CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The slogan plastered across the Atlantic Coast Conference’s signage read: “The Best Get Better.” And it seemed every coach and player who sat down for an interview pitched from the same talking points to that end.
The additions of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame will unequivocally make the league that grew up on basketball the nation’s best. And at least on paper, it’s hard to argue against it.
“For 60 years the ACC has been the best conference in college basketball,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “ There may have been a little lull where the Big East, the [SEC] or Big Ten -- I don’t see anybody being the best –- any better than us now. I don’t care what year it is.”
Duke was the overwhelming choice to win the conference by media attending today’s event. The Blue Devils garnered 50 first-place votes out of 54. Syracuse received three first-place votes and was picked second. North Carolina, which got one first place vote, was picked third.
Since 1997, there have only been three years when the Tar Heels or Blue Devils didn’t have at least a share of the ACC regular-season championship. The newcomers are expected to challenge the stranglehold UNC and Duke have had on the title.
“We’ll have instant rivalries,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It won’t take long to develop a Duke-Syracuse that’s why I think our conference is way ahead -- of anybody.”
At the very least, the newest league members should add needed depth after the ACC received only four NCAA tournament bids last season.
The league will have three active Hall of Fame coaches in Krzyzewski, Williams and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim -- and add a fourth next season when Rick Pitino and Louisville become a member.
Boeheim once voiced resistance to the move when talk of the Orange joining the ACC remained just talk. Now that Syracuse is in the league, he spoke like a longtime resident of Tobacco Road.
Boeheim said the transition from being a charter member of the Big East to the ACC wasn’t difficult because his former league changed so much. He pointed out the ACC now has more former Big East schools (including Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College) than the current Big East (Villanova, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Georgetown.)
“I mean, there’s a certain degree of nostalgia of being in that league because that’s where you worked 34 years,” Boeheim said. “But this is a better league.”
Boeheim pointed out that Syracuse has sold more than 20,000 season tickets, which has already surpassed last season’s total of about 15,000. Duke’s visit to the Carrier Dome on Feb. 1 is already sold out and the North Carolina game on Jan. 11 isn’t far behind.
“The only thing our fans will miss,” Boeheim said, “is the Big East tournament.”
Many players hate that Maryland is playing in its final season before joining the Big Ten, but it has nothing to do with the Terrapins being an ACC charter member or the tradition it’s had in the league. The Maryland/Washington, D.C. area has produced a lot of players who were looking forward to coming home to College Park. “It still feels weird to think about they’re not going to be there,” said Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins, a Columbia, Md., native. “The only thing I think about is beating them, actually. That’s the only thing I can think about. I’m really looking forward to that Jan. 15 game.” Pitt forward Talib Zanna said facing Maryland was what excited him most about joining the league. “I know a lot of people when you don’t say Duke or North Carolina they look at you like you’re crazy,” Zanna said. “Duke and North Carolina have a lot of history, they win a lot of games but I’m looking up to playing Maryland just because that’s where I grew up. I just want to play in the arena.”
The ACC will have its share of impact transfers this season, including Duke’s Rodney Hood, who came from Mississippi State; Virginia’s Anthony Gill, who came from South Carolina; and Maryland’s Evan Smotrycz, who played at Michigan. Hood thinks it is a trend that will only increase. “Other than the money, it does feel like free agency,” Hood said. “Guys transfer for different reasons. I’m sure mine was different than a lot of other guys. I really like the school I was at and made a basketball decision.”
Syracuse senior forward C.J. Fair was selected the ACC preseason Player of the Year by the media. Fair was the leading scorer for the Orange last season, but it’s his leadership role that will have to expand this season after the departures of Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche. “It’s something I haven’t experienced since high school,” Fair said. “Not so much to carry the team, but lead the team.”