In ACC, there's no slam-dunk

Wake Forest looks strong, but young teams make for wide-open tournament

March 12, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Wake Forest is the regular-season champion of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and as the No. 1 seed, the Demon Deacons are expected to win this weekend's conference tournament.

Or are they? In this year's ACC, is anybody a clear-cut favorite at Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum?

Based on some strange occurrences in a youthful league marked by inconsistency and extreme home-court advantage, several teams probably think they have a legitimate shot at the championship.

At least Wake Forest (23-4, 13-3) is entering the postseason on a roll. Among the top four seeds, the Demon Deacons are the only team that won its regular-season finale. Second-seeded Maryland, No. 3 seed Duke and fourth-seeded N.C. State each dropped final postseason tune-ups.

"That gives everybody hope," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose Terrapins rebounded poorly and suffered an 80-78 overtime loss at Virginia on Sunday, on a night when Maryland knew it was the No. 2 seed regardless of the game's outcome.

"I'm sure that the [tournament play-in game] winner will be thinking, 'Hey, let's go play' [Wake Forest in the quarterfinals]. Everybody but maybe Wake Forest could be accused of being a little inconsistent this year. It will be interesting to see which teams show up on Friday. I'd say it's wide-open."

The Terps (19-8, 11-5) know all about the dangers of looking strong on paper. For the first time in 10 years, Maryland was swept in the regular season by Virginia -the same Cavaliers who had lost seven consecutive games between their two victories over the defending national champions.

Consider Virginia (15-14, 6-10), which needs to pull a shocking upset and win the ACC tournament as a sixth seed to get into the NCAA tournament with an automatic berth. Half of the Cavaliers' league wins have come against Maryland and Wake Forest, which dropped an 85-75 decision in Charlottesville on Jan. 23.

Consider Virginia, which has lost eight of its past 11 games by an average of 13 points and must play Duke in Friday's quarterfinal round.

"Matchups are funny. Obviously, we can sit here and say somehow Virginia has kind of got our number. Who knows which Virginia team is going to show up against Duke?" Maryland senior guard Drew Nicholas said. "The tournament is going to be a fight. It's really about matchups. Different teams play different teams better."

How else to explain how the Terps could annihilate North Carolina - their seventh-seeded opponent on Friday - with a regular-season sweep by a combined 55 points, then watch the Tar Heels upset Duke on Sunday after nearly beating the 21-6 Blue Devils a month earlier at Cameron Indoor Stadium?

The Blue Devils, who start one or two seniors and are one of the many youthful teams throughout the league, have other black marks on their record. Like that loss at last-place Florida State five weeks ago. Then again, the Seminoles took Maryland to the brink in Tallahassee a month ago before falling to the Terps, 74-72.

Even Wake, which has played the steadiest from start to finish in league competition and won its first regular-season ACC title in 41 years as a result, has cause for concern. The Demon Deacons did lose three road games, including a 23-point debacle at Maryland on Feb. 17. And Wake has not played on a neutral floor this season.

"Last year, everybody thought the league was top-heavy with Duke and Maryland. I think the league has proven this year to be strong throughout," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said.

Said Maryland senior guard Calvin McCall: "There could be some upsets [this weekend]. Anything could happen, and we're going in there ready, in case anything does happen. It's totally wide-open."

NOTES: Maryland finished in a second-place tie with Duke in the ACC but won the No. 2 seed by virtue of a tiebreaker involving head-to-head results. The Terps and Blue Devils split their series, and both teams split with Wake Forest. Since Maryland swept fourth-place N.C. State and Duke split with the Wolfpack, the Terps won the tiebreaker. ... Maryland seniors have started a combined 113 games, more than twice the number of the league's second-most experienced team in terms of senior starts. Duke's seniors have started a total of 45 games. Clemson is third at 39. ... Home teams finished the regular season 53-19 (.736) in the ACC, the third-highest home-court winning percentage in the league's 50-year history. The highest percentage occurred in 1979-80 (42-14,.750).

Strange season

The ACC regular season produced some unusual outcomes:

Maryland swept North Carolina by a combined 55 points.

Maryland was swept by sixth-place Virginia.

Clemson lost 10 of its last 14 but swept Virginia.

Duke lost five road games, among them to last-place Florida State and seventh-place North Carolina.

Wake Forest lost at Virginia and at Maryland by 23 points, but is the only school among the ACC's top four on a winning streak (six).

Three of the tournament's top four seeds lost regular-season finales.

Next for Terps

Matchup: No. 14 Maryland (19-8) vs. North Carolina (16-14) in Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals

Site: Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum

When: Friday, 7 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

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