Standing alongside a poster that trumpeted the strength of his conference with the slogan "the best get better," ACC commissioner John Swofford made a bold statement at the league's annual basketball media day last month.
Swofford declared that the additions of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame made the ACC the "strongest collection of basketball programs ever assembled in one conference."
What already seemed like slight hyperbole in mid-October is now inspiring scorn and derision a month later with the revamped ACC off to a surprisingly tepid start. The strongest collection of basketball programs ever assembled is ninth in conference RPI two weeks into the season thanks to a flurry of disappointing home losses.
It started opening weekend when Miami lost to Saint Francis (Brooklyn) and Virginia Tech stumbled against South Carolina Upstate. The trend continued when Belmont toppled North Carolina, Toledo felled Boston College, Indiana State cut down Notre Dame and Oregon State upset Maryland. And things worsened again Wednesday night when North Carolina Central embarrassed NC State and Dayton got the best of Georgia Tech.
A long list of RPI-killing early-season losses is always damaging for any league, but it's exacerbated by the ACC's lack of marquee wins thus far. Squandered chances by Duke against Kansas, Maryland against UConn and Virginia against VCU has left the ACC without a quality win, unless Clemson's rivalry win against SEC bottom feeder South Carolina qualifies.
The good news for the ACC is it's still very early. A poor opening two weeks could be long forgotten if Duke wins the NIT Season Tip-Off, Syracuse wins the Maui Invitational, North Carolina and Notre Dame bounce back from losses and the ACC dominates the Big Ten in its annual challenge.
Nonetheless, the ACC's early woes have hinted that the beefed-up league may still have the same problem as its previous incarnation has endured in recent years: The top teams are formidable but the middle tier is not so tough.
It will certainly bolster the ACC next season when Louisville replaces Maryland, giving the league a fearsome foursome of Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and the Cardinals. But for the ACC to live up to Swofford's bold proclamation, tradition-rich programs like Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and NC State are going to have to emerge from varying stages of rebuilding and carry their own weight.
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