The opening game of the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball season last month between perennial overdog North Carolina and the league's newest member, Florida State, was more than just a premiere; it might have been a premonition as to the kind of season it's going to be.
"Unpredictable," said Virginia coach Jeff Jones.
"You're going to see a lot of crazy scores," said Maryland's Gary Williams.
A shocking 12-point victory for Florida State, played on the home court of the then-fifth-ranked Tar Heels and played without Seminoles star forward Douglas Edwards, was indicative of one of two things: Either North Carolina isn't as good as in recent years, or the ACC might even be better than originally believed.
Whether the Tar Heels have slipped a notch, or whether the Seminoles merely are acting upon their schizophrenia again will be played out between now and the ACC tournament at the Charlotte Coliseum in mid-March. Only one thing seems certain: Duke is a clear-cut favorite.
"Everybody is chasing Duke," said Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, speaking for the entire conference, if not the entire country.
The defending national champion Blue Devils have not lost since being throttled by North Carolina in last year's ACC tournament final. They are deeper and stronger than a year ago, but a narrow overtime victory over a young but dangerous Michigan team showed that Duke could have moments of vulnerability.
If it hasn't been evident over the past six years, when the Blue Devils made the Final Four five times, it certainly is now. The balance of power has shifted along Tobacco Road, from Chapel Hill to Durham, from the legendary Dean Smith to the legend-in-making Mike Krzyzewski. Not that the Blue Devils will run through the league unbeaten, a feat last accomplished by the Tar Heels (who else?) in 1987.
"There are a number of teams that can beat us," said Krzyzewski.
"Duke is on one of those runs like Vegas was last year," said North Carolina's Dean Smith. "Maybe nobody can touch them."
Though Duke struggled to beat Virginia, 68-62, in its ACC opener Thursday night in Charlottesville, there aren't that many teams who have a chance this season. Despite its 6-2 showing in the Big East Challenge and the insistence of the coaches that the league is as strong as ever, the ACC right now has more teams trying to settle down going into conference play than in any recent season.
Among the upper-echelon teams, North Carolina is looking for more consistency from its two best frontcourt players, sophomore center Eric Montross and junior forward George Lynch. Wake Forest is looking for someone to replace injured guard Randolph Childress, and Florida State still has to prove it can handle the physical and emotional rigors of the league.
"We're an inexperienced team looking to improve," said Smith, who might be lacking in experience, but not in talent. "I've had more experienced teams, but I still think we're a contender."
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the ACC so far is Georgia Tech, which plays host to Maryland tomorrow in the league opener for both teams. The Yellow Jackets reached the semifinals of the preseason NIT (losing to Texas), but have beaten Kentucky and Richmond. Freshman guard Travis Best has helped Georgia Tech overcome the loss of Kenny Anderson.
But after that, the drop-off in the league is considerable. Virginia, with one of the youngest teams in the conference, started strong, but has since slumped against a bear of an early-season schedule. After its fast 7-1 start, Maryland dropped a pair of games at the Fiesta Bowl tournament.
North Carolina State and Clemson have been beset by injuries (both N.C. State's Bryant Feggins and Clemson's Wayne Buckingham are out for the season with knee injuries) as well as academic troubles for the Tigers (senior guard David Young is ineligible). The only saving grace for the Wolfpack is senior forward Tom Gugliotta.
"This team has responded extremely well to whatever situation it has faced," said Clemson coach Cliff Ellis, who could be on the hot seat by the end of the season. "We look forward to the challenge."
Clemson and Duke have different sorts of challenges this season. While the Tigers will be trying to win an ACC game, the Blue Devils will be trying not to lose one. That has happened only once, in 1987, when North Carolina and Maryland were at top and bottom, respectively.
Krzyzewski said he doesn't believe this is going to be a down year in the ACC.
"For the last five years, questions have been asked about our conference," he said. "At the end, of our year, we'll have a great record. Our conference is not down. It's as good as ever."
Perhaps, but for now there is one ACCertainty.
Duke is even better than it was a year ago. And it is clearly better than anyone else in the league, even North Carolina.
How they'll finish
Here's The Sun's predicted order of finish for the ACC season:
1. Duke (15-1)
2. North Carolina (12-4)
3. Georgia Tech (10-6)
4. Wake Forest (10-6)
5. Florida State (10-6)
6. Virginia (6-10)
7. Maryland (5-11)
8. North Carolina State (3-13)
9. Clemson (1-15)
Most underrated team: Georgia Tech
Most overrated team: Virginia
Most underrated player: Tom Gugliotta of North Carolina State
Most overrated player: Chris King of Wake Forest
Most underrated coach: Gary Williams of Maryland
Most overrated coach: Dave Odom of Wake Forest
Most underrated official: Larry Rose
Most overrated official: John Moreau
Best fans: Georgia Tech
Worst fans: North Carolina
Toughest non-conference schedule: Duke (St. John's in Big East-ACC Challenge, at Michigan, at LSU, at UCLA)
Easiest non-conference schedule: Clemson (Tennessee State, Charleston Southern, UNC-Asheville, Wofford, at Western Carolina)