Entering the final weekend of the Atlantic Coast Conference season, the race for the regular-season title is about as crowded as the Baltimore Beltway at 5 p.m.
Only 1 1/2 games separate four teams -- first-place Duke (12-3); North Carolina State and Clemson, one game behind; and North Carolina, another half-game back -- after the Blue Devils defeated the Wolfpack last night.
"I can't remember it [the conference race] being this tight. You have four teams that have a really equal chance to win. It's incredible that it's come down to this," said Wolfpack coach Kay Yow yesterday.
Duke controls its destiny in the closest race in the league's 21-year history. If the Blue Devils win Sunday at Virginia, they'll take the top seed in next week's ACC tournament in Charlotte, N.C., and their first league title.
Nothing will be settled until play ends Sunday, when North Carolina plays host to the Wolfpack and Clemson meets Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
By the way, this will mark the first time in the last eight years and only the second time in the last 12 seasons that Virginia hasn't finished either first or second in the regular season.
Beyond the prestige of hoisting a banner, the four teams are jockeying for a chance to grab one of the top 16 seeds in next month's NCAA tournament.
The top four seeds in each of the four regions are awarded home games for the first and second round of the tournament, and while the ACC has done well in recent NCAA tournaments, the league has only once (in 1989) managed to get four teams among the top 16 seeds.
"I think the players understand that any missed rebound or any missed assignment could impact our position," said Sylvia Hatch- ell, North Carolina's coach.
Burning home fires
When the Tar Heels play host to Maryland tonight at Carmichael Auditorium, the two teams will play on a brand-new portable floor, made necessary by a fire two weeks ago.
The 33-year-old building sustained serious water damage in the blaze and forced the team to practice at the Smith Center, while a new floor, shipped in Wednesday, was being delivered.
The Tar Heels, who will get a permanent floor after the season, can now play host to an NCAA subregional, provided they can keep the vandals away. When they arrived home from Sunday's game at Virginia, things were fine at Carmichael, but by Monday morning, vandals had wandered into the gym and cut up the old floor for souvenirs.
"People were coming in and cutting up the floor trying to get the heels on the corners," said Hatchell.
Here's a look at the latest Rating Percentage Index, through Sunday's games, with each team's Associated Press ranking listed in parentheses:
1. Tennessee (1)
2. Old Dominion (3)
3. Texas Tech (6)
4. Connecticut (2)
5. Florida (12)
6. Hawaii (16)
7. N.C. State (10)
8. Stanford (5)
9. Illinois (9)
10. Duke (11)
Among teams of local interest, Maryland is ranked 47th, Navy 88th, Loyola 98th, Towson 121st and Mount St. Mary's 154th.
Pub Date: 2/20/98