more of their vast resources — 10 of the top 25 Power Five schools in revenue during the 2019-20 academic year were from the SEC — to basketball. The men’s basketball budgets of seven of the SEC’s 14 members increased by at least 40% from 2014-15 to 2019-20, according to Department of Education data.

With many schools located in talent-rich areas, that investment has led to recruiting success. Over the past three classes, SEC programs combined to get 21.3 top-100 recruits, up from the 17.6 they averaged in the eight years before that. In contrast to the ACC, the SEC got 18 of the top 50 transfers, a number of whom are now key contributors for ranked teams.

The current rut, of course, doesn’t signal the end of a storied conference.

For all of the SEC’s football riches, the ACC is still home to three of the top five and five of the top 20 schools in men’s basketball spending. Even with recent stumbles, four of 247’s top 15 recruiting classes for next season are from the ACC. Many people interviewed for this story praised the potential impact of new ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, with Greenberg believing the conference “hit a home run.”

Ultimately, in a football-dominated landscape, it’s still a tradition-rich league in which many of its members prioritize basketball.

“If you have a low benchmark, then you’re doing pretty good. But this league has always had a really high benchmark,” said Paul Brazeau, the ACC’s senior associate commissioner for men’s basketball. “If you want to look at it that way, sure, you can be down. The New England Patriots, they only made it to the first round of the playoffs this year and it’s, ‘Oh, the Patriots are struggling.’ It’s the same with the Steelers. Those two teams have been in the playoffs every time you think about it. But times change. Things change, but the foundations are really, really strong in this conference in men’s basketball.”

Still, it’s a league in transition in its most important and visible positions. For all the promise of a new day, there’s also the gripping uncertainty of what it might (or might not) bring.

Roy Williams retired last year at North Carolina after winning three national titles and 903 games over the course of a decorated career. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, the all-time wins leader in men’s college basketball and the owner of five NCAA championship rings, is retiring after this season. Many of the ACC’s other top coaches are approaching or are already at an age when many of their peers retire — Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (77 years old), Florida State’s Hamilton (73), Miami’s Jim Larranaga (72) and even Notre Dame’s Brey (who will turn 63 in March), all of whom are among the 100 winningest Division I coaches ever.

“The concern is making sure all of them are replaced not adequately, but brilliantly, perfectly,” DeCourcy said.

Succeeding a program stalwart certainly isn’t impossible, but it’s a wildly difficult chore, as a number of ACC programs can attest. Last week, Louisville parted ways with Chris Mack, a universally praised hire in 2018 who had a disappointing four-year run trying to replace Rick Pitino. After making 13 of 15 NCAA tournaments from 2002-16, Pitt entered the week with a 72-102 record since coach Jamie Dixon left for TCU in 2016.

But for the man at the center of the highest-profile coaching transition in almost 50 years, the figure perhaps most synonymous with the conference throughout its 69-year history, there’s hope, not fear, about what awaits in his absence.

“This has been a championship-level conference,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ll see how it works out this year. But I don’t have any bad feelings about the future for our conference.”
I think the ACC may be a victim of their own success. They are in the process of changing of the Guard (UNC & Duke) two fixtures of success. The ACC's ability to maintain such a high degree of excellence for so long only magnifies an off year. Duke is still really good. UNC isn't great, but still good and FSU would be very good if not racked with injuries.
 

Noahtogo24

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I think the ACC may be a victim of their own success. They are in the process of changing of the Guard (UNC & Duke) two fixtures of success. The ACC's ability to maintain such a high degree of excellence for so long only magnifies an off year. Duke is still really good. UNC isn't great, but still good and FSU would be very good if not rack with injuries.
Going to be really interesting after Larranga , Hamilton and Brey retires , how those schools do on the next head coach search. And of course UL this year as well .
 

Steelers2012

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We’re (Louisville) BACK BABY! Ok…so not back, but we have a pulse. Ok…not really a pulse, but a hint of brain activity. Ok…maybe no actual brain activity, but….meh…never mind. But we DID finally break a 7 game losing streak. L-Yeah!
 

