Expansion splits rivalries, unevens schedule
The ACC could produce four Final Four teams this season. It could have as many as five schools hold the No. 1 slot in the polls. Anything's possible for the nation's toughest and deepest conference -- except crowning a true regular-season champ. Gone is the traditional round-robin schedule. The addition of Virginia Tech and Miami from the Big East made rendered keeping home-and-home series with each team impossible. That means there will be plenty of inconsistencies. It will only get worse when the addition of Boston College makes 12 ACC teams in 2005-06.
Wake Forest, the preseason conference favorite, plays possibly its toughest rival, North Carolina, only once, on Jan. 15 in Winston-Salem. The Demon Deacons also get ACC tournament champ Maryland only at home. N.C. State, which could be a dark horse in the race, doesn't have to go to Duke. The Tar Heels escape a trip to national finalist Georgia Tech.
No coach is celebrating the schedule, but it is their new reality.
"I don't like not playing people twice," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I'm not crying about it. But I just don't like it. That's not what we have had for 24 years. The other way, it's even."
The 16-game schedule will be broken down with home-and-home series against two "primary partners." There will be four other home-and-home series and then single games against four other schools in the league. The home-and-home series will rotate each year, except for the primary partners. The primary partners for this season were picked to ensure rivalries continued every season home-and-home. But it's not exactly based on tradition. For the 2004-05 season, the primary partners are:
Expansion was done for football and the big money of a conference championship game, but the basketball programs are the ones that will feel the pain of this move. Ultimately, it will mean the single meetings, like this year's Wake Forest-North Carolina showdown, will take on even greater importance.
This occurs regularly in the Big 12. The schedule in the Big 12 is mirrored off of football. Teams that are in the North and South divisions play each other once, rotating the site each season. Texas is at Kansas this season, but doesn't get the league favorite Jayhawks in Austin.
"Nobody can tell you that it's going to work, because they don't know," Georgia Tech athletic director Dave Braine said. "The TV people aren't happy because a lot of the big games will only be once a year. It's a tough league so some coaches won't mind playing only once a year. TV wants us to play more conference games but the coaches would want less. My feeling is that ultimately TV will win out over the coaches because that's why we expanded -- to make more money. Otherwise, we would have stayed where we are."
Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt probably put the freshest spin on the subject. He compared it to the NFL, saying that you could see a day when a team that has what is like a fifth-place schedule in the NFL, make it to the Super Bowl. Or for these purposes, win the ACC with an easier slate of games.
Hewitt is convinced that expansion will help level the travel burdens, a hidden fact that isn't always discussed among league members.
"The schools in North Carolina always had a tremendous travel advantage," Hewitt said. "Three games a year, they could sleep in their own beds the night before a game. Expansion will spread the travel burden out a bit and create more parity."
Parity is already at hand in the ACC, but it's the rare kind of parity where the majority of teams are elite. It's a shame we won't truly know which of them is the best.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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