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AS ANOTHER COLLEGE BASKETBALL SEASON TIPS OFF, THE COLORFUL, HISTORIC, BASKETBALL-MAD Atlantic Coast Conference finds itself working on its transition game. Change is afoot. The alteration sure to produce the most aftershocks was last month's seismic announcement that ACC commissioner John Swofford had poached Syracuse and Pittsburgh from the Big East. Swofford's bold move was a preemptive strike amid NCAA instability. One thing the storied ACC knows is that when the outcome of the game is in doubt, you don't wait to see what the other team does. You gotta drive, man. The additions of Syracuse and Pitt, which are scheduled to compete in the ACC beginning in 2013--14, also allow the league to expand while ensuring that the words Atlantic Coast remain at least a reasonably proper descriptive. (Contrast that with the Big Ten, which has 12 teams; the Big 12, which has 10; and the Big East, which soon will have TCU.)
Even before the announced expansion the ACC was preparing to enter the 2011--12 basketball season in an unusual state of flux. Seven of the conference's 12 teams will be piloted by coaches who are in their first or second years on the job. The league that was once defined by fixtures such as Dean Smith (36 years at North Carolina), Lefty Driesell (17 years at Maryland), Norm Sloan (14 years at N.C. State) and Bobby Cremins (19 years at Georgia Tech) has now gotten to the point at which Tony Bennett, in his third year as the head coach at Virginia, is the fifth-longest-tenured coach in the league.
The new blood comes in various guises. At age 62 Jim Larranaga takes over at Miami, having abandoned the comfy confines of George Mason, where he enjoyed tenure, success and the fuzzy memories of a 2006 appearance in the Final Four. Mark Gottfried (whose most recent coaching gig was at Alabama in '09) gave up a cushy job as a broadcast analyst to give it the old college try again, at N.C. State. Brian Gregory (at Georgia Tech after leaving Dayton) and Mark Turgeon (at Maryland after departing Texas A&M) likewise left behind secure positions to come to this league. Why? Because this is still the ACC, the most prestigious and tradition-soaked college basketball conference in the land. That's one thing that has not changed.
Also unchanged, for the most part, is the dynamic in the standings. Once again it's North Carolina and Duke—and then, well, everybody else. The Tar Heels should be a consensus preseason No. 1 choice in the national rankings thanks to the decisions of Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller to return to school. (All would likely have been first-round NBA draft picks.) For fans in Chapel Hill, those unconventional choices are reminiscent of the summer of 2008, when Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green also bypassed the chance to turn pro. Their '08--09 season ended with an NCAA championship. No one will be surprised if Barnes and his teammates follow in their sneakersteps.
The faces won't be as familiar eight miles down Route 15-501, but that doesn't mean there's any panicking going on in Durham. The Blue Devils may have lost two keys to the 2010 championship—Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith—as well as point guard Kyrie Irving, who played just 11 games in a Duke uniform before leaving to become the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. But the Blue Devils are still the only team capable of challenging the Tar Heels for the crown. Duke has many questions, but coach Mike Krzyzewski has just as many potential answers. Those start with Austin Rivers, the 6' 4" guard from Florida (and son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers), who will once again give the Blue Devils the nation's most exciting freshman.
In the 58 years since the ACC was formed, Duke and North Carolina have failed to earn at least a tie for the regular-season crown just 14 times. It's unlikely that anyone will make it 15 in 2012, but if you're looking for candidates, you start with the more established coaches within the league. Florida State's Leonard Hamilton (10th season in Tallahassee) lost überdefender Chris Singleton from his Sweet 16 squad, but three other starters return, including all-conference candidate Michael Snaer. Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg (ninth season in Blacksburg) has enough skilled players to erase the memory of last year's injury-riddled season (not to mention the crushing disappointment of not making the NCAA tournament). At Virginia, Bennett should have his best team since he arrived in Charlottesville three years ago. (Then again, that's not saying much.)
Ironically, the addition of Syracuse and Pitt, a move made primarily for football reasons, will also make the ACC a much stronger and deeper basketball conference a few years hence. In the meantime the other schools are trying to get back to the more glorious days when they might place a half dozen or more teams (seven as recently as 2009) in the NCAA tournament. Last year the conference sent only four. "One thing we were able to do in the Big 12 was build depth to where we were getting six and seven teams into the tournament," says Turgeon, who was at A&M for four seasons. "With the coaches these schools have brought in, we think we can get to that point again in the ACC."
Until the NCAA tournament begins, the ACC's marquee moment will come in the first few weeks of the season. Krzyzewski enters the 2011--12 campaign with 900 wins, three away from passing his mentor, Bob Knight, as the NCAA's alltime winningest Division I coach. The man Coach K just overtook to get to the No. 2 spot: Dean Smith, who had held the record for 10 years and who retired with 879 victories. When the historic moment comes—possibly on Nov. 15, when Duke plays Michigan State at Madison Square Garden—it will be not just a celebration for the ACC but an affirmation as well. One of its own recently held this hallowed record, and now another will hold it for many years to come. With all the tumult shaking up college sports (and this conference) it's nice to know there are still some certainties.