Tobacco Rd. no superhighway

Minus No. 1 threat, ACC balanced in mediocrity

ACC preview

January 05, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

It must be a grand time to be a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

In late November and early December, the nation's proudest college basketball league won the inaugural ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Last month, the conference's front office finished negotiations on an extension of its television rights package, which will nearly double revenue, to $30 million a year.

Look closer, however, and you find that Tobacco Road and environs have had healthier days on the court.

The ACC's nine coaches spent the off-season mounting a public relations campaign to stave off situations like last season, when the conference was limited to three teams in the NCAA tournament, its poorest representation in two decades. Never mind that North Carolina, the third entry, didn't survive the first round.

No. 8 Duke, No. 12 Maryland and No. 14 North Carolina are back in the Top 25, but that's a poll the ACC would just as soon not linger on.

The ACC is 7-10 against ranked teams, 0-8 against this week's Top 10. The conference doesn't have a powerhouse team, and it's weak at the bottom. In replicas of the Rating Percentage Index, the computer formula used by the NCAA to seed and select its 64-team tournament field, the ACC ranks behind the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10.

Its nonconference winning percentage, currently .712, is destined to be the conference's worst since the 1968-69 season. Back then, the ACC's pedigree consisted of just two national titles. It produced five of the 12 NCAA champions between 1982 and '93, but this should be the conference's seventh straight year without a title.

ACC underclassmen Elton Brand and Steve Francis were the top two players taken in last year's NBA draft. Early entry and the 13-scholarship limit have led to a watered-down world of college basketball in general -- and the ACC in particular -- that would make NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue envious.

"College basketball has changed, because the best players leave," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "If the ACC has lost a lot of players, that meant it had the best players, and consistently gets the best. You can't stockpile players anymore. Guys have left that would be juniors and seniors, the best players in the league."

Duke and Maryland were a combined 35-1 against the rest of the conference last season, but the roster hits that both took will make for more balance. Is there a possibility that the conference could have another blanket finish like 1995, when Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Wake Forest shared regular-season honors with 12-4 records?

"There's certainly better balance," Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "There isn't one team that's far away from anybody else. We had a couple of outstanding teams last year. Now we have a couple of good ones, who could become outstanding."

A .500 record in conference play has usually meant the NCAA tournament for ACC teams, and this year seven hopefuls would have been forgiven if they penciled in half of those eight wins. Given how close to the vest conference play often becomes, however, Williams scoffed at the notion that Clemson and Florida State will be automatic sweeps.

So did the Seminoles, who last night scored a 66-64 win at Wake Forest.

Beset by injuries, Clemson has gone 6-6 against one of the nation's weakest schedules. Florida State's marquee win had been over Vanderbilt, which is No. 86 in one of the RPI replicas.

Virginia and Georgia Tech can work their way into the NCAA tournament, but Pete Gillen and Bobby Cremins didn't help themselves with some of the fodder they placed on their schedules. They are Nos. 84 and 110, respectively, in one of the RPI replicas.

The Cavaliers take a five-game win streak into tonight's game against Duke, but they have few significant wins, as Gillen reseeded his roster with four freshmen and two transfers. The Yellow Jackets are still reliant on big men Jason Collier and Alvin Jones, and still getting bad guard play. That cost them in narrow losses to Michigan, Georgia and Stanford.

N.C. State, which will play its first ACC game at its new Entertainment and Sports Complex against Maryland tomorrow, used a 7-0 start to gain its first ranking since January 1990, then promptly lost at Tulane.

Wake Forest was the only ranked team in the Rainbow Classic, but lost twice in Hawaii and finished sixth out of eight teams. "We came home a team that pretty much staggered off the plane," said coach Dave Odom, whose team is even more wobbly after its stunning loss to Florida State.

The ACC media picked Wake Forest third in the preseason, behind North Carolina and Duke, but 11-2 Maryland is confident and should better contend for the top spot.

Picked No. 1 in the nation by one preseason magazine, the Tar Heels muddled their way to an 8-4 start that had coach Bill Guthridge wondering if he sailed his team into too many tough tests. Only North Carolina has a strength of schedule rating tougher than Maryland's, and graybeard point guard Ed Cota is still around to steer the ship.

Duke dropped its first two games, to current No. 1 Stanford and last year's champ, Connecticut. The Blue Devils since have nine straight victories, the best being over Illinois and DePaul. Jason Williams has settled in at the point, and fellow freshman Carlos Boozer has begun to replace some of the inside play that left with Brand.

The ACC's 47th regular-season schedule began last night, and the opener carried some unwanted symbolism: Florida State at Wake Forest was moved to a 6 p.m. start to avoid the Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl.

North Carolina opens tonight against Clemson, which is 0-45 in Chapel Hill. Things get more serious Sunday, when Duke comes to Cole Field House.

Some of its teams are battered, but the conference still has a ton of talent and two months to mount a push for its place in the national argument. Maybe all of the upheaval promised by the millennium hype wasn't meant to surface until March, after some young ACC teams were tested by their rivals.

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