GREENSBORO, N.C. - North Carolina is wincing at the speculation that the Tar Heels are about to slip, after losing so much talent a year ago. Virginia has so much experience and proven scoring ability. Wake Forest has a new coach in Skip Prosser, who is bent on turning the senior-laden Demon Deacons into a running, pressing, up-tempo force.
But if anyone is going to break Duke's stranglehold on the Atlantic Coast Conference, it will be the Maryland Terrapins.
That's the view of the media members who gathered with men's basketball players and coaches yesterday at the Grandover Resort and Conference Center for the 40th annual ACC Operation Basketball event.
"Duke deserves all the respect they get. They won the national championship, they have a lot of great players back, and their coach knows what it takes to win," said Juan Dixon, Maryland's fifth-year senior shooting guard.
The voters said yesterday that Maryland had the best chance to keep Duke - taking aim at its fourth national title - from winning its fifth consecutive ACC regular-season crown. Duke earned 661 points and was named on 69 of 74 ballots as the choice to reign supreme in the league once again. Maryland picked up the last five, first-place ballots and collected 596 points to finish second overall.
The most noteworthy result after that was the predicted fourth-place finish by the Tar Heels. They lost guard Joseph Forte and center Brendan Haywood to the NBA and point guard Ronald Curry and power forward Julius Peppers to the football team in Chapel Hill, after Carolina flamed out in the second round of the NCAA tournament last March.
Virginia picked up 483 points to finish third, followed by Carolina (421), Wake Forest (407), Georgia Tech (254), North Carolina State (242), Florida State (140) and Clemson (126).
Duke returns starters Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy and Jason Williams, who is the consensus pick for ACC Player of the Year. The Blue Devils also have added Rutgers transfer Dahntay Jones, a guard/forward who was the Big East Rookie of the Year two years ago, and blue-chip Texas recruit Daniel Ewing.
Maryland returns four starters and seven players from the first Final Four team in school history. The Terps and Duke fueled a growing rivalry by facing each other four times. Duke won three games, including the national semifinal contest.
"There are certain games you look for on the calendar, and Maryland is one of them," said Boozer, a senior center. "We've had some unbelievable games the last few years."
"Maryland and Duke are a cut above the rest of us," Virginia coach Pete Gillen said. "We can beat them on a given night, but frankly, they are ahead of us. It's overall talent, experience, success in big games. They've done it under the brightest lights."
Gillen, who recently signed a $9 million, 10-year contract extension, wants to see the Cavaliers play better defense and perform better on the road.
Prosser, who made a name for himself at Loyola College and Xavier before replacing Dave Odom last spring, wants the Deacons to force the issue on defense and create more points off of turnovers.
All the coaches agreed that the league, which sent six teams to the NCAA tournament, should be just as strong again from top to bottom.
"People always ask, who is the best team in the league? Who is the worst team?" North Carolina coach Matt Doherty said. "The whole league is better."