Syracuse Basketball: ACC may look to reduce league games to improve Big Dance access

ACC commissioner Jim Phillips says his league, which includes Syracuse basketball, must find greater access to the Big Dance.
ACC commissioner Jim Phillips says his league, which includes Syracuse basketball, must find greater access to the Big Dance. / G Fiume/GettyImages

Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner Jim Phillips says in an interview that his league, which includes Syracuse basketball, must "find a path forward that allows us greater access" to the NCAA Tournament.

Phillips' comments to Nicole Auerbach, a senior writer at The Athletic, echo a hot-button topic throughout the 2023-24 season, and more recently as the ACC saw four of its schools advance to the Sweet 16 of the 2024 Big Dance, the most of any conference, despite the league only getting a total of five squads into this spring's March Madness.

In recent days, and weeks, there has been a lot of criticism of the NCAA's NET rankings system, including from Hall of Famer and former long-time Orange head coach Jim Boeheim as well as St. John's head coach Rick Pitino, a two-time national champion and former 'Cuse assistant many years ago.

On Selection Sunday, some argued that fellow ACC schools such as Pittsburgh and Wake Forest perhaps should have received invites to the 2024 NCAA Tournament. The Big East Conference, meanwhile, which has been one of the top leagues in 2023-24, only got three members into the Big Dance, while a case could be made that St. John's, Seton Hall and Providence may have been snubbed.

Could Syracuse basketball and its ACC peers have fewer league encounters in the future?

Auerbach, a fabulous reporter, wrote in her piece, "Phillips told The Athletic that the ACC will reconsider the number of conference games it plays as part of a wholesale evaluation of the state of the sport, perhaps opening the door to drop from 20 to 18 league games in men’s basketball."

In 2019-20, the ACC moved from 18 conference games to 20, thereby dropping every member's non-conference slate from 13 contests to 11. For the next season, by the way, the ACC is expanding to 18 schools in hoops with the additions of California, Stanford and SMU - amid Clemson and Florida State engaging in legal battles with the conference over the league's media-rights deal with ESPN that expires in 2036.

The NET is one tool that the NCAA selection committee utilizes for determining its annual field of 68 in the Big Dance, and to me, this system is flawed. It takes into account various factors, such as which foes a squad beats or loses to, where those games take place, and the margin of victory or defeat.

Some observers have contended that certain leagues have scheduled "easier" non-conference affairs, to win those contests by large margins and therefore improve NET rankings.

In the case of the 'Cuse, which won 20 regular-season games for the first time in a decade but failed to make the Big Dance for the third straight campaign, Syracuse basketball had a challenging non-conference slate and went a solid 9-2 overall. Yet the Orange's NET has hovered around the mid-80s, and part of that is due to the 'Cuse falling in numerous meetings over the course of 2023-24 by big margins.

So I guess the line of thinking here, perhaps, is that if the ACC reduces its number of league games to 18, and increases its number of non-conference affairs back to 13, conference members could then schedule some "easier" opponents, win big (hopefully), and improve their NET rankings.

To me, though, this is a double-edged sword. If a squad plays easier competition and wins big, that's okay, but those victories wouldn't necessarily prove coveted quadrant-one or quadrant-two triumphs. Plus, playing "cupcakes," does that prepare a group for league competition and, potentially, post-season play?

Said Phillips to The Athletic: “We went from 18 to 20 games (in 2019-20) alongside the advent of the NET - that came in around the same time. Except for one year, all of our other seasons have trended way below where we’ve been in the past. With games 19 and 20, half your league loses twice. You end up having another 14 losses for your teams.”

Experts seem to agree that the NET needs to be tweaked. They add that metrics such as the NET and KenPom have a place in deciding which teams make the annual Big Dance, but selection committee members also have to watch throughout the season the teams that they are considering for inclusion.

Back in February at its winter meetings, league officials maintained a commitment to playing 20 conference games as the ACC expands its members. However, Phillips said to The Athletic, as it relates to the number of conference contests that ACC schools will play in the future, "we’re revisiting it."

As I've outlined in several articles, in addition to four out of the five ACC members that were invited to the 2024 NCAA Tournament making the Sweet 16, Miami in 2023, along with Duke and North Carolina in 2022, made the Final Four.

“We can’t continue to go, year after year, with five teams and then claim the selections aren’t reflecting the performances of our teams because they do incredibly well in the national tournament,” Phillips told The Athletic. “Part of that is this rush to judgment in the media. We were in January, and someone says we’re a conference that only deserves two bids. ... That’s ludicrous to me. It just is. That means you’re not watching ACC basketball. You’re not watching our teams play nearly as closely as you should be if you’re putting out those kinds of statements about our league.”

I had a column on that same topic on Monday, in which I stated that all the so-called experts bashing the ACC this term can now eat crow.

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