ACC Media Day: Big East transplants ready for bear
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — "Back on Tobacco Road, baby!"
These were the cheery words of Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey on Wednesday, as he sat down at a table in the Charlotte Ritz-Carlton.
"Here we go. Ready or not."
And indeed, ready or not, the ACC is going through its latest round of expansion, a renovation that could make the conference the best in the country. Again.
Just look at the accomplishments of the various head coaches:
Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim — it's already a Who's Who of head coaches in history, not just present-day. And all in one league, with guys like Jamie Dixon (Pitt), Mark Turgeon (Maryland — for one year, anyway), Brey and even Tony Bennett (Virginia) and Leonard Hamilton (Florida State), or Jim Larranaga (Miami).
Still, it was strange to think about the move, when it was initially proposed a few years ago.
"The first time when we heard we were going to the ACC, we were like, 'Oh, wow. Why?'" Pitt senior Talib Zanna said. "But when we heard about the schools that were going into the conference, we were like, 'Oh, that might be one of the toughest conferences in the country next year.'
"We have to adjust to the way they play, and they have to adjust to the way we play. It goes both ways."
And that was a common theme from the former members of the Big East: It's nice to be here and all, but we have our pride, too.
Notre Dame senior Jerian Grant grew up watching the ACC and always wanted to play in the league. He loved watching former Maryland point guard Greivis Vasquez, full of fire and passion for the game. And he loved the Terps, as a result.
But he wasn't recruited by Maryland, and ultimately decided Notre Dame was the best fit.
And his head coach, who lit up the conference room at ACC Media Days with his big grin, told his team the ACC would have to adapt to the Irish, too.
"We were all thinking yeah, that makes sense. We're coming from a conference that's really, really good. It's not like we’re coming from a conference that didn't have a lot of teams," Grant said. "Coach Brey said we're going to continue to play our style. ... We always like to come into the games and set the tempo ourselves if we want to go fast or slow."
Now, the younger brother of Jerai Grant (who played at Clemson) and son of Harvey Grant (nephew of Horace). is at home as a member of the ACC.
"When I chose my school, I wanted to be in the ACC, but Notre Dame was the best place for me," Grant said. "So to finally be able to be in the ACC and at the school for me is a dream come true."
Notre Dame can adjust its style, but the Big East is known for one thing — its physicality. And perhaps no team epitomizes that better than Pittsburgh.
Zanna agrees — ACC teams are going to have to adjust to the newcomers rather than vice versa.
"I think we probably bring being tough and physical. ACC is kind of an up-tempo game, up and down. I think we bring a lot of toughness to it," Zanna said. "The other teams don’t know what they're going to get against Syracuse, playing zone. They're athletic, they're long. We’re used to it. We play them every year twice. The other teams, they'll have to adjust the way they play."
Zanna said he used to like watching Tyler Hansbrough-led North Carolina teams growing up. (He quickly added that Hansbrough would fit right in during a tough Pitt rebounding drill.)
And Zanna was sporting proof of how rough the Panthers like to play — a freshman, trying to make a move in a post drill, gets and elbowed him in the face, splitting his lip.
As the old saying goes, no blood, no foul. And that's typically been the case in the Big East.
"Big East refs never call fouls. They let you play. ACC, I never play against any ACC refs," Zanna said. "We can’t use that as an excuse to go there every day and act like 'Oh, we don’t get foul calls.' We just have to play through it, just as the way we played in the Big East. we played through fouls all the time."
On the flip side, the established ACC members were taken aback by all the new faces at media day.
"It's definitely kind of weird to see the new faces. We haven't even played each other yet, so really it's the first time we’re seeing them in person," Miami senior Rion Brown said. "It's a little awkward. It’s kind of like a little stare down" (laughing).
Rather than go all Jets versus Sharks, though, Brown will embrace3 the challenge that the new members — established college basketball programs — present.
Yes, it's going to make the league tougher. But what's tougher, per Brown, than manufacturing energy to play a no-name program that can beat you? What's easier than getting up to play a name program? Exactly.
"I would love to have a Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Notre Dame game every game. It's so fun. You have no idea. Just to be in that atmosphere with the crowd, it's like the game is so much more than just win and lose," Brown said.
"We're looking forward to that and we’re looking forward to the challenge of playing all those guys. ... That's why I came to college. Watching those games on TV, I couldn't wait to be a part of them."