As former Big East coaches who are newcomers to the ACC, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Notre Dame's Mike Brey and Pitt's Jamie Dixon bonded this past summer.
They often sat together on the recruiting circuit. Inevitably, their conversation turned to the transition to the ACC.
“We don't have a secret handshake or anything,” Brey said, “but you're kind of bouncing ideas off each other and talking about the different teams and programs.”
They arrived at an understanding that, despite the perception that they must adapt to ACC basketball, the style of play isn't as dissimilar as people would like to believe.
“This is the reality,” Dixon said. “This is a conference that was eight teams. Now, it's going up to 15. Guess what? There's going to be a whole lot more styles. You're only going to play each team once. You're going to see 15 different styles. You're going to have to scout more. It's just a different world.”
‘Styles of play'
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was among those at the ACC media day in Charlotte, N.C., this past week who disputed the notion that the former Big East schools must adjust to their new ACC foes, or vice versa.
“I've never felt our conference has a style of play,” Krzyzewski said. “I think when you're really good, you have styles of play in the conference.”
Where the old Big East had a reputation for rugged play and the ACC was deemed more athletic, expansion has changed both conferences.
The ACC already adapted after it added Big East schools Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech, whereas the complexion of the Big East changed when it added schools such as Cincinnati, Louisville and Marquette to its mix.
For example, the ACC is viewed as a high-scoring league, as three teams (N.C. State, Duke and North Carolina) ranked among the nation's top 16 in points per game, all between 75.7 and 77.4, last season. Louisville, which won the national championship, led the Big East and ranked 27th in the NCAA at 74.3 points per game.
“Many years ago, when I coached in the Big East, it was a different style than the ACC,” said Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, who coached Miami when it was in the Big East. “The ACC was longer, more athletic and the pace was a little quicker. The Big East was more of a power conference that emphasized attacking a little bit more, and the pace wasn't quite as fast.
“However, when they grew with Cincinnati and Louisville and the addition of some of the other teams that came in, I think they were more like the ACC than they had been years ago. So, there's not that much difference in the teams that are coming in. I think there are more similarities than there are differences.”
Taking their positions
Notre Dame's Brey believes the major difference in playing styles between the old Big East and ACC is at the power forward position.
Where the Big East often employed one who relied more upon brute force for additional post presence, the ACC “four-man” typically is a skilled face-up player with perimeter shooting range.
“Of course, one of the things that was always talked about with us in the Big East all these years was that we play like an ACC team,” said Brey, a former Duke assistant. “We have been very skilled. We have been able to spread the floor. We've had those four-men who face up. And that really helped us in the Big East. I'm interested to see how it helps us in this.”
It helps explain why Notre Dame senior guard Jerian Grant said Brey asked the Fighting Irish: “Why can't the ACC adapt to us?”
Truth is, many ACC players have no idea what to expect, other than that Syracuse plays a zone defense, Pitt relies on grit and Notre Dame shoots 3s.
“It's so weird to look across the room and not really know the players or the system they run,” Virginia senior forward Akil Mitchell said. “So there will be a learning curve for both sides.”
One theory is that the ACC old guard has an advantage because it needs to learn about only three new teams while the former Big East teams have a dozen new opponents.
But it could be the other way around because those three new teams are all ranked in the top six in a preseason poll.
“I believe their newness helps them because we don't know much about their play,” Clemson junior forward K.J McDaniels said. “But they have to adjust to our officiating.”
How officials implement rule changes that emphasize enforcing hand-checking and calling charges or blocking under the basket remains to be seen. Quick whistles could cause headaches for the former Big East schools accustomed to officials allowing physical play.
“We have an advantage because no one knows what to expect from us, but they know how to mess with the refs,” Pitt senior swingman Lamar Patterson said. “They know what they can get away with and what they can't get away with.”
Dixon already has adjusted to ACC style in some ways. He moved Talib Zanna from power forward to center and recruited face-up forwards in Mike Young and Jamel Artis. And he expanded his recruiting territory to the Southeast, signing point guard Josh Newkirk out of Raleigh, N.C.
So a subtle message was sent that Pitt already is encountering a new landscape, one in which the biggest change could come in tempo.
“It's crossed our minds, but I don't think we have to make too much of an adjustment,” Patterson said. “We're going to have to run a little more than usual. We're prepared for that.
“But as far as our game goes, we're going to continue doing what we've been doing. Coach Dixon preaches defense, rebounding and unselfishness. None of that is really going to change.”
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.
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