When several teams in the top half of the Atlantic Coast Conference were beaten by a number from the bottom half this season, it was seen by many as a sign of weakness along Tobacco Road.
In fact, North Carolina State coach Les Robinson said at this year's ACC tournament that "everyone knows it's a down year."
But Robinson and others are now reassessing that opinion.
By virtue of placing four of the five teams that received bids to the NCAA tournament in this week's Sweet 16, the ACC has outdistanced the rest of the competition for the right to claim itself as the toughest league in the country.
With two more teams than the Big Ten and three more than both the Big Eight and the Pacific 10, the ACC has an opportunity to send at least two teams to the Final Four for the third consecutive year, a feat that has never been accomplished since the tournament was expanded in 1975 to include at-large teams.
"In the 12 years I've been in the league, the one thing that I've learned is that the league makes everybody better," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose top-ranked Blue Devils are the No. 1 seed in the East and will play Seton Hall tonight at The Spectrum in Philadelphia. "In order to survive, you have to get better."
Why has the ACC had so much success in this year's NCAA tournament, as well as in the National Invitation Tournament, where Virginia has advanced to the quarterfinals? While Duke was expected to get this far, and probably to its fifth straight Final Four, the other three teams were not. (The fifth ACC Team in the field, Wake Forest, lost in the opening round.)
North Carolina, with three sophomores starting, was said to be too young and inconsistent. Florida State, even before it lost point guard Charlie Ward with a separated shoulder, was thought to be too impatient. And Georgia Tech, coming off a blowout loss to Duke in the ACC tournament, figured to be a little of both.
Some of the ACC's success is attributable to the varied style of play throughout the league. There are primarily half-court, pound the ball inside teams, such as Virginia and North Carolina, teams that like to press full-court, such as Duke and Maryland, and three-point shooting teams, such as Florida State and North Carolina State.
In fact, the Tar Heels prepared for their second-round opponent, Alabama, by recalling the success they had against the Seminoles in the ACC tournament after losing both regular-season games the teams played. North Carolina pressured Alabama's outside shooters and won, 61-54, at Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum.
"I think playing Florida State helped us, because they have the same type of quickness as Alabama," said sophomore center Eric Montross.
In turn, Florida State, which had never made the final 16 since going to the Final Four in 1972, benefited from its first season in the ACC by playing under more difficult road conditions than in the Metro Conference. After Duke, the Seminoles were the best road team in the ACC.
"My strongest perception is that preparation plays a big part in the success you have in this league," said Pat Kennedy, whose Seminoles play Indiana -- the same team they lost to in last year's second round -- tonight at the West Regional in Albuquerque, N.M. "That level of consistently tough games prepares you for the tournament.
Certainly, coaching plays a role in the NCAA tournament success story. Though some say that the league lost two of its better coaches when Jim Valvano left North Carolina State and Terry Holland retired from Virginia, Krzyzewski and Smith are considered to be among the top five active coaches. Against such competition, Kennedy recently was named ACC Coach of the Year.
And certainly, there are some pretty good players in the ACC. Duke may have three of the top 15 in the country in Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill. North Car
olina has three future first-round draft picks in Hubert Davis, George Lynch and Montross. Florida State has Douglas Edwards and former Dunbar star Sam Cassell. Georgia Tech has two standout freshmen in Travis Best and James Forrest.
"We have a lot of great players in our league, so I'm used to it," said Yellow Jackets guard Jon Barry, who after holding Southern Cal's Harold Miner to 18 points, will try to do the same tomorrow night against Memphis State's Anfernee Hardaway in the Midwest Regional at Kansas City, Mo.
Said Kennedy, "If you look at the all-conference teams, I don't think there's another league in the country with as many good players as the ACC."
One more thing the ACC has had so far in this year's NCAA tournament: luck. Smith, who has won more games than anyone in the history of the tournament, made that point earlier this week.
"Just because Forrest throws one in and Miami's doesn't go in off the backboard [against North Carolina], doesn't make our conference any better," said Smith, whose Tar Heels play Ohio State tomorrow night at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. "Maybe it's just a coincidence."
How the ACC has fared
0 ACC teams in the NCAA tournament since 1985:
Year.. .. ..No. .. .. Teams advancing past second round
1985.. .. ..5.. .. .. N. Carolina, N.C. State, Ga. Tech in final 8;
.. .. .. .. .. .. . ..Maryland in final 16
1986.. .. ..6.. .. .. Duke in final; N.C. State in final 8
1987.. .. ..6.. .. .. North Carolina in final 8; Duke in final 16
1988.. .. ..5.. .. .. Duke in Final Four; North Carolina in final 8
1989.. .. ..6.. .. .. Duke Final Four; Va. in final 8; N.C. State, N.
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. Carolina in final 16
1990.. .. ..6.. .. .. Duke in final; Ga. Tech in Final Four; Clemson,
.. ... ... ... .. .. N.C. in final 16
1991.. .. ..6.. .. .. Duke wins title; North Carolina in Final Four
1992.. .. ..5.. .. .. Duke, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Florida
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. State in final 16