Because of ACC, Terps out of their league

March 20, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

North Carolina barely deserved to make the NCAA tournament. Duke went down to the final seconds against a No. 8 seed. Maryland suffered the worst loss by a No. 3 since the inception of the seedings in 1979.

For the 21st straight year, the Atlantic Coast Conference has placed at least two teams in the Sweet 16. But the decline of the ACC is obvious to anyone paying close attention. Has been all season, really.

Tempting as it is to pin Maryland's 35-point loss to UCLA on Gary Williams -- the Terps were inexplicably unprepared, couldn't stop an alley oop and never used their 3-2 zone -- the problem goes beyond the coach.

Maryland is what it is under Williams -- an NCAA team seven straight seasons, a Sweet 16 team four times in that stretch, nothing less, nothing more. But the ACC isn't what it once was, and every member of the conference is suffering.

Not to diminish Maryland's 25-win season, but how is it that the Terps lost three players to the NBA, started 0-3 in the conference and still emerged as the ACC's second-best team?

Very simple.

The competition was mediocre.

Even Maryland's best nonconference wins (Kentucky, Illinois) came against opponents who failed to reach the Sweet 16. But it's the ACC that proved the Terps' undoing, the ACC that failed to prepare them for UCLA.

Clearly, Maryland caught UCLA on the wrong night, a night on which the Bruins looked like the best team in the country. But it has been a long, long time since Maryland looked so overmatched athletically.

Lonny Baxter was first-team All-ACC, but he didn't play anyone as active as UCLA's Jerome Moiso or Dan Gadzuric this season. Terence Morris was a preseason All-American, but UCLA reserve JaRon Rush looked more explosive.

To Williams' credit, he made the most of a rebuilding season, beat Duke at Duke, reached his first ACC tournament final, earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAAs. But in the end, what good did it do him?

The Terps wouldn't have beaten UCLA on their best night. Nor would they have beaten other quicker, more athletic teams headed to the Sweet 16 -- Iowa State, Miami, Tennessee, LSU, Tulsa.

Nothing in Williams' track record suggests that he can lead Maryland to the Elite Eight, much less a Final Four. But the Terps always operated on the premise that good things would happen if they succeeded in the ACC.

If the NCAA tournament is the measuring stick -- and fairly or not, that's the way the college game has evolved -- then succeeding in the ACC might no longer be good enough.

Look at Virginia, the first ACC team since 1979 to get shut out of the NCAA tournament with a winning conference record. Look at Duke, which trailed a disappointing Kansas team in the final minute yesterday before prevailing, 69-64.

North Carolina represents the hole in the argument, but only if you buy into the Tar Heels' sudden turnaround.

Don't.

Unless it wins the NCAA tournament, Carolina will finish the season with 14 losses, its most since 1952. The most recent of those defeats was a no-show performance against Wake Forest in the first round of the ACC tournament.

The Tar Heels made the NCAAs only because of a difficult early-season schedule that included victories over Purdue and Miami. And they made the Sweet 16 only because they took advantage of a favorable draw.

Missouri, the sixth NCAA team out of the Big 12, didn't merit a No. 9 seed. And Stanford was precisely the type of methodical, physical team that Carolina can handle, regardless of its No. 1 seed.

The Tar Heels probably won't beat Tennessee in the Sweet 16, and almost certainly won't beat Miami or Tulsa in the regional final. Meaningless as the regular season has become -- five of the top nine teams in the AP rankings failed to reach the Sweet 16 -- Carolina's 7-9 finish simply cannot be ignored.

Perhaps Duke will beat Florida and then Oklahoma State or Seton Hall to reach the Final Four. But would anyone be surprised if the ACC failed to place a team in college basketball's glamour event for only the second time since 1987?

Duke has become the conference's lone standard-bearer, like Florida State in football. And anyone who believes that early NBA defections are a factor in the ACC's decline should recognize that the three schools hurt the most -- Duke, North Carolina and Maryland -- are still the top three in the conference.

The scoreboard doesn't lie, and neither does the Ratings Percentage Index, which ranked the ACC seventh this season among the nation's conferences.

ACC teams won five national titles between 1982 and '93, but have been shut out since. Meanwhile, the SEC has sent four different teams to the Final Four, the Big Ten and Pac-10 three each.

The ACC needs coaches with more juice than North Carolina State's Herb Sendek, Florida State's Steve Robinson and Clemson's Larry Shyatt. It needs more players who can compete against UCLA's Moiso and Rush.

Maryland will be more experienced next season, win 20 games with or without Terence Morris, perhaps return to the Sweet 16. But the Terps' quest for their first Final Four is becoming more and more problematic.

It's troubling enough that Williams has lost as a higher seed by an average of 17.5 points in four of his past five NCAA tournaments. It's even more troubling that the ACC no longer provides an adequate springboard for NCAA success.

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