Why ACC May Soon Fall Behind SEC For Good

The SEC is the biggest fish among college sports conferences because of its football success and TV money.

In the fairly recent past, college basketball fans — especially south of the Mason-Dixon Line — could take comfort that the SEC wouldn't be quite as much of a force in hoops outside of Kentucky (and sometimes Florida) once the calendar reached the winter and early spring. Within the Southeast, the ACC was always the basketball conference.

That conventional wisdom seems to be changing, and I can't help but wonder if the SEC will indisputably overtake the ACC in basketball in the coming years.

It's been a bad NCAA tournament for the SEC. Once-assumed national title contender Kentucky was stunned on day one by tournament Cinderella Saint Peter's, and once-No. 1 Auburn got beat by an ACC team. LSU and Alabama (who, it must be noted, lost its best player very early in round one) were also knocked out by double-digit seeds. Tennessee, who looked like a Final Four contender during the SEC Tournament, fell to Hunter Dickinson, Eli Brooks, and Michigan in a back-and-forth second-round game.

Meanwhile, the ACC has undoubtedly outperformed its seed lines, with bubble teams like Miami and Notre Dame combining for four wins in the first week of the tournament. North Carolina became the first team in this year's tournament to defeat a No. 1 seed by barely outlasting a frantic Baylor comeback. Only an ice-cold last five minutes by the Fighting Irish kept the conference from getting four teams into the second weekend.

But none of that changes the fact that the ACC had one team ranked in the top 25 all season and would have had a 64/68-team era record-low percentage of teams in the dance if Virginia Tech hadn't won the ACC tournament. Only Duke was seeded above the 7 line among ACC teams in the tournament. All of the SEC's six were seeded 6 or above.

It's tough to definitively declare a trend here after 2022 was the first "normal" season in three years due to the pandemic. But I think there are a couple of big things going on here that could mean the SEC is on the verge of leaping over the ACC in college hoops prominence.

First and foremost, the almighty dollar. Incredibly, the SEC could pass the NCAA itself in total annual revenue once Texas and Oklahoma join the league. Football is king and is where a ton of that money will be made, but the rising tide is lifting SEC basketball coaches' salaries and overall budgets and resources. The ACC is only at about two-thirds of the SEC's revenue number.

And part of the money equation now means name, image, and likeness deals for players. Since the NIL regime is so new, we don't really have substantive numbers on how that money is getting distributed among the sports, conferences, and programs. But we shouldn't be too surprised if the NIL money ends up flowing to the places that have the highest-attended games and biggest TV deals.

The second big reason why I think this regional SEC supremacy over the ACC may be around for a while in basketball is geography. Four states (Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina) have both SEC and ACC teams, but just one SEC school is located in a media market with a pro sports team in the big five leagues (Vanderbilt). In the ACC, there are seven, including the three Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill schools that make up the Tobacco Road heartland of the league and are responsible for 12 of the 13 basketball titles won by the ACC at the time of those respective Final Fours.

In the case of growing North Carolina, there are now tons of lifelong — and grown-up — residents in the area who have only known the state having an NFL, NBA, and NHL team. College basketball is simply no longer the main game in town. In the SEC, the colleges are largely the best sports product in their respective cities.

Additionally, the ACC now spans west to Indiana, north to Boston and Syracuse, and south to Miami. While the conference certainly hoped that expansion would lead to new rivalries, the geographic and cultural concentration of the SEC states has led to less of a spread-out league — and that shouldn't change once Oklahoma and Texas arrive.

The ACC did have some bad luck in basketball this year. Florida State was looking like a tournament team until myriad injuries struck in January. Louisville, Syracuse, and NC State were especially down, and Virginia was in a transition year. Wake Forest made strides in 2022 and featured both the conference's player and coach of the year, but dropped too many winnable games to mediocre opposition to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

More elite talent is now flowing throughout the SEC. Duke is still Duke and is on track to have four 5-star recruits play next season in Jon Scheyer's first year at the helm. According to 247Sports, those four are the only five-star freshmen slated to play in the ACC. Five SEC schools will likely have a five-star high school recruit.

The days where the ACC attracted the best talent in the country may be over, and the conference may soon fall behind the SEC in basketball for good.

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