Watered-down ACC basketball for Clemson

Clemson’s Greg Buckner plays against Minnesota’s Sam Jacobson in the 1997 NCAA Tournament. The ACC was so good in the 1990s that two Clemson teams made the NCAA Tournament with 7-9 ACC records and the 1997 team was just 9-7. (AP Photo/Tim Johnson/File)

Duke and North Carolina with an overtime thriller this week proved they still have the best rivalry in college sports. All five Atlantic Coast Conference basketball teams ranked in the top 15 — Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, Louisville and North Carolina — are national title contenders.

Official ACC spokesmen Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams say the ACC remains the top conference. And the Clemson traveling party will leave Durham on Saturday talking about the gauntlet that runs from Coral Gables to Pittsburgh via North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

But these aren’t the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s. The ACC isn’t the best college basketball league, and might not be second-best.

It’s top-heavier than a Christian Laettner bobblehead doll.

The conference schedule is watered down.

Clemson head coach Brad Brownell in particular has an easier ACC path than Cliff Ellis or Rick Barnes had, and ought to be graded accordingly.

Most veteran ACC basketball fans grapple with the contrast of the present 15-team conference that includes storied programs at Louisville and Syracuse and the old tight-knit, double round-robin schedules.

Bobby Cremins can relate.

“The ACC is great, but it’s different,” Cremins, the former South Carolina forward and Georgia Tech and College of Charleston head coach, said from his home in Hilton Head. “It took me a little while to understand that Maryland was no longer in the ACC. But look at Syracuse with Jim Boeheim, and Rick Pitino. I love the fan support at Pittsburgh. I think the ACC’s great right now. It might be tougher than it’s ever been because of all these incredible programs they’ve brought in.”

But …

“Obviously there are some flaws,” Cremins said. “Going down the stretch here, there are some ACC teams on the bubble but those teams have to play somebody really good and beat them. But now the way the schedule is, you might not get that opportunity to play somebody really good. You can win your games and not get in.”

N.C. State, a bubble team, will play only one ranked team (North Carolina) over its final five ACC games.

The ACC is the No. 3 conference in USA Today’s Sagarin computer rankings, behind the Big 12 and the Big East.

Clemson had bad November losses to Winthrop and Gardner-Webb. But ACC soft spots means a 7-7 conference record isn’t enough to lift the Tigers above No. 81 in the Sagarin rankings (quite a change from the 1990s when two of Barnes’ NCAA Tournament teams went 7-9 in the ACC).

The ACC’s 18-game conference schedule pairs each of the 15 teams with two permanent partners and two rotating partners for home-and-away games with a single game against the remaining 10 teams. Clemson’s permanent partners are Georgia Tech (No. 89 in the Sagarin ratings) and Florida State (No. 102).

So, yes, Clemson plays all six of the teams ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has in his projected NCAA Tournament field (Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, Louisville, North Carolina and N.C. State). But the schedule calls for two games against only two of those teams, Notre Dame and bubble-clinger N.C. State.

That’s 10 games against ACC non-tournament teams (per Lunardi’s guess).

In 1991, six of the ACC’s eight teams made the NCAA Tournament (Duke won it all). Five of the nine ACC teams made it in 1992 (Duke won its second straight national title) and six of nine in 1993 (Dean Smith’s second NCAA crown at North Carolina). Clemson had to play all those teams twice.

Cremins would never knock Clemson or any other ACC program. It just happens that the conference was at its best when he was in his prime at Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets won the ACC Tournament in 1985, 1990 and 1993. The Cremins talent pool included Mark Price, John Salley, Kenny Anderson, Dennis Scott, James Forrest and Stephon Marbury.

“Virginia had Ralph Sampson,” said Cremins, who works ACC games as an analyst for various ESPN outlets. “(Maryland head coach) Lefty (Driesell) had a heck of a team with Len Bias. Then Wake Forest was so good. Clemson was good. Of course, North Carolina and Duke. And we were good.”

Jim Valvano led N.C. State to the 1983 national title, the year after Jordan made the NCAA championship-winning shot for North Carolina against Georgetown. Wake Forest had four years of Tim Duncan.

Clemson deserves praise for its 7-7 ACC record, a bit of an overachievement so far for a team picked to finish 11th in the conference.

No doubt, ACC travel is more difficult these days.

But grade Clemson’s ACC achievements on a curve, like lines on a map that run from Pickens County to Pittsburgh without drifting as often toward Durham or Chapel Hill.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff