`Mighty' ACC a mite over-hyped

Ncaa Tournament

March 20, 2001|By John Eisenberg

AFTER THE MARYLAND Terrapins lost at home to North Carolina in January, the popular post-game spin was, well, the Atlantic Coast Conference is a lot tougher this season after two down years, so what do you expect?

Who could argue at the time? Duke was the nation's No. 1 team. Maryland had been a top-five preseason pick. A 12-0 start had helped Wake Forest climb as high as No. 3. A 10-0 start had helped Virginia crack the Top Ten. And North Carolina was on a roll that would carry it to the top of the national polls.

Impressive. But two months later, that sound you hear is the college basketball gods chanting "overrated" after two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

Six ACC teams received bids, twice as many as a year ago, but only Duke and Maryland are still playing. This season's "vastly improved" ACC ended up producing the same number of Sweet 16 teams as last season's dud.

If you were glued to the television last weekend, you know this wasn't the fabled league's shining moment. North Carolina lost to Penn State, an acceptable result in the Peach Bowl, but otherwise a bad way for the Tar Heels to bow out. Wake Forest trailed Butler - the school, not the vocation - by a surreal 43-10 score at halftime. Virginia couldn't solve Gonzaga, Georgia Tech fell to St. Joseph's and Maryland almost lost to George Mason.

That's u-g-l-y.

Yes, Duke cruised as a No. 1 seed. And the Terps bounced back from a near-upset to put away Georgia State in the second round. Both are legitimate candidates to reach the Final Four, and if they get that far, the ACC will look a lot better than it does now.

But if one stumbles, the ACC won't have much to brag about this season; one Final Four qualifier is all but assumed, like a deductible on an insurance policy. And if both the Blue Devils and Terps stumble, the Final Four will proceed without an ACC team for just the second time since 1988.

Improved, ha.

Granted, an upset bug has hit the entire bracket, with "mid-majors" such as Gonzaga and Georgia State knocking off teams from major conferences. It's amazing to see what happens when teams have to play in weird places and at weird times in front of thousands of empty seats, stripped of hype and familiar officials.

It's called democracy, the ultimate equalizer.

But for all the talk of how the mid-majors have taken over, the Pac-10 still put four teams into the Sweet 16, and the Big Ten produced three. Of the biggest conferences, only the ACC and Southeastern Conference have struggled, with each losing four of six qualifiers over the weekend.

Quite simply, the ACC is supposed to do better. What happened? Let's go through the cases one by one.

Georgia Tech overachieved just to make the tournament and played well in losing, so it gets a pass. So does a young Virginia team that couldn't do anything away from home all season; Gonzaga was a dangerous opponent, and, either way, Virginia coach Pete Gillen's program is a work in progress, on the rise.

Wake Forest? You can't spin that one positively. The Demon Deacons were terrific early in the season and kept getting worse until they hit bottom at 43-10. Insiders are blaming coach Dave Odom for tinkering with his rotation when things were going well. The team wasn't that good to begin with.

That brings us to North Carolina, which won at Duke in January, swept its season series with Maryland and compiled an 18-game winning streak at one point. How could such a team lose to Joe Paterno University?

Don't give me that mush about Penn State's being better than anyone thought. The Nittany Lions were terrific, nothing against them, but when Carolina loses after having a four-point lead and the ball with five minutes to go in an NCAA tournament game, you ask what was wrong with Carolina, not what was right with the other guys.

The story circulating is that Carolina's Joe Forte was shooting so much earlier in the season that Jason Capel and his teammates started resenting him, and rookie coach Matt Doherty couldn't get everyone back on the same page. Forte certainly was a shell of his All-American self against Penn State.

You have to laugh. Tar Heels fans would have barbecued ol' Bill Guthridge for losing in the second round, and all he did was get two teams to the Final Four in three years. The fans wanted a coaching change, and they got one.

True, Doherty did a good job for most of the season and deserves praise for moving student sections closer to the floor in the Dean Dome, but the Carolina job has no margin for error and the pressure to improve the team's NCAA performance next season will be intense. Sleep well, coach.

Only an apologist could sift through those disappointments and deduce that the ACC was anything other than overrated in the end this season. It turns out the league was as it always is lately - top-weighted with a couple of strong teams and then fairly marginal, especially on neutral courts and in front of empty seats, the ultimate test.

The story might have turned out differently had the NCAAs come in December for Wake, January for Virginia and February for Carolina. But it's March, and the mighty ACC has again fired a volley with more misses than hits. Let the chanting begin.

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