GE Nole

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Be as it may, the ACC is still the king this century. Look at the natty count since 2000. They aren’t going away, just down the last year or two or three. Seems like since 2019’s UVA team it’s declined annually. They’ll be back up there in no time.

big 12 trying to take that king’s chair lately but will take a couple more KU and / or Baylor titles to compete.

And really it’s just the last 2 years. 2020 the league had several legit Final Four contenders.
 
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AWilli6995

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Florida x 2 and Arkansas have the only titles other than UK in the modern era. The ACC sucks ass now but it's been the best league overall in everyone's lifetime that post here. The only way the SEC will be better is if they expand to 30+ teams but that's not a guarantee either.
 

dukedevilz

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Just noticed that Duke actually has the best Quad 1 record in the country (5-1).

Not saying we're going to win it all; you have to be incredibly consistent and have a little bit of luck. But, it would be kind of funny if the ACC claimed a national title in arguably its worst season ever.
 

jhmossy

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Just noticed that Duke actually has the best Quad 1 record in the country (5-1).

Not saying we're going to win it all; you have to be incredibly consistent and have a little bit of luck. But, it would be kind of funny if the ACC claimed a national title in arguably its worst season ever.

Especially if it's not Duke
 

RR30

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Just noticed that Duke actually has the best Quad 1 record in the country (5-1).

Not saying we're going to win it all; you have to be incredibly consistent and have a little bit of luck. But, it would be kind of funny if the ACC claimed a national title in arguably its worst season ever.

Florida state national Champs
 
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johnl1219

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Going to be really interesting after Larranga , Hamilton and Brey retires , how those schools do on the next head coach search. And of course UL this year as well .

Don't forget Jim Boeheim (77 years old), he's older than Larranaga (72 years old), Hamilton (73 years old) and Brey (62 years old). The ACC will see some new faces once they all retire. That's a lot of change not long after Roy and K were/are done. That's 6 new coaches in a short period of time.
 
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EvilMonkeyInTheCloset

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It's simple. The usual powers are down, and no one else in the league is filling that void. Coaching issues/changes are a big reason why. Is Wake Forest any good?
That's what happens when your conference gets top heavy with NBA talent.

The kids stop going to the bottom half.

Then you get all the things mentioned above, and while you're seeing more fight from these other schools, its really more about the upper half regressing to the mean than the bottom half rising..............


Certain football programs could learn a thing or two about how to keep their conference from ending up like the ACC...........just sayin.
 

EvilMonkeyInTheCloset

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Btw, it just occurred to me that a prime comparison for this situation would be the Pac 12 conference.

For years it was dominated by USC and Oregon, and occasionally Stanford before they began to regress. Once those programs went through all the turnover that they did, it eventually caught up with the conference as a whole.

It's been nice for several other schools who have had to play second or fourth fiddle to these former powers, but it's also come at the expense of the health of the league as the Pac 12 is pretty much regarded as the weakest of the P5 at this point, with the ACC and the Big 12 not far behind.

And both of those conferences have also been handicapped for years being dominated by one or two teams.
 

dukedevilz

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Btw, it just occurred to me that a prime comparison for this situation would be the Pac 12 conference.

For years it was dominated by USC and Oregon, and occasionally Stanford before they began to regress. Once those programs went through all the turnover that they did, it eventually caught up with the conference as a whole.

It's been nice for several other schools who have had to play second or fourth fiddle to these former powers, but it's also come at the expense of the health of the league as the Pac 12 is pretty much regarded as the weakest of the P5 at this point, with the ACC and the Big 12 not far behind.

And both of those conferences have also been handicapped for years being dominated by one or two teams.

You're obviously talking about football. But, it doesn't seem like a very sensible argument. Has anyone dominated a power conference in football more than Alabama? The SEC is done just fine. Every school operates independently.
 

EvilMonkeyInTheCloset

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You're obviously talking about football. But, it doesn't seem like a very sensible argument. Has anyone dominated a power conference in football more than Alabama? The SEC is done just fine. Every school operates independently.
The SEC and the Big Ten are different.

