ACC earns a deep respect

Terps, Duke get glitz, but league's strength lies in talent below top

March 06, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser wondered if the reputation the Atlantic Coast Conference carried as one of the top college basketball leagues would square with reality as he saw it.

Prosser had spent seven seasons at Xavier in the Atlantic 10 before making the leap to Winston-Salem as the ACC's lone rookie this season. And it wasn't long before he noticed what the fuss was all about.

While scouting Duke, he watched forward Dahntay Jones - the former Big East Conference Rookie of the Year at Rutgers - working as the Blue Devils' fifth scoring option. Prosser's Demon Deacons would start 3-0 in the conference, then get drilled in succession by Virginia, Duke and Maryland by a combined 57 points. Then there was the double-overtime, 118-115 loss at Clemson, which finished tied for last.

Wake Forest managed to tie for third with a 9-7 record. Prosser had his answer. "I didn't know if it was media hype or overkill, but I've become a true believer in the overall strength of this league," Prosser said. "The depth of the talent was something I didn't expect. You can be playing well, then lose two or three in a row, because of the caliber of the teams you're playing. It's an unforgiving league."

As the ACC prepares for its 49th tournament this weekend in Charlotte, N.C., the league is ranked second behind the Southeastern Conference in the Rating Percentage Index, and is neatly divided into three tiers, starting with regular-season champion Maryland and second-place Duke.

Wake Forest and North Carolina State lead the middle-of-the-pack cluster that includes Virginia and Georgia Tech. They are followed by a trio of 4-12 teams in Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina, which concluded its worst-ever regular season and, unless it wins the ACC tournament, will miss its first NCAA tournament in 28 years.

It appears that four teams - Maryland, Duke, Wake Forest and N.C. State - have qualified for the NCAA tournament, with Virginia looming as a bubble team that probably needs to reach Saturday's semifinals to avoid the NIT.

Last year, five ACC teams made the national tournament, one season after only three teams played in the NCAAs.

Is this league a paper tiger or not?

"All you have to do is look at how the bottom teams in our league have been good enough to beat teams at or near the top. I don't know that you find that in most leagues," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "It was tough to have a really good record this year, because the top two teams didn't lose many games. But we have some very good teams in that third [place] to eighth area."

Florida State was good enough to beat Duke and Virginia. Youthful Clemson was good enough to beat Wake Forest and Virginia. Florida State was also bad enough to lose at home to Western Carolina and American, perhaps costing the Seminoles a possible NIT bid and likely costing coach Steve Robinson his job.

Then there's Georgia Tech, which beat then-ranked Syracuse before getting off to an 0-7 start in the ACC with a squad loaded with freshmen and sophomores. The Yellow Jackets also nearly upset Maryland at home in January, before winning eight of their last 10 games to move into the league's middle division.

"We do a pretty good job of beating each other up," Terps forward Tahj Holden said.

Other than the late-season collapse of Virginia, the start-to-finish fall of the Tar Heels and the emergence of N.C. State, which is headed to its first NCAA tournament in 11 seasons under coach Herb Sendek, the story of the ACC was the constant beatings administered by Maryland and Duke.

"You get to see some of the best players in the country around the ACC," said Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, pointing to such examples as Clemson point guard Edward Scott and N.C. State guard Anthony Grundy. It's just a tough, tough league. Duke and Maryland aren't just head and shoulders above the league. Other than Kansas, they are head and shoulders above the country. We just happen to be stuck in the middle of the other seven teams."

The final judgments will be passed soon enough. In last year's NCAA tournament, of the five ACC teams that qualified, Virginia, North Carolina and Wake Forest failed to survive the first weekend. Duke and Maryland kept going and met in the Final Four.

NOTE: Williams was displeased at the voting that left Maryland with only one player each on the All-ACC first and second teams. Only Juan Dixon made the first team. Lonny Baxter settled for second-team honors, as Duke placed three players in the first group. Point guard Steve Blake, who averaged a league-high 8.8 assists in ACC play and ran the offense of a 15-1 title team, was a third-team choice. "I thought Lonny should have made the first team, given his play No. 1, and a lot of that is supposedly based on who wins the championship," Williams said. "Blake has had an incredible year. I think sometimes people are too quick to judge players by how many points they score, not by what they do to make their team good."

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