The Atlantic Coast Conference, overshadowed by the Big Eight much of the season, once again has emerged as the hot league in the NCAA tournament. It's a long shot, but there is the possibility of an all-ACC Final Four in Minneapolis on April 4 and 6.
Duke heads the cast of ACC teams and has hogged the spotlight this season as the nation's No. 1 team. But Florida State, Georgia Tech and North Carolina -- the ACC's other three teams in the Sweet 16 -- all have a chance to reach the Final Four.
Only once has there been as many as three teams from the same conference in the Final Four. In 1985, Big East teams Georgetown, Villanova and St. John's made the semifinals. Villanova upset Georgetown for the title.
The ACC has had two teams in the Final Four each of the past two years -- Duke and North Carolina in 1991 and Duke and Georgia Tech in '90.
This is the sixth time since 1984 that ACC teams have claimed four spots in the regional semifinals.
"In the 12 years I've been in the league, one of the things I've learned is the league makes everybody better," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "The competition now from one through nine is so good that in order to survive you have to get better.
"This prepares you for NCAA play. We are just tournament-tested as a conference by this time of the year. I think it's great for the league."
The Big Ten is the only other conference with the possibility of getting two teams in the Final Four -- Michigan or Ohio State from the Southeast and Indiana from the West. The Big Eight, which had six teams in the 64-team field and was the top-ranked conference in Jeff Sagarin's power ratings during the regular season, has only Oklahoma State remaining.
The roads ahead for ACC teams:
* In the East, defending national champion Duke (30-2) is the top seed at The Spectrum in Philadelphia and a heavy favorite to defeat Seton Hall and the Kentucky-Massachusetts winner. Duke has been in the past three Final Fours and five of the past six.
* In the Midwest, seventh-seeded Georgia Tech (23-11) has as good a shot as any of the remaining teams in the upset-filled region (Cincinnati, Memphis State, Texas-El Paso). The top three-seeded teams (Kansas, Southern Cal and Arkansas) have all lost.
* In the Southeast, fourth-seeded North Carolina (23-9) has perhaps the toughest chore of all the ACC teams. To reach the Final Four, the Tar Heels would have to beat top-seeded Ohio State in the region semifinals and then either second-seeded Oklahoma State or sixth-seeded Michigan in the final.
* And in the West, first-year ACC member Florida State (22-9), the No. 3 seed, faces No. 2 seed Indiana. Should the Seminoles win, they would face either No. 1 UCLA or No. 12 New Mexico State, which would be playing in front of a friendly crowd in Albuquerque.
The biggest ACC surprises to make the Final Four would be North Carolina or Georgia Tech.
The Tar Heels were in the Final Four last season but struggled to a 9-7 conference record and finished the regular season ranked 18th. Despite being billed as a slow, plodding team from Tobacco Road, the Tar Heels have made it to the Sweet 16 for the 12th consecutive year. They beat a quicker Alabama team in the second round.
And their label may be unfair.
"We have played quick teams all year, some with success and some without it," North Carolina coach Dean Smith said. "We're not without quickness ourselves. People talk about us being a big team, but a lot of times that is because we have [7-foot] Eric [Montross] inside. When he's not in there, we can put out a team that is not slow by any means and may not be that big."
North Carolina is one of only two teams with a victory over Duke to its credit. The other, Wake Forest, is the only ACC team to lose thus far in the tournament.
Added Alabama's Wimp Sanderson about the Tar Heels: "They have good all-around players who are well disciplined and play smart basketball. And they have five guys who shoot over 50 percent."
Georgia Tech is as big as North Carolina with 7-1 Matt Geiger and 6-11 Malcolm Mackey. But the Yellow Jackets, who were in the Final Four two years ago, struggled to an 8-8 finish in league play. And they needed a miracle shot by freshman forward James Forrest to beat Southern California, 79-78, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"We're playing well, and we have to continue to play well," Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins said, "That's where it starts. We have to avoid making mistakes."