Winner of everything but, Duke set for ACC tourney National champ finds league title elusive

March 11, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

Some teams will be trying to keep their momentum going. Others will be trying to get it back. Some will go in with bids to the NCAA tournament locked up. Others will go in needing to win a game or two, or maybe win it all just to be invited.

The 1992 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, which will begin tomorrow and end Sunday at the Charlotte (N.C.) Coliseum, is a lot of things to a lot of teams. But one thing it's not: a foregone conclusion that favorite Duke merely can show up and win.

"In a lot of ways, it's probably more open than in past years," Virginia coach Jeff Jones said yesterday. "Quite clearly, Duke is the team everyone is shooting for. But I could see any one of a number of teams winning. I know it's a cliche, but you have to take it one game at a time. If you get to the championship game, anything can happen."

Or one extra game at a time, as the case might be for eighth seed Maryland and ninth seed Clemson, which will play the first preliminary game in the 39-year history of the tournament. The Terrapins and Tigers will meet tomorrow night at 7, with the winner facing Duke at 2:30 p.m. Friday.

The Blue Devils, with the return last Sunday of sophomore forward Grant Hill, are certainly the best team in the conference, since they are the best team in the country. But strange occurrences have bedeviled Duke the past few years in the ACC tournament, including a 22-point loss to North Carolina in last year's championship game.

"The thing about Duke is that they will come in [as] a team possessed," said Clemson coach Cliff Ellis. "You're going to have a team that's won a national championship, that's been to the Final Four, that's won the ACC regular season. But the seniors haven't won an ACC tournament championship. Any and every team better watch out."

While the Blue Devils come in on a roll, having won four straight since losing at Wake Forest Feb. 23, others come in on a reel. The Demon Deacons closed out the regular season with two straight defeats to Maryland at home and at North Carolina State. North Carolina has lost five out of six.

And then there's Florida State. The Seminoles, who finished second to Duke in their first ACC season, haven't played since a 110-95 victory at home over North Carolina two weeks ago. Though Pat Kennedy kidded about a scrimmage his team held against homebound independent Penn State, the Seminoles haven't played against anybody but themselves.

"It's been an interesting two weeks," said Kennedy, whose team opens up against seventh seed North Carolina State at 7 p.m. Friday. "We've talked to the kids a lot. We've made it all positive. We've wanted to stay sharp, but it's been tough. Our guys have been penned up for two weeks. They're anxious to get out and play."

While Duke, Florida State, North Carolina and Georgia Tech have locked up bids to the NCAA tournament -- the 64-team field will be announced Sunday -- Wake Forest and Virginia are in the precarious position of having to win their opening-round games. Clemson will probably have to at least reach the final, while N.C. State will have to win the tournament. Maryland, in its last year of NCAA probation, isn't eligible.

Despite being only one of two teams to beat Duke this season (North Carolina was the other), Wake Forest is staggering to the finish line. A losing record in the conference, as well as the two tough season-ending losses, make the Demon Deacons a rather interesting question mark.

"Precarious at best," coach Dave Odom said of his team's NCAA tournament chances.

Consider that the Demon Deacons will have to face North Carolina in the 9:30 p.m. game Friday night. Though it will give them more time to recover from the food poisoning that sent four players to the hospital earlier this week and kept four others in their dorm rooms, it might not be enough. The Tar Heels won both regular-season games, including one in which they came back from a 22-point deficit.

"The less we concentrate on North Carolina, the less we concentrate on the past week, and the more we can concentrate on correcting the flaws that caused us to stumble, the better off we'll be," said Odom. "The only thing we can think about is turning our season back around."

Virginia appears to have done just that by winning its past two games, including a 76-74 victory at Maryland Saturday. The Cavaliers, with two fewer wins than the Demon Deacons but a much tougher non-conference schedule, will probably have to beat Georgia Tech in Friday's noon opener to have any chance of making the NCAA tournament.

"As far as the NCAA, it's really hard to tell," said Jones. "We're going to go in trying to place a lot of emphasis on this game. Not to make it where it's a must-win. But it's very important. I couldn't venture a guess how it's going to turn out."

The same could be said for this year's ACC tournament. Unless Duke has the final say.

NOTES: The ACC announced yesterday that only 400 to 500 tickets of the allotted 22,000 for tomorrow night's preliminary game have been returned to the league office. Those tickets have been distributed to junior high school students in the Charlotte area.

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