Also, Bama has had its share of in-conference competition over the years.

I also don't want to defend Bama and the SEC too much, but you look at the last few years and there's been 3 different national champions from the SEC.

The conference should be fine when Saban retires.......but I only say should.

I also wanted to point out that those two (ACC and Pac 12) are cautionary tales about letting your conference get dominated by select teams for years or decades, only for the other shoe to finally drop like we're seeing with the ACC.

The Big Ten in football is probably the most at risk to be the next to plummet if they keep pandering to Ohio State, and by association, their main rivals, once their shoe (no pun intended) finally drops and OSU finally has a downward trend like they went through for stretches in the 80s, 90s and scattered sparingly in the 2000s.

I also hate saying this, but if you want the best example of how to overcome your conference being dominated by one team for over a decade, look no further than the Big 12 in basketball.

(don't let ExitFlagger see this post........)
 

dukedevilz

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I also hate saying this, but if you want the best example of how to overcome your conference being dominated by one team for over a decade, look no further than the Big 12 in basketball.

Even before Kansas lost their string of 14 consecutive conference titles (last season being 2018), the conference was rated #1 by KenPom in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. The shift didn't happen in 2019.

I also don't want to defend Bama and the SEC too much, but you look at the last few years and there's been 3 different national champions from the SEC.

Yes, and that kind of validates my point. There's been 3 different national champions from that conference. And Bama has won 8 of the last 13 SEC championships. They've also played in the national title game in 9 of the past 13 years. Their dominance isn't limiting the likes of LSU, Georgia, and Auburn from competing for titles. Bama is dominant, and so is the SEC. One team isn't going to steamroll and crush the souls of everybody else. Every school operates independently.
 

Bert Higginbotha

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Don't forget Jim Boeheim (77 years old), he's older than Larranaga (72 years old), Hamilton (73 years old) and Brey (62 years old). The ACC will see some new faces once they all retire. That's a lot of change not long after Roy and K were/are done. That's 6 new coaches in a short period of time.
I personally know Coach Hamilton, my friend Joe B. Hall hired him at UK because of his class. He is of the first order, pure and simple.

I did not know that he was only two years behind me. May God bless his good soul.

What a man.
 

EvilMonkeyInTheCloset

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Even before Kansas lost their string of 14 consecutive conference titles (last season being 2018), the conference was rated #1 by KenPom in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. The shift didn't happen in 2019.



Yes, and that kind of validates my point. There's been 3 different national champions from that conference. And Bama has won 8 of the last 13 SEC championships. They've also played in the national title game in 9 of the past 13 years. Their dominance isn't limiting the likes of LSU, Georgia, and Auburn from competing for titles. Bama is dominant, and so is the SEC. One team isn't going to steamroll and crush the souls of everybody else. Every school operates independently.
Not all conferences are the same though.

And the counter-argument to the SEC is the fact that there is a clear distinction of haves and have nots, despite the success of programs like Auburn, Georgia and LSU.
 
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johnl1219

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I personally know Coach Hamilton, my friend Joe B. Hall hired him at UK because of his class. He is of the first order, pure and simple.

I did not know that he was only two years behind me. May God bless his good soul.

What a man.

I would agree, Hamilton appears to be a great man. I didn't realize he was that old until a heard an announcer say it during one of their games. I thought, how the heck is he that old? He looks good and actually has had strong teams the past few years. Appears as though he's getting better with age.
 
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Bert Higginbotha

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I would agree, Hamilton appears to be a great man. I didn't realize he was that old until a heard an announcer say it during one of their games. I thought, how the heck is he that old? He looks good and actually has had strong teams the past few years. Appears as though he's getting better with age.
Plus when I first met him he could good bear hunting with a small stick and you would feel sorry for the bear. ;)
 

dukedevilz

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FM0MoRFXsAUBVmN



Maybe Louisville needs to name a few plays after a dog of their own.
 
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