Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The "New" Big Ten vs. ACC Challenge

In today's somewhat surprising news, Notre Dame has opted to leave the Big East conference and football independence to join the ACC.  It's expected that all of Notre Dame's sports will join officially except for football and hockey.  However, Notre Dame will be playing five annual football games against ACC opponents, which is a departure from its traditional past.  Their football program has always maintained complete independence and "cementing" five games on the schedule will be something new.  It's not exactly crazy considering that Notre Dame is playing four games against ACC or future ACC teams this season, but it will definitely be something different in the future.  The ACC also doesn't have a hockey conference, so Notre Dame really didn't have a choice there.

So Notre Dame has joined the ACC.  Why am I posting on this topic today?  Well, Notre Dame joining the ACC is pretty noteworthy in itsel,f since they are one of Michigan's three biggest rivals, but the issue that I believe is being overlooked today is the future impact on basketball.  Notre Dame has a pretty respectable basketball program, having played in the tough Big East, made the tournament in 5 of the last 6 years, and had some impressive wins last year including a victory over then #1 Syracuse.

The addition of Notre Dame's basketball program to the ACC is significant for several reasons, but the biggest is for its impact on the ACC's conference basketball quality.  The ACC was already a solid conference, but with their recent additions and success, they could easily become the nation's elite basketball conference.  Last year, the Big Ten was the unquestioned "best" basketball conference.  I believe the Big Ten can maintain that success this season and perhaps be even better, but in a few years, that could change quite dramatically because of this and similar moves by the ACC.

Of course, being the nation's "best" conference isn't something that spectacular.  No conference gets an award for being the best and it does nothing to guarantee a title or great performance in the NCAA Tournament.  In fact, no Big Ten team has won a basketball national championship since Michigan State in 2000.  They haven't even been in the national championship game since 2009 when MSU lost by 17 points to North Carolina (also a team in the ACC).  Even though the "best" conference doesn't get anything specific for this distinction, it can actually mean a lot in the long run.

Not only is it great for NCAA Tournament selection, but it also is something that builds over time.  The Selection Committee looks at conference and schedule strength when they create the NCAA Tournament brackets.  This is something that clearly helps all the teams in the conference.  Along with this, the reputation of the conference can help recruiting and the long-term health of programs, even ones that aren't in great shape.  All of these things are pretty evident and one can argue it was partially responsible for the recent resurgence in some Big Ten programs.

Of course, the Big Ten is not guaranteed to be the "best" conference this year or in the future, but this move is just part of a growing trend that is going to challenge its status.  One key example of this is in the yearly Big Ten - ACC Challenge.  Every year, twelve Big Ten teams face off against twelve ACC teams.  In the past, it has been fairly even, but the Big Ten has started pulling away from the ACC in recent years.  The ACC "won" the first ten meetings in the challenge, but the trend has definitely changed  Just take a look at the records over the last five years:

Big Ten - ACC Challenge Results

  • 2007 - ACC 8-3
  • 2008 - ACC 6-5
  • 2009 - Big Ten 6-5
  • 2010 - Big Ten 6-5
  • 2011 - Big Ten 8-4

Now, it's a little too early to predict this year's results, but looking at the lineups, there is a great chance that the Big Ten wins again, which would make it four straight wins over the ACC.  It's easy to see the trend between the two conferences and in this conference over the last five years.  This is important because it is the Big Ten's single greatest chance to prove itself in non-conference play.  There are going to be other chances on an almost yearly basis such as MSU vs. Duke from last season and Michigan's spot in the Preseason NIT this year, but nothing like the Big Ten - ACC Challenge, where all twelve teams face relatively even opponents all at once.

This is important to note because it has a tremendous influence on the Big Ten's perception nationally and where it will rank compared to other conferences in tournament selection.  If it does well against the ACC, most are going to think the Big Ten is great, which will give the conference and its members benefits like better seeding in the tournament and better recruiting.  If the conference does badly, the Big Ten will still get some respect, but it will surely hurt seeding and probably hurt recruiting as well.  Obviously, this can be overvalued or undervalued, but these things really do work in trends and recent moves like the one by the ACC to pick-up Notre Dame are not ones that Big Ten fans should like to see.  Here's why.

Let's look at how the ACC will look, not now, but in a few years.  The conference will be up to 15 total members (3 more than the B1G), having 3 traditional basketball powers (the B1G has 2-3?), and will feature several rising programs.  The big thing to note here is the first detail.  I don't think the ACC will be better on average, but I think they are going to be able to beat the Big Ten simply because they have three more teams.  Let's just look at the rankings at the end of last season with the future outlook of each conference:

Big Ten
  • #3 Ohio State
  • #7 Michigan State
  • #12 Wisconsin
  • #13 Indiana
  • #22 Michigan
  • #32 (Votes) Purdue
  • #5 Syracuse
  • #6 North Carolina
  • #14 Duke
  • #15 Florida State
  • #20 North Carolina State
  • #34 (Votes) Notre Dame
  • #38 (Votes) Pittsburgh

So as I said, the Big Ten holds up fairly well in the top of the conferences.  Both conferences have four teams in the top 15 and five ranked teams.  The Big Ten does have a slight advantage in its top five teams, which an average ranking of 11.4 to the ACC's average ranking of 12, but they are pretty even.  The problem for the Big Ten, as I talked about above, is how the teams fare up in the middle to lower half.  Not only does the ACC have one more team that received votes than the Big Ten, but they will be able to set a better match-up for the Big Ten - ACC Challenge.

During the challenge, the two conferences will have twelve teams play each other.  The Big Ten will be forced to use every team, including teams like Penn State and Nebraska, while the ACC will have the option to dump teams like Boston College, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest from the match-up.  This is a tremendous advantage.  The big thing here is that this can easily swing the results of the challenge.  The ACC will be getting a step up at the top half of play since three of the teams either ranked or receiving votes are not currently in the conference plus they will be getting a step up at the bottom because they won't have to field their weakest teams.

The most coverage will be given to the games with the best teams in the challenge, but imagine a scenario like this.  The Big Ten's top three teams win (Indiana, Michigan, MSU), but seven of the remaining games are won by the ACC.  This would give the ACC a "win" with an overall record of 7-5.  To me, this is a pretty likely scenario and something I could easily see happening with these new conference realignments.  There would surely be debate about which conference is better in that scenario, but what if the ACC won the "marquee" game of the challenge and then won the majority of the "lower" games?  I think most would believe the ACC is better, even if its still highly debatable.  As I said, a lot of this is simply perception, but as I discussed above, this perception matters both now and in the future.

I think this will make the challenge much more entertaining, but there could be some pretty significant long-term issues associated with the types of moves the ACC is making right now.  I may be blowing this out of proportion in many people's opinions, but who thought the Big Ten was the best basketball conference just a few years ago?  I would say next to nobody.  Now, the Big Ten is rolling and widely respected in basketball.  I believe this can be maintained, but it just got a lot tougher with the addition of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and now Notre Dame to the ACC.  

(On a sidenote, maybe we finally get back to playing Notre Dame in basketball?  That could be interesting.)

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