Facing stronger foes, Duke still heavyweight of league

With four straight titles, Devils must leap UM, Wake, Virginia, UNC

ACC men's preview

College Basketball

January 02, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Yes, the talent gap between Duke and the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference appears to be narrowing.

Yes, with the resurgence of programs like Wake Forest and Virginia, the ACC appears poised to regain some of its diminished stature. Don't be surprised to see five, maybe six, teams from the conference receive NCAA tournament bids, after the league sent three squads in the past two years.

But none of that changes the basic law of the ACC jungle, as conference play commences tonight.

The ACC race is still Duke's to lose.

Duke star Shane Battier said recently that, with heavy competition expected from the likes of Maryland, Wake Forest, Virginia and North Carolina, the league title is up for grabs. Maybe so, yet the simple fact remains that Duke has won the past four conference titles, has possibly the best starting lineup in the country, and must be the pick to make it five in a row for the first time in ACC history.

When asked if the league is wide-open, Maryland coach Gary Williams said, "I'd like to say it is, but until somebody or more than one or two teams prove they can play with Duke, they should be the most favored team. They've earned that right. There's been a lot of talk in the last couple of years about the league catching up with Duke, and it hasn't happened."

With five ACC teams ranked in the nation's top 20, this could be the year it does happen.

The Terps rank among the teams most likely to dethrone Duke, which features a slew of potential NBA lottery picks in Battier, point guard Jason Williams, forward-center Carlos Boozer and swingman Mike Dunleavy. Maryland was the only conference team to beat the Blue Devils last season, and the Terps have one of the deepest, most experienced teams in the nation, led by three preseason All-Americans in Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Terence Morris.

Wake Forest looks particularly dangerous, with a Maryland-like bench and bona fide stars in forward Darius Songalia and fifth-year senior guard Robert O'Kelley. Then there's up-and-coming Virginia, with junior forward Chris Williams and much-improved point guard Donald Hand showing the way.

Oh, did we forget North Carolina? The Tar Heels merely have one of the nation's top players in guard Joe Forte, a fine frontcourt led by senior center Brendan Haywood and a fiery front man in first-year coach Matt Doherty. If they settle their point guard situation, this is another Final Four contender.

And don't underestimate North Carolina State and Georgia Tech. The Wolfpack return all five starters from last year's 20-14 team, and Georgia Tech has served notice it will be no pushover with early season victories over UCLA and Kentucky.

"I thought back in April we would be the best conference in the country, and my fears have been realized," Virginia coach Pete Gillen said. "Every night is going to be a battle."

Here is a brief rundown of the ACC:

Duke

Record: 11-1

Biggest win: 78-77 over Illinois

Prime-time players: Point guard Jason Williams (19.4 ppg, 6.0 apg, .468 three-point percentage), forward Shane Battier (17.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, .457 three-point percentage) and swingman Mike Dunleavy (.400 three-point percentage) might be the most formidable trio in the nation.

Up-and-coming: Freshman guard Chris Duhon (6.5 ppg, 5.1 apg) looks like the ACC Rookie of the Year candidate he was made out to be.

Warning sign: Like last year, the Blue Devils appear to go only seven players deep. In a stronger ACC, that might be enough manpower to win their fifth straight conference title. The loss of freshman G Andre Sweet to academic problems doesn't help.

Contenders or not: This is Duke we're talking about. The Blue Devils remain the league's team to beat.

Georgia Tech

Record: 8-3

Biggest win: 72-67 over UCLA

Prime-time players: F Alvin Jones (14.3 ppg, 9.4 rpg) has been excellent inside, while G Shaun Fein (15.9 ppg) and G Tony Atkins (14.3 ppg) has complemented him outside.

Up-and-coming: Freshman G Marvin Lewis (11.7 ppg) has been outstanding coming off the bench.

Warning sign: The Yellow Jackets might not have the depth to sustain first-year coach Paul Hewitt's preferred up-tempo style against the ACC.

Contenders or not: With victories over UCLA and Kentucky, Georgia Tech has served notice it will not be a pushover in the conference. The Yellow Jackets look like a fifth-place team at best, but a dangerous also-ran at that.

N.C. State

Record: 8-3

Biggest win: 77-76 over UNC-Greensboro

Prime-time players: Junior G Anthony Gundy (17.1 ppg, 4.3 apg, 5.0 rpg, 3.0 spg) has been among the best players in the league thus far, while senior F Kenny Inge (13.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg) has patrolled the inside dependably.

Up-and-coming: Senior F Damon Thornton recently returned from a nine-game suspension after another scrape with the law. It won't take long for him to shake off any rust and make the Wolfpack formidable.

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