ACC leaders gear up for wild finish Five teams separated by just 2 1/2 games as stretch run begins

Duke in driver's seat

Terps, Wake stumble toward final 2 weeks


Before the season began, coaches throughout the Atlantic Coast Conference had similar predictions: The balance among the top five teams and the competitiveness of the bottom four would make for a close race, maybe even a photo finish for this year's regular-season championship.

They were right on the numbers, even if not on the teams involved.

With two weeks remaining, no fewer than four teams have a realistic chance at claiming the prize and, with it, the No. 1 seed in next month's ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C.

And with the fifth-place team being resurgent North Carolina, which has never finished lower than third, it should make the last two weeks as wild as the past two months have been.

"I like the last two weeks because whoever plays the best is going to win the title," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose unheralded Terrapins have been in contention since starting with six wins in their first seven ACC games. "Nobody is going to back in. Whoever wins is going to have to earn it."

This is how the race is shaping up.

Who's hot: Here's a novelty -- Duke and North Carolina. The ACC's perennial powers apparently have gotten their game faces on for Greensboro -- and beyond. Somehow you knew that Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith would get their teams ready for the madness of March.

With the players in Krzyzewski's 10-man rotation accepting their roles, the Blue Devils have made a late-season surge past Wake Forest into first place by winning 10 of their past 11 games, including six straight since a 74-70 loss at Maryland on Jan. 26. With two of its last three league games at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke is in the driver's seat.

The Tar Heels are coming on, too. After starting 0-3 for the first time in league history and falling to 1-4, North Carolina has won six of its past seven ACC games, including two straight comeback wins from double-digit deficits on the road. Most attribute it to the sudden maturity of freshman point guard Ed Cota and a rejuvenated defense.

"It's taken a little bit of time," said Cota, the first Tar Heels freshman to start at the point since Kenny Smith in 1984. "As a freshman you're always learning, and Coach is throwing a lot of ** new stuff at you, especially when you're the point guard. Before I tried to push it up all the time. Now I'm slowing things up a little; I know when to push."

So apparently, do his teammates.

Who's not: You don't have to look any farther than College Park. After winning 17 of their first 19 games, a team picked to finish near the bottom of the league has lost four of six. Their 78-61 nonconference defeat to Massachusetts on Saturday might be a case of bad scheduling -- or a sign that the Terrapins have peaked.

But Maryland, which dropped from 10th last week to 14th in this week's Associated Press poll and next plays tomorrow at Georgia Tech, is not the only top-tier ACC team that seems to be losing steam. With a third straight regular-season title on the line, Wake Forest is stumbling to the finish.

After winning 18 of their first 19, the Demon Deacons have split their past four games, including Sunday's shocking overtime defeat to North Carolina State at home. Even before the loss to the Wolfpack, Wake Forest had been spotty the past few weeks and will be tested tomorrow night in Chapel Hill.

While Maryland and Wake Forest have all but clinched their spots in the field of 64 NCAA tournament teams by assuring themselves of at least a .500 record in the ACC, Virginia seems to be playing itself out of a bid.

Coach Jeff Jones says his team, despite dropping to 5-8 in the league after Sunday's loss at Clemson, has enough character to bounce back and put itself in position for an NCAA bid. But he also knows what a difficult climb it will be -- and winning the ACC tournament might be the only way in.

"I think we will [bounce back]," Jones said yesterday. "We're resilient. We showed that against Clemson. Each of the remaining games is very important, but we're going to have to play hard and someone will have to stop us and make a big shot."

What's on the line: Not only are these teams jockeying for position in the ACC tournament, but for the NCAA tournament as well. If the NCAA tournament started today, Duke and Wake Forest would likely be top seeds, with Clemson hanging onto a No. 2 seed. Maryland is playing its way down to a No. 4 seed, and North Carolina is playing its way up to a No. 4 seed.

Should the Blue Devils or Demon Deacons win the ACC tournament, they likely will get the top seed in the East. For Duke, that could mean playing in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Since the first and second rounds will be held at Lawrence Joel Coliseum, Wake Forest would go to Pittsburgh.) The other might wind up being shipped to the West as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, depending on how Kansas and Minnesota finish.

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