By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — UVa senior Akil Mitchell, back in his hometown, was walking into the Ritz-Carlton on Tuesday night when he spotted Pittsburgh men’s basketball coach Jamie Dixon.
“He had no idea who I was, but I got excited, because I’ve seen him so many times on TV,” Mitchell said Wednesday morning. “It kind of hit me in the face, like, `It’s real now. They’re here in the ACC.’ ”
Pitt, of course, is not the conference’s only new member. Notre Dame (in all sports except football) and Syracuse joined this summer, too, bolstering a league that already included two of the nation’s most storied men’s basketball programs — North Carolina and Duke.
“This may be the strongest collection of basketball programs ever assembled in one conference, and that is exciting,” Commissioner John Swofford said Wednesday at the league’s annual preseason media gathering.
The pedigrees of the new members, all of which came to the ACC from the Big East, are stellar. In 10 seasons under Dixon, Pitt has made nine trips to the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame, whose head coach is former Duke assistant Mike Brey, has advanced to the NCAAs in six of the past seven seasons.
Syracuse is in its 38th season under Jim Boeheim, who can be cantankerous but was in fine spirits Wednesday in Charlotte. He’s guided his alma mater to the NCAA tourney 30 times, with one national title (2003) and four Final Four appearances (1987, 1996, 2003 and 2013). With 920 career victories, Boeheim is second all-time in Division I history, behind Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (957).
To Virginia senior Joe Harris, the addition of Pitt, Notre Dame and Syracuse “definitely makes the ACC the best basketball conference in the country.”
Harris and Mitchell represented the Cavaliers at ACC Operation Basketball, along with their head coach, Tony Bennett.
UVa will play Notre Dame twice this season: Jan. 28 in South Bend and Feb. 22 in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers meet the Panthers and the Orange once each. Virginia visits Pitt on Feb. 2 and hosts Syracuse on March 1.
“It’s going to be really cool,” Harris said.
Harris, a 6-6 guard from Chelan, Wash., and Mitchell, a 6-8 forward who starred at Charlotte Christian School, made first- and third-team All-ACC last season, respectively. Harris was named to the preseason all-conference team Wednesday and finished second in balloting for preseason ACC player of the year, one vote behind Syracuse senior C.J. Fair.
Media members attending ACC Operation Basketball picked UVa to finish fourth in the 15-team league. Virginia totaled 616 votes, to 668 for North Carolina, 753 for Syracuse and 805 for Duke.
“We have two seniors, one junior and a bunch of sophomores,” Bennett said, “but two of the sophomores are in their third year, and the others played a lot last year. In today’s day and age, that’s experience.”
Being picked to finish high is a compliment, said Bennett, whose record in four seasons at UVa is 76-53. But it’s more exciting to know that “if things come together, if we put it together, we have a chance to do something. You want to get to that point, because your first year or two, you’re just trying to become competitive,” Bennett said.
“We still have to continue to be competitive in this league, but you get to that phase where now you’re trying to be successful … I’m excited about this year. Am I realistic? Absolutely, but I’m really looking forward to it, because I think that if the right things happen, we should expect to be a good ball club. Again, what that means in wins and losses, I can’t tell you, what it means [in terms of] what place we finish.
“All I know is if we play to our fullest abilities, I think we’ll be a tough out. We’ll just start there and go from there and see where it takes us.”
Bennett isn’t sure the ACC will get 8-10 bids when the NCAA tournament field is announced in March, as some are predicting, but he knows the latest round of expansion has strengthened the conference, especially in his sport.
“You can’t add the quality of teams we’ve added and not help your strength of schedule, not help your RPI ratings and all that,” Bennett said. “I think all that stuff is going to be a positive. [Teams are] going to have plenty of opportunities, more opportunities to have big wins in the conference than you have in the past.”
In Boeheim, Krzyzewski and UNC’s Roy Williams, the ACC now has three of the five active men’s college coaches in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. One of the other two, Rick Pitino, will join them next year when Louisville replaces Maryland in the ACC. (The fifth is SMU’s Larry Brown.)
“That’s amazing. That really is,” Bennett said. “These are coaches that have built dominant programs, dynasties, whatever words you want to use, and that’s one of the things that drew me [to UVa] when I was at Washington State: to come and have a chance to test your coaching and try to build a program against these great coaches and programs.”
Bennett smiled. “Now, I thought it was only two of them,” he said. “I didn’t know we were getting two more, so I might have re-thought that.”
From his work with USA Basketball, Bennett knows Boeheim, with whom he enjoys talking about golf. As coach at Washington State, Bennett faced Brey and Dixon.
“Coach Pitino I don’t know as well,” Bennett said, “but those other three I’ve had a decent relationship with and certainly respect for.”
In the 2008 NCAA tournament, Wazzu whipped Notre Dame 61-41 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. In 2008-09, Bennett’s final season with the Cougars, they lost 57-43 to Pitt in the Legends Classic at Newark, N.J.
In recent years, Notre Dame and UVa have repeatedly battled each other in recruiting, and that’s likely to continue.
Notre Dame is “certainly a great academic school,” Bennett said. “They’ve done a real good job of recruiting the D.C. area, which is obviously natural for us. Seems like we’ve run into them on numerous occasions. There are a handful of schools that you’re always in there with, and [Notre Dame is looking for] the same profile that we’re looking for.”
The players representing the Fighting Irish in Charlotte were senior guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant. Both are from Maryland. Grant’s older brother, Jerai, played hoops at Clemson. One of their younger brothers, Jerami, is a freshman for Boeheim at Syracuse. Atkins was a UVa recruiting target as a Baltimore schoolboy, and now he’s in the ACC.
“It’s really neat that I can say I played in two of the best conferences in the country,” Atkins said.
It may not be a seamless adjustment for the newcomers. To be in North Carolina in October, Atkins said, “definitely feels a little bit weird. For us, this is really the South for us. We’re not used to this warm weather.”
Atkins knows several ACC players, including Maryland’s Nick Faust, Florida State’s Ian Miller and Duke’s Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton, from AAU and high school. He knows little, though, about their teams.
“Everything is new,” Atkins said. “Every team is going to be a new experience for us. We’re unfamiliar with every team, other than Pitt and Syracuse. It’s going to be a learning curve for us. I think the first couple of minutes of each game are going to be really interesting when we play these teams. It’s going to be a feeling-out process.”
The ACC, like the Big East, has a storied tradition in basketball. A major difference, Atkins said, will “be the culture of the gyms. In the Big East we played at a lot of schools that had NBA arenas. Sometimes it wouldn’t be as packed. I feel like in the ACC, they’re all like college-based arenas. That’s definitely going to have a different feel to it. They’re always going to have more of a home-court advantage, I feel like.”
Boeheim said Syracuse has sold more season tickets than in many years, and fans aren’t the only ones pumped about the move to the ACC.
“The players are excited to be in this league,” Boeheim said. “I think the coaches are. It’s just a tremendous challenge. It’s a great league. You want to be in the best league you can be in. This is, I believe, the best league.”
All parties will need some time to get used to the ACC’s new lineup.
“It’s kind of funny,” Harris said Wednesday. “Akil and I were talking about that last night. We sat down at the table, and we were across from Notre Dame.”
Mitchell said: “It just felt a little weird, like: Who are those guys? I haven’t really seen them. I don’t know who they are, or played against them.”
That’s about to change.