Luster is off proud ACC

Basketball: Hurt by early exits to the NBA, the ACC's decline will be underlined tonight when the NCAA tournament bids are announced.

Acc Tournament

March 12, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

A year ago, the coaches and athletic directors of the Atlantic Coast Conference collectively harrumphed when the once-powerful basketball league was handed only three invitations to the NCAA tournament.

Tonight, when the bids to this year's tournament are announced, the ACC should be ecstatic to get three in the field of 64 and might be downright overjoyed to get a fourth.

The reason? Like college basketball itself, the ACC isn't what it used to be.

North Carolina's free fall, in which the Tar Heels tumbled out of the Top 25 rankings, as well as the continued slide of Georgia Tech and Florida State, has left the ACC looking like an aged movie star badly in need of a facelift.

It will be apparent when the NCAA selection committee emerges from behind closed doors in an Indianapolis hotel conference room to announce the seedings. It has been obvious to a former member of the committee for some time.

"I don't think there is any lack of respect for the ACC, but we are in a down cycle," said Virginia athletic director Terry Holland.

While regular-season champion Duke and runner-up Maryland secured their at-large bids even before today's ACC tournament final, North Carolina and Virginia needed to avert any potential disasters that were lurking in Charlotte, N.C.

Neither could.

The Tar Heels lost to Wake Forest in Friday's quarterfinal round, and will now hope that their strong Ratings Percentage Index (32) and long-standing history of going to the NCAA tournament (25 straight years) will weigh heavily in their favor.

The Cavaliers, who twice beat North Carolina during the regular season, were defeated by North Carolina State in another quarterfinal game and will need the committee to overlook a mediocre RPI (64) as well as woefully weak strength of schedule (131).

"Somebody would have to have a vendetta against Carolina to keep them out," Wake Forest coach Dave Odom said before the ACC tournament began. "Given the schedule they've played [rated 10th], they should be in."

History is certainly on North Carolina's side, and Virginia's too. Since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no ACC team that finished with a winning record in the league has been excluded. Both teams were 9-7 this year, tying for third.

When the league received three bids last year -- also a first since the field was expanded -- Odom and others reacted with some indignation. Given a No. 2 power rating in the country after three straight years of being first, it seemed justified.

But this year?

The ACC slipped to sixth overall, behind perennial powers such as the Big Ten and Big 12, the suddenly deep Southeastern Conference and Pac-10, as well as a rejuvenated Big East.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said it was merely cyclical. Others, including Odom, pointed to the fact that the continuous defections of the league's young stars to the NBA made it almost inevitable.

"There is no conference in the country that is feeling the brunt of early departures as much as the ACC," said Odom, whose program was hurt by the transfer of center Loren Woods to Arizona two years ago. "They have left at a rate faster than we can replace them."

Said longtime television basketball analyst Billy Packer: "I read somewhere that there were only 14 seniors starting in the league. What made the ACC so strong for so many years -- having the top recruiting classes -- has become its Achilles' heel. If you took the top players away from any other league, they'd be going through the same thing."

While Duke has survived the loss of then sophomores Elton Brand and William Avery, as well as freshman Corey Maggette, from a team that lost to Connecticut in last year's NCAA final, and Maryland has overcome the departure of senior-to-be Steve Francis, North Carolina and Georgia Tech have not been so fortunate.

The Tar Heels have yet to recover from losing Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison after their junior seasons two years ago, as well as the retirement of legendary coach Dean Smith three years ago. The Yellow Jackets, the only ACC team aside from Duke and North Carolina to play in the Final Four since 1983, crumbled after losing Dion Glover to an injury in 1998-99 and to the NBA this season.

"We lost something and we've not been able to get the magic back," said Bobby Cremins, who announced during the season that he was leaving after 19 years at Georgia Tech and coached his final game there Thursday night, losing to Florida State in the play-in game of the ACC tournament.

Some also point to the loss of other big-name coaches. It began when Jim Valvano was forced out at North Carolina State more than a decade ago. Neither Les Robinson nor Herb Sendek have brought the Wolfpack back to the same competitive level. Florida State tailed off after Pat Kennedy left for DePaul three years ago, and Clemson has faltered since Rick Barnes went to Texas in 1998.

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