ACC middle is packed with parity this year

January 05, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

ATLANTA -- Some might look at this year's Atlantic Coast Conference basketball season as a one- or, possibly, two-team race. But the best race will not be between North Carolina and Duke, but among the other four or five teams with legitimate NCAA tournament dreams.

Given that the defending national champion Tar Heels and the still powerful Blue Devils will likely fight it out again for the regular-season championship and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA East Regional, that leaves three, maybe four, more bids up for grabs.

"It's going to be wild," said Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, whose 12th-ranked Yellow Jackets were considered the third-best team in the ACC before last night's 91-88 loss to Maryland. "I've never seen it so wide-open."

Injuries to one burgeoning star, ineligibility to a pair of foreign players and the departure of several all-conference fixtures have brought parity to the middle of the pack in the ACC. That's except for The Pack, North Carolina State, which is still struggling in the ACC cellar.

Virginia point guard Cory Alexander's broken leg has turned the Cavaliers from a sure-thing NCAA tournament team into an enigma. Will Virginia be the team that lost to Old Dominion or will it be the team that upset Minnesota? Alexander's status, which could be determined later this week, will go a long way in figuring out the Cavaliers' future.

The ineligibility problems of two foreign players at Wake Forest -- center Makahtar Ndiaye of Senegal, who definitely won't play, and forward Ricardo Perado of Spain, who hasn't so far -- has nearly ensured that the Demon Deacons will miss Rodney Rogers just as much as everyone anticipated. A Sweet 16 team last year,Wake could plunge to near the bottom of the ACC standings.

And the departure of three starters, including first-round draft picks Sam Cassell of Baltimore and Douglas Edwards, means Florida State could miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years. The Seminoles, who played an embarrassingly soft non-conference schedule, get point guard Charlie Ward back next week.

"Right now there are three teams playing very well -- North Carolina, Duke and Georgia Tech," said Seminoles coach Pat Kennedy, who recently got senior guard Chuckie Graham back after rehabilitation from reconstructive knee surgery, then lost sophomore forward Derrick Carroll with a season-ending shoulder injury. "It'll be a dogfight to get to 8-8 or 9-7. There's lot of teams in this league that can be in the NCAA tournament."

There have already been signs that these teams in the middle of the pack, and toward the bottom, can either be very good or very bad. How else do you explain Clemson beating Oklahoma State, but losing to Davidson? Or Florida State losing to South Florida? Or North Carolina State nearly upsetting UCLA, but losing at home to Davidson and Campbell?

Teams such as Clemson, which hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in three years, and Maryland, which hasn't been there in six and to any postseason tournament in four, both have a reasonable chance of making the NCAA tournament.

The development of both teams will depend heavily on their depth, health and point guards. The Tigers, who are now using Lou Richie at the point, have two of the league's best frontcourt players in center Sharone Wright and forward Devin Gray of Baltimore, while the Terrapins have the league's biggest surprise, freshman center Joe Smith.

"The key for us is to win the games we're supposed to win at home, and then try to sneak a couple of more that we're not supposed to," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "We didn't do that last season [when the Terps beat only N.C. State]. We can't let our losses [to ranked teams] affect the way we play in our other games."

Said Maryland point guard Duane Simpkins, whose play will be vital to his team's chances this season, "When we lose, we can't go into a fog."

As for North Carolina and Duke, they will merely be playing for seeding. In the ACC tournament the second week of March at the Charlotte Coliseum, and for the NCAA tournament, which winds up in the same place the first week of April.

Both the Tar Heels and Blue Devils lost key players from last year's teams -- George Lynch for North Carolina and Bobby Hurley for Duke -- but they return two of the league's top players in Eric Montross and Grant Hill. They have been strengthened by two of the country's top recruiting classes that include point guard Jeff Capel in Durham and forward Jerry Stackhouse in Chapel Hill.

"I think the whole league is very strong," said North Carolina coach Dean Smith, whose Tar Heels may be without guard Donald Williams (foot injury) when they visit Maryland Saturday. "We should be a contender, but there are a lot of contenders out there."

At least two.

The rest is anybody's guess.

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