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How to change the ACC Tournament

Between having to figure out 18 teams and getting help with the NET, it’s time to borrow some ideas.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Pittsburgh vs Boston College Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The current ACC Tournament is a slog.

With each round of expansion, the ACC has held true to their roots by making sure that every team plays in the conference tournament. That’s turned the current 15-team incarnation into a five day monstrosity, where the really fun games don’t tend to happen until day three. The dregs of the conference have to fight it out amongst themselves while the top teams cool their heels, and one team usually can get some momentum going before petering out.

There’s also a conference NET issue — although one could argue it’s more of a perception issue because the conference is limited to only ESPN, while others spread their games out amongst multiple networks. They are also so big that if the bottom of the conference is really bad, a team just can’t take advantage of the schedule.

Now, let’s add three teams to the mix in Stanford, Cal, and SMU and you have the added component of how to incorporate those additional teams while not putting a ridiculous travel burden for schools.

So you have a conference with no buzz, a bunch of teams that are just playing out the string by the time the calendar turns to February, and the prospect of a conference tournament that has to figure out how to handle 18 teams. How do you solve all of these problems?

The answer is simple: split the tournament up.

The Proposal

The ACC should adopt a setup similar to what you see in the ACC Baseball Championship, the NBA In-Season Tournament and the FIFA World Cup. You take your schools and divide them up into pools. The winner of each pool moves into the ACC Tournament Championship.

With 18 schools, this idea works easily. You will have six pools of three teams each. Much like the ACC Baseball Championship, the leader of each pool has an inherent advantage: they can go 1-1 and still and still advance, but each team in the pool will have a shot to make the final six. Then, you play the final six tournament-style, with the top two teams getting a bye into the Friday Semifinals. The winner of those games play on Saturday night for the championship and the automatic bid.

So, you may ask, how do you space out this ridiculous amount of games? You schedule pool play for the first week of February. Then, you’re going to know with about a month left in the conference season who’ll play for the ACC Championship. If you don’t advance, you’ll know for sure that you have one month left to make your mark with no hope of an automatic bid.

The Structure

Keep in mind these are going to still count as conference games. You create your conference schedule so that each team has played their first nine conference games by the NFL’s Conference Championship weekend, the last of those games being the Saturday before. You seed the team based on conference records, with ties broken first by any head-to-head wins and the “mini-conference” set up used for the ACC Tournament seedings, then you use the NET.

For example, let’s say Virginia and Duke are in a tie for third. They’ve already played, with Duke winning, Duke gets the third seed and Virginia gets the fourth. If they haven’t played, or if by some quirk they’ve already played twice, you look at the NET to see that Virginia is 48 and Duke is 18, so Virginia gets the four seed and Duke gets the three.

As for how the pools would look, look to the ACC Baseball for the answer:

There’s incentive to finish as high as possible, as the reward for being a top six seed is facing the lowest seeds possible. Each pool provides three games, and you set it up to where the lower seed games play first, and you build to where the high seeds play all their second game on Saturday. You may still end up with a few high seeds playing a “meaningless” game as a lower squad has gone 2-0, but as the games are still conference games and count in the standings, they still have meaning.

The games will occur at three neutral sites across the country, with the highest seed getting their pick of sites, the next highest getting the next and so on. You spread it out from Monday through Thursday, three games a night, and structure it such that no team has to play back-to-back. It would look like this:

Finally, the seeds in the championship are determined by ACC regular season finish. Thus you could be a one seed in February, but if you struggle in the second half you could fall into the play-in structure. This gives motivation for all six teams to continue to build their resume and win as they try to earn that bye.

The Benefits

  • Every team in the conference is guaranteed a shot at making the championship, but excellence in the conference is rewarded
  • No team will ever have to win five games in five days to try and take home the title
  • The conference now gets to seek out at least four neutral sites for the tournament instead of one, increasing revenue for all teams as arenas will seek having six extra games in the middle of the season
  • As all of the games are on neutral courts, each team’s NET is helped as neutral court wins and losses are in different quadrants than home and road games
  • The midseason pool play increases the importance of early season conference games, adding excitement to try and get the best seed possible early
  • The rush as the six winners jockey for seeding in the championship will create excitement as college basketball ramps up
  • The ACC Championship in March is much smaller, with only six schools, creating a bigger event feel vital for its television partners
  • Meanwhile, teams that qualify for the championship will never have to play more than three games, and each will get at least four days rest prior to their first game in that championship.
  • You increase the likelihood that teams that compete in the March championship get at least one, if not three, Quad 1 games to boost their resume for seeding or to get in.
  • Travel is easier in this model: The lowest teams know they are done playing after the midweek, the middle seeds can travel home after their first games knowing they’ll play Saturday, and the high seeds can arrive later. In March, only six teams have to travel to the final site.
  • The ACC can alleviate concerns about repeat matchups by having a flex week near the end of the season where the schedule is set based on teams that haven’t faced off yet, and that can be determined as soon as pool play is set.

An Example based on 2023 records

Let’s go ahead and see how this would look based on games played after this past Saturday, January 27th, because most teams had played their ninth game by this point and you can make your plans appropriately.

First the conference standings and the ACC Net:

For this exercise we’ll give a win to Duke, Clemson, and Wake since they’ve had their off week.

We also have to account for Cal, Stanford, and SMU.

And their NET:

For the final adjustment, we’ll give SMU three wins to bring them up to 7-2—as they currently have a high NET it’s not that much of a stretch. Since Stanford, Cal, and SMU haven’t played yet we’ll just use the NET in this exercise for them.

Here are the Pools:

And here’s how the games could, conceivably, look:

Obviously days could be flip-flopped as long as no team plays back-to-back nights, but the set up here rewards the teams that have done well in the first part of the season. Middle seeds will get a long break for sure, but this is good NCAA prep for higher seeds that will have to know what it’s like to ready for a team in the same site on a short turnaround.

Conclusion

An 18 team ACC is going to force some radical solutions, and rather than trying to cut teams from making the tournament in March and creating the usual slog, the midseason pool play allows for some excitement to be built into the league and significantly increases the quality of the play in the championship.

Here’s hoping the ACC considers it. What do you think? Use the comments below to leave opinions.