After the historic agreement between Notre Dame and the Atlantic Coast Conference two and a half years ago, the conversation surrounding the Irish hoops program was frequently full of worry and, sometimes, impending doom. Despite Notre Dame's success and entrenchment in the top half of the Big East, the unquestioned top conference in the country for most of the last decade in which the Irish were members, there was just supposed to be something different about the new ACC that would make life too difficult for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
After nearly two years in their new home further down the Atlantic Coast, those conversations just seem laughable in hindsight. We have discussed many of the narratives here, including this analysis by JoeSchu, and it seems clear that everyone is slowly doing away with those initial narratives. My purpose here is not to rehash those discussions but to say something more, that the ACC is a colossal disappointment.
Let's first take a look at the conference as it stands now, beginning with its obvious merits. The top third of the conference, Notre Dame included, are all currently in KenPom's top 18 teams in the country and in the top 15 of both the AP and Coaches' Polls. Only the Big 12 is in this neighborhood, with 5 teams in the top 20, although they have two more in the 20s (the Big 12, with only 10 members, is much more impressive in this regard).
But the ACC has 15 members, and when you get past those top 5, the results are underwhelming. This was one of the big knocks on the old Big East, that the top half of the conference may have been very strong, but the bottom-feeders were just so bad as to guarantee too many wins for those upper echelon teams. Well, here in the ACC, you can't even tout a strong top-half.
This may be the biggest problem with life in the ACC, that the middle-tier has shown itself to be of far lesser quality than the old Big East. As of now, Syracuse, Clemson, Pittsburgh, Miami, and NC State, sixth through tenth in the standings currently, all find themselves outside the likely NCAA Tournament field and outside KenPom's top 50!
Last year was only nominally better, as the top 5 in the ACC were in the tournament, sixth-place Clemson was left out, and seventh-place NC State sneaked into the field as one of the last four in. (It should be noted that Louisville was not yet a part of the ACC but could arguably count for the purposes of this article). They were only slightly better represented in KenPom's top 50, as Maryland, Florida State, and Clemson found themselves ranked in the 40-to-50 range, though all were left out of the tournament.
Let's compare this mediocrity to the year before last in the old Big East, which placed 8 of its 15 members (West Virginia had just left) members in the tournament field, all of which finished in KenPom's top 50 (as did tourney snub Connecticut). The year before? 9 of its 16 members in the field and top 50. Before that, when Notre Dame had its best season under Mike Brey, a whopping 11. You get the point.
Even the current Big East has 6 of its 10 members in the top 50, each of which project to the NCAA Tournament field. The Big 12, as mentioned, has 7. The big, mighty ACC, conglomerate of the best of the old ACC and Big East, cannot even match the trimmed-down Big East or Big 12.
To their "credit", the ACC's sixth- through eleventh-ranked teams do find themselves in KenPom's top 100, so it isn't as though these teams are complete disasters. Of those teams, only self-sanctioned Syracuse and below-.500 Georgia Tech are not in the tournament bubble conversation, so a strong finish for those teams could help change this narrative.
As for the bottom of the conference, the four lowest-ranked teams are even fairly similar to the old Big East, with an average KenPom ranking of 132 for the current ACC versus 138 for 2013's Big East (a couple others: 139th for 2014 ACC, 130th for 2012 Big East). The current Big East's bottom three has an average ranking of 117th, far better than the ACC's bottom-feeders. The Big 12 is even a little better, with an average ranking currently of 111th, dragged way down by a Texas Tech team that still managed to beat Iowa State.
Even the lowly Pac-12 and SEC have a bottom-four with an average 145th and 148th, respectively. The narrative of feasting on easy wins in the old Big East either was never quite right or, even worse, still applies to the new ACC. Even more damning, the ACC has an inferior set of inferior opponents to their Big 12 and Big East counterparts and are barely ranked better than the brutal Pac-12 and SEC conferences.
All of this is to suggest that there is not much that is particularly impressive about the ACC. Sure the top end is good, but the Big 12's is nearly as good, while being demonstrably better in the middle and lower tiers of the conference. Even the Big East, which certainly does not have the top-end claim that the ACC does, has a far better and more competitive conference from top to bottom.
All told, Notre Dame will likely finish the regular season with just 5 conference games against clear tournament opponents (compared to 13 in the 2011 Big East season, when they were also really, really good), while those in the Big 12 and Big East will have 10 or more. This was supposed to be life in the ACC, night-in and night-out battles against tournament-quality opponents, always just one game away from another impressive, resume-building victory.
Part of my negativity is the effect that the underwhelming ACC will have on Notre Dame's tournament prospects. This will undoubtedly hurt Notre Dame come selection Sunday, being a team with an already very weak non-conference schedule and a conference schedule with very few games to truly brag about. Wins over Miami and NC State were supposed to be those games. Even wins over Georgia Tech or Clemson were supposed to mean something.
Now? A team that two weeks ago was touted as a darkhorse Final Four contender will likely be met with a four seed or lower and facing taller odds to reach the second weekend of the tournament than a top ACC team would otherwise be expected. Who would've thought that 4-loss Utah of the Pac-12, 7-loss Oklahoma of the Big 12, 6-loss Baylor of the Big 12, or 5-loss Maryland of the Big 10 would have been given the benefit of the doubt over 4-loss Notre Dame of the mighty ACC in a recent media mock tournament selection?
Sure, it isn't that bad, as the ACC is likely the third or fourth best conference in the country. But that was not the vision. The ACC virtually hand-picked four teams from the old best conference in the country to add to their existing collection of members that was already amongst the country's best. Unfortunately, the ACC's conference realignment has hardly yielded the results expected, and until the ACC starts placing the number of teams into the NCAA Tournament as the old Big East, the conference will always be seen as a major disappointment.