Conference expansions bolster ACC basketball

Georgia Tech basketball coach Brian Gregory will have to make some room in his equipment budget.

“Going to have to buy some winter jackets,” Gregory said Monday, when the ACC officially expanded to 15 teams with the additions of Syracuse (average annual snowfall: 108 inches), Notre Dame (81.8 inches in South Bend, Ind.) and comparatively tropical Pittsburgh (42 inches).

Changes have indeed arrived to the ACC, which drew notice Monday to its expansion with a news conference in New York City with Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer, North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams, Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim, Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey and others.

“We’re thrilled,” Brey said. “For us to land on our feet in the ACC with everything that was going on, we were very, very fortunate.”

The league has likewise benefited, particularly in the arena of men’s basketball. The conference has added Pittsburgh, with a winning percentage over the last 12 years that is top five nationally (.769); Syracuse, which has a coach in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame; and Notre Dame, which has made the NCAA tournament in nine of Brey’s 13 seasons. Next year, the league will swap Maryland for defending NCAA champion Louisville.

At league meetings in the spring, coaches touted that they were forming the best conference in college basketball history.

“We’re going to get eight, nine and 10 (NCAA tournament) bids,” Brey said.

Gregory sees a league whose strength will benefit teams at each level. Elite teams can earn No. 1 seeds by winning the regular season or conference tournament. Teams assured of at-large berths can toughen themselves for a tournament run. Bubble teams can present a top-notch strength of schedule and, possibly, quality wins.

“It doesn’t matter where you are, because of the strength of schedule,” Gregory said. “It gives everybody, no matter what part of the race that they’re in, it gives them an opportunity to be successful and get to the next step in the process.”

For the Jackets and other teams like Boston College and Clemson that are trying to rise from the league’s bottom half, the climb has gotten undeniably steeper “because you’re adding three teams or four teams that are starting ahead of you in the race,” Gregory said.

Practically, it will mean longer (and colder) road trips. In the coming season, Tech will visit Boston College, Notre Dame and Syracuse.

“The travel, per se, isn’t necessarily the problem,” Gregory said. “The time of the games is the thing that causes the most havoc when it comes to travel.”

The adjustment for Brey has already begun. This summer, he and his assistants are spending a couple hours a week reviewing video of their new opponents. The Irish will be one of Tech’s two permanent partners along with Clemson, meaning the two teams will play home-and-away every year. (Notre Dame’s other partner is Boston College.)

“Brian is doing a heck of a job building that program,” said Brey, who intends to expand recruiting into the Southeast. “They are coming fast. We know they’re getting there quickly, but I like the fact that we’re going to be in Atlanta.”

Brey was also on board with the ACC tournament occasionally visiting New York. Brey has a different perspective than other refugees from the Big East, having been an assistant at Duke (1987-95). Playing in Madison Square Garden has been a boost to recruiting, he said.

“I think there’s no question that you’ve got to keep your Tobacco Road ties with your tournament,” he said. “You can’t give them up altogether. (But) I really believe the league and fans, once they get up here, they’re going to love that rotation, being in New York City some.”