The most popular word during the first ACC basketball coaches' teleconference of the season might have been "transition." And coaches on Tuesday's call weren't referencing the need for easy lay-ups off of turnovers.
"We're a team in transition," first-year Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said at one point.
A few moments later, first-year Miami coach Jim Larranaga spoke from the same script, describing his Hurricanes as "very much a team in transition."
With perhaps the exception of North Carolina, which of the ACC's 12 teams isn't? Conference play begins this weekend, and it does so after the ACC's humbling - and sometimes bumbling - performance during the non-conference games.
Forget about the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, which the Big Ten won by an 8-4 margin - its most decisive ever. What about the ACC/Ivy League Challenge? Had there been such a thing, the ACC - with four victories in seven games against Ivy League schools - would have squeaked by, barely.
Or what about an ACC/Atlantic-10 Challenge? Temple's 78-73 victory against Duke on Wednesday night gave the A-10 an 8-6 record this season against ACC teams. Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Boston College are a combined 0-6 against the A-10.
Losses piling up
If you're wondering whether the ACC's non-conference struggles represent some sort of historic low point, they do. The conference adopted a 12-team format when Boston College began league play during the 2005-06 season.
Between the 2005-06 and 2009-10 seasons, ACC teams combined to lose, on average, 32.4 games before Jan. 3. Last season, ACC teams combined to lose 48 games by Jan. 3. The common assumption was that the ACC went through a down year a season ago, that the league would be stronger entering the 2011-12 season.
But earlier this week, three days after the turn of the calendar, ACC teams had combined to lose 49 non-conference games - a total that doesn't include Duke's loss against Temple. The ACC has lost games against the other five power leagues, which isn't surprising. What is, perhaps, is that the ACC has also lost games against teams from the Atlantic Sun Conference, the Big South Conference, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and the Patriot League.
Perhaps we should have seen some of this coming. After all, not a single player who earned first-team All-ACC honors last season returned this season. Three from the second team returned (UNC's Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller) and two from the third team.
So 10 of the ACC's top 15 players from a season ago are no longer around. And four of the five who are back play for North Carolina. Further, only three teams - Miami, UNC and Wake Forest - returned their leading scorers from last season.
"I think it just speaks to the parity of college basketball," Clemson coach Brad Brownell said of the ACC's out-of-conference struggles. "I think there's just more and more better players. I think because the kids play against each other in AAU and all those events that kids aren't in awe now of playing against ACC schools."
Then Brownell gave what might be the best explanation of the ACC's woes.
"I also think that our league has a lot of young players," he said. "I think we have a lot of new coaches that are in their first or second year that are still trying to understand their systems."
Brownell, in his second season at Clemson, is one of seven ACC coaches who are in their first or second seasons with their teams. Another, Virginia's Tony Bennett, is in his third.
Given the inexperience, both on the court and on the bench, maybe it's not surprising that, say, Harvard would find itself atop the ACC standings with a 2-0 conference record.
Still, UNC coach Roy Williams said, "We have a great league and just the number of national championships that's been won here in the last 10 or 11 years (prove that) ... I've seen some of the scores that might surprise you, but we still have to wait and see what (teams) do once we get into conference play."
Easy for him to say. The Tar Heels use the transition game to their benefit on the court, but they're perhaps the conference's only team to avoid transition in the broader sense.