An Email On The ACC Tournament

One of my Dave Sez readers sent in a lengthy and thoughtful email on the new structure of the ACC Tournament. His points center around how the new larger tournament makes it harder for all of the teams, including those at the top, to win. With more teams comes more likelihood for unexpected results, which is both good and bad. We like our tournaments to include some upsets, but we also like having a few established power programs. Will those powers be less dominant with more teams in the mix? And how will it affect mid-level programs and mid-level coaches that their chance of winning an occasional tournament has now dropped by about 33%?
I won’t chime in any more and let his words stand. Feel free to discuss in the comments.

We’ve heard a lot about how important it is to finish in the top four and avoid the dreaded “four game tournament” scenario, and rightly so. But broadening the field has another effect, one far less recognized: increasing the field increases the likelihood that some top seeds will be upset before the semifinals and finals. Everyone seems to be looking forward to Duke-UNC III, yet top seeds one through four will now face in some cases far stiffer, more motivated competition than they would have under the eight- nine-team format. Duke, for example, will face in its first game a team with a winning record, either Clemson or Miami, both of whom finished a game only a win away from a .500 finish in the league this year. Two years ago, Duke would have played the winner of the “play-in” game, Georgia Tech or Wake Forest, the dregs of the season. (Thirty years ago, in a seven team league, Duke would have received a bye to the semis!).
Perhaps the downside of playing better teams in the quarters will be countered by playing teams on one day’s rest. But it could mean instead that, in the quarters, the unexpected is more likely to occur than the expected. It may mean more memorable games in the early rounds, with early round “upsets,” and correspondingly less competitive games in the semis and finals and even lower seeds face the top seeds who get through. It means fewer heavyweight slugfests in the finals: a Duke-UNC rematch is perhaps more likely than any other pairing in the final this year, but it is less likely than it would have been a few years ago. It means a streak of championships like Duke’s recent run will become more difficult to accomplish. In other words, the ACC Tournament will feel the same effects – to a somewhat lesser degree – that the NCAA tournament experienced when it more than doubled its field size three decades ago.
Some might prefer a more wide-open tournament; indeed, interest in the NCAAs has certainly sky-rocketed since the field was expanded. But in the more regional ACC, I question whether too many semis and finals pitting high seeds vs. low seeds will be good for the league or its teams. Basically, the tourney needs competitive marquee games (i.e. UNC or Duke in the final more often than not, playing another high seed) to sustain national interest in the tournament and its reputation as the best of its kind. I have this nightmare of a BC vs. FSU final, played in a half empty Greensboro Coliseum. What an abominable shame that would be.
Proportionately, winning will be harder for everybody, of course. The Marylands, Georgia Techs, and NC States, who usually broke through every fifteen or twenty years will now find it even tougher to do so, (Virginia: from every fifty years to every… I don’t want to think about it.) Not good news for coaches of the mid-level powers who need to win a tournament every once in a while to save their jobs or build their programs. How might the fans of these schools view legacies of coaches like Driesell, Cremins, Valvano and Holland if they’d never won the ACC Tournament?
All this might not matter so much if the league didn’t crown the tourney winner as “conference champion.” The only way I see mitigating these effects would be to reshuffle the seeds after the first round. Have the top seed play the lowest remaining seed in the tournament in the quarters. I can’t imagine that will happen.
It seems to me the new super conference ACC is diminishing its most distinctive event. I predict we will look back on the seventies and eighties as the golden age of the ACC Tournament.

p.s. I should add that Caulton Tudor asks some of those same questions today, but for different reasons.

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