ACC watches step nearing transition

Conference: One season away from an expansion that will put new emphasis on football, the basketball old guard stands ready to protect its good name.

College Basketball 2003 : Acc Men

Sunset Season

November 21, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

It's as if Roy Williams never left North Carolina for Kansas. Those 15 years he spent with the Jayhawks might