For two years in a row, the ACC only received five bids to the NCAA Tournament.
There are fifteen teams in the ACC, yet only five teams were deemed worthy of getting invites into the big event. Last season, Wake Forest felt they had a real argument to be included. This season, both Clemson and UNC felt like they had a real case to be invited. In both seasons, the perception of the ACC was such that it was a pretty weak conference and that perception had been locked in stone once conference play began.
To some extent, perception is reality. The ACC didn’t really distinguish itself in the non-conference season, and when you look at the NET rankings—as flawed as those rankings are—the conference had six teams ranked at 100 and below. By comparison, the American had a similar makeup, the Atlantic 10 didn’t have anyone in the 300’s, everyone in the Big 12 was under 100, one team in the Big East was in the 200s, and 13 of the 14 teams in the Big 10 were under 100. I could keep going, but you get the idea.
That’s where the scheduling comes in. Once teams are essentially “locked” into where they are after a non-conference slate, they start playing each other and there is very little room to change how a conference is perceived. If you have a conference where everyone has at least one game against a 200/300 team versus a conference where almost everyone is sub-100, then they are going to look better in the metrics. When you play 20 conference games, that just increases the chances that you are going to get lower NET teams on your record, and it decreases the chances you have to add higher ranked non-conference games to your slate.
Jim Phillips seems to recognize this. Last week, he talked with ESPN’s Andrea Adelson about the lack of bids for the ACC despite the conference’s success in the NCAA tournament. Despite five bids, the ACC got two teams into the Final Four last season, and this year, despite the high-profile loss by Virginia, they have another team who advanced to the Final Four in Miami. He characterized it as a “perception problem,” which is of course half-true. Perception was reality as only a couple of squads had highly-rated out of conference schedules, but also, once the ACC was perceived as being down, that perception stuck due to multiple factors.
The biggest factor? Scheduling.
Phillips, being a good commissioner and not calling out the clubs for their lack of non-conference success, is addressing that by calling out the fact that he thinks a 20-game conference schedule just isn’t going to do it anymore. While he isn’t saying the conference should be directly trying to fix their perception in the NET, it’s pretty likely that by going with fewer than 20 games, it opens up teams to once again schedule more higher-profile non-conference games that will help the perception of the league.
How to do that will be the interesting question.
The fix shouldn’t just be “Schedule less conference games,” but work to increase the profile of the conference with the increased number of non-conference games. First off, there needs to be a system to enhance the teams that have done well in the non-conference games and further help them when conference play starts. Trying to base that on pre-season expectations is tricky, as you look no further than how UNC did in reality versus what what expected. The transfer portal and the complete overhaul teams have make it even more tricky.
The opportunity is there to to add some flexibility to the schedule and create some marquee matchups late in the season. Perhaps it’s as simple as leaving a schedule contest for each team on certain dates but having those matchups be determined in January based on how they are looking after the non-conference. It could be as complex as keeping the entire conference slate open save for a few games and building the whole schedule based on how strong each team is. You could even create “tiers” of teams, and have each of those tiers complete in a round-robin, where they finally meet up in the ACC Tournament. No matter what, the old system just isn’t going to work.
There’s another component, though, which is trimming back at least two games opens the team up to more high-profile non-conference games. Whatever is decided, there needs to be an understanding that this flexibility should result in more neutral-court contests, which come with a greater chance of Quadrant 1 games, as well as more revenue as neutral court events can be sold to anyone instead of being the property of the network of the home team. Why is this important?
When was the last time you saw an ACC team on CBS or Fox after December?
With the conference’s move to all ESPN a couple seasons ago, the occasional Saturday afternoon game that would appear on the network that actually shows the NCAA Tournament disappeared. ESPN keeps all of their conference games on their cable platforms, never once moving one of the games to compete with Fox or CBS on a Saturday afternoon. That’s a problem when two of the other mega conferences will put those games on broadcast TV, a medium that is increasingly important in the age of cord-cutting. Neutral court contests don’t have a TV home, and can go up for bids to anyone who needs program filler during a time when football games are becoming more scarce.
The ACC should be proactive about reaching out to other conferences that don’t have cross-conference matchups and seeing if they would be willing to participate in one in early February. Would the Mountain West, Big East, Big XII, and so on, want to make a late-season statement by competing against the ACC in a series of neutral court events? You can have play it on two courts: one east, one west, and do two games a day at each location. It would be a revenue driver and a way to change any early-season perceptions about the league. Granted, it won’t be a big revenue driver, but if some schools can pocket some extra money during the season, every little bit helps.
The ACC has an opportunity here to get really creative, and everyone who cares about basketball hopes they take advantage of it. Considering the urgency Phillips seems to place on the subject, expect next year’s conference and non-conference schedule to look quite different.