Big East vs. ACC
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by Matt Casey
Time for the world’s greatest appetizer: The conference tourneys. As usual, the Big East and ACC have distinguished themselves as the top two leagues in all of college basketball. And their respective tournaments will no doubt provide extensive drama and theater over the course of this week.
But which tournament is better? For the verdict on this battle, let’s go ringside:
ROUND 1: Recent History – Sorry for anyone ready to get nostalgic, but we’re not traveling past the last 15 years or so. Duke and Carolina have met five times in the finals since 1990, but never really produced a dramatic game. Through Duke’s tourney dynasty (five in a row from ’99 through ’03), the title games were ho-hum. Last year was thrilling as Maryland ended the run in overtime, beating the top three seeds along the way. 2001 had another Duke-Maryland classic, with Nate James’ tip-in providing the final margin. But even that game still would be hard-pressed to match 1995’s final, when Randolph Childress turned in one of the greatest three-day performances in college hoops history, finishing with 107 total points that included 23 treys.
The best Big East moment came in ’96 when Iverson and G’Town went against Allen and UConn. Allen was atrocious all night, but the Huskies kept it close. Then in the waning seconds, the actor formerly known as Jesus Shuttlesworth threw up an awkward leaner that hit the bottom of the rim, yet somehow managed to roll over and in. Last year was intense with UConn-Pitt, but not many recent match-ups have been must-see TiVo.
SCORECARD: ACC, unanimous decision.
ROUND 2: Depth – Before the season, the ACC was the unanimous choice for the top conference in the country. But Georgia Tech, NC State, and Maryland have been wildly inconsistent, and the league is still rather top-heavy with UNC, Wake, and Duke. The two newcomers, VA Tech and Miami, have done surprisingly well, but when they’re fourth and sixth respectively, it’s an indication that the league as a whole may have been overrated. Not as badly as Stephon Marbury, but overrated nonetheless.
The Big East may not have one team that’s as good as the ACC’s Big Three - although UConn has a strong case with the way it’s been rolling as of late. Yet despite the absence of a superpower (no, BC doesn’t count), the Big East is deeper. The reason these teams are top-25 fillers instead of top-10 stalwarts is because they beat each other up during the regular season. And keep in mind the success that Big East teams have had in the NCAA’s recently. Pitt, BC, ‘Cuse, Notre Dame, ‘Nova, G’Town and West Virginia may not be as flashy, but they always seem to be tourney-ready. One last thing: doormat St. John’s beat both VA Tech and NC State this year.
SCORECARD: Big East, split decision.
Round 3: Talent – The ACC boasts stars like May, McCants, Felton, Redick, Williams, Paul, Gray, and Gilchrist. Throw in second-tier guys like Elder, Jack, and Hodge and you could fill two legitimate All-America teams from this conference alone.
Can the average college hoops fan name anyone on BC? How about ‘Nova or G’Town? UConn and Syracuse boast several household names – McNamara, Warrick, Villanueva – Pitt has Krauser and Taft, and Notre Dame’s Chris Thomas is a quality player – plus, he’s the winner of this year’s He’s Still In College??? award. But those names can’t stand up to the thoroughbreds in the ACC.
SCORECARD: ACC, knockout.
Round 4: Coaches – Not enough is made of what Jim Calhoun has done with the Connecticut program. What’s in that state besides lots of rich people and baseball fans who can’t decide between the Yanks or the Sox? 700 wins and two national titles is incredible, considering where UConn used to be. It helps to be able to annually have about four different 6’11” guys who can jump out of the gym, and you’ve got to question whether some of his players can actually spell “the,” but hey, he wins. Jim Boeheim is a fellow member of the 700-club, and his national championship eased the critics who labeled Syracuse as a perennially undisciplined and underachieving school. Anytime you lose only two games all year, at least some props are due to the coach. A good job turned in by Al Skinner, although many of us wonder if he and Louis Orr switch places back and forth and no one ever notices.
Coach K, when all is said and done, will be grouped with John Wooden, interchangeable as 1-2 of all-time. Gary Williams has done wonders with the Maryland program, and Skip Prosser certainly has reeled in the horses at Wake. Hewitt took Georgia Tech to a national final, although this season they’ve been puzzlingly inconsistent. But a big black eye covers up Carolina blue, as the Tar heels boast one of the most underachieving coaches of all time in Roy Williams. No championships with all the talent and favorable NCAA draws he’s had over the years? Big, BIG negative for the ACC.
SCORECARD: Big East, split decision because of Ol’ Roy.
Round 5: Venue – The Garden isn’t the mystical place it used to be, and actually has drawn complaints because the less-than-ideal lighting makes it difficult to shoot. That only adds to the offensive futility as many of the Big East schools can’t shoot anyway. Regardless, it still carries the aura of supreme importance. When a game is held at The Garden, it is an Event. When a team makes a run or a game is on the line, there isn’t anything close to the buzz that the building generates. Underdogs always win the neutral crowd battle, and no one cheers harder for the little guy than a New York crowd.
ACC usually camps out at the Greensboro Coliseum, but this year they’ve trekked north to the MCI Center in DC. Greensboro always got rocking, and the fans usually had a lot to cheer for. The green-and-purple floor design…I don’t want to say it’s ugly, but you’d probably rather stare at a nude Stan Van Gundy for four straight hours.
SCORECARD: BIG EAST, knockout.
Round 6: Format – The addition and subtraction of teams will complicate things a bit in the future. The ACC used to be standard with one early game on Thursday night as a play-in, and then a full slate on Friday, two classics on Saturday, and the title game on Sunday afternoon. The two games on Saturday almost always produce one classic. Problem is, the Sunday finale is hard-pressed to match the same drama. It’ll be interesting to see if the additions of two Thursday games will magnify the fatigue factor and dampen the level of play.
The Big East switched to a Saturday Night prime-time final about 10 years ago, and it generates a ton of juice. Plus, they get things going earlier in the week on Wednesday. That’s HUGE for hoops fans who are sick of watching blah games on Monday and Tuesday that pit Santa Clara against some other hippie school from California. The downside to the bye round is that the early winners almost never make it to the weekend.
SCORECARD: BIG EAST, unanimous decision.
Round 7: At stake – ACC always has a number one seed. In recent years the question has been whether Duke will lock up the one seed in the east or slip to the one in the south or another region. This year, even with UNC holding that position, two other teams have a shot. Wake should get a top seed with a trip to the finals. But if Duke knocks them off, and subsequently wins the tournament over UNC, the Blue Devils could sneak in with a one. If they had beaten the Tar Heels this past Sunday, they may already have had it locked up. Georgia Tech and Maryland may need a win or two to get to the big dance, as do Miami and VA Tech.
Big East is usually about the smaller teams looking to earn one of the last bids with a win or two, which makes the early rounds so intense. This year, BC is the only team that can get a one if it wins the tourney – but it won’t. UConn should solidify a two, but early season stumbles were too much for the defending champs to overcome to nab a top seed. G’Town, Notre Dame, and West Virginia all have so much to play for, needing to make the most of this last chance to impress the committee. Strange, but a lot of Big East bubble teams in the past have had the knack for gagging at The Garden.
SCORECARD: ACC, split decision
Round 8: Upset chances – The individual star power at some of the lower-seeded ACC schools makes them dangerous because in a tournament setting, we’ve seen one guy carry a club for two or three nights in a row. Gilchrist did it last year, willing Maryland in the second half of both the semis and the finals. Hodge has that kind of ability, although it’s unsure how effective he’ll be after the five-on-two attack from Chris Paul. Plus, as mentioned above, teams are better suited for Cinderella runs because it only takes three wins, not four. Then again, the league is often top heavy, and a one or two is almost always in the final.
A group of five mediocre players can make the same kind of run if they play mistake-free, defend like hell, keep the other team off the offensive glass, and hit some timely threes. But this means all five clicking at once. Maybe a guy like Ryan Gomes from Providence has one last great night in him to shock a favorite, but if a big upset is gonna happen in the Big East, it’ll come from a team playing the perfect game. Teams that play on Wednesday have a better chance of hearing the Pope cuss than making it to Saturday night.
SCORECARD: ACC, split decision.
Round 9: Theater - The Big East tilts are usually defined by ugly basketball: tough, defensive-dominated, scrappy games. Scores in the 40’s and 50’s are as common as a forced Stuart Scott street line on SportsCenter. Usually the game-changer is a big man inside. If Gus Johnson were announcing the games, you’d hear the war metaphor every possession. That doesn’t mean it’s not exciting.
Every year, there are two or three players in the ACC who start making threes like Ben Affleck puts out unwatchable movies. Games are much more fluid and up and down the court with lots of scoring and unconscious baskets, prompting Mike Patrick to say “Ho-lee cow-uh” about 800 times a night.
So it comes down to this: Do you prefer the ’05 Phoenix Suns or the New York Knicks of the 90’s? Tough call, considering no one watches the NBA now because it burns the eyes, and no one wanted to watch the Knicks back in the 90’s because they burned the eyes. It’s no wonder the highlight of the ’94 finals was when NBC cut away to OJ’s Bronco chase.
SCORECARD: ACC, split decision.
In the end, we’ll go with the ACC tourney. A better, more polished product with brighter stars puts it over the top. But the Big East shouldn’t hang their heads. There’s no shame in finishing second. Just ask the Yankees.
Wait, never mind.
"As usual, the Big East and ACC have distinguished themselves as the top two leagues in all of college basketball."
I would say outside of the top 3 in the ACC in 2004-2005, the Big XII has consistently been the best league in terms of both talent and depth for the past couple of years, when you think about all the great Kansas, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and Texas teams--does Mr. Casey remember T.J. Ford, Hollis Price, Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison, or Aaron McGhee?
I think the Big East is overrated this year in particular, though I wouldn't have said the same last year. I don't see a national championship contender in the bunch, outside of streaking UConn. And the soft non-conference schedules of all four of the conference leaders (BC, UConn, Syracuse, Pitt) don't help my estimation either--and the RPI bears this out.
"That's HUGE for hoops fans who are sick of watching blah games on Monday and Tuesday that pit Santa Clara against some other hippie school from California."
I take it Mr. Casey didn't watch the WCC final March 7th, nor has he watched any WCC game all season. This league produces what I would argue are the most exciting games to watch for the casual fan. The WCC plays in small, raucous gyms, features guys with a lot of heart, and seven out of eight members of the league play an uptempo style game. I rate the WCC the Best Conference in the West.
If there are statements made by Mr. Casey that you take issue with, please feel free to email Mr. Casey at email@example.com.
--David Mihm, editor, Bracketography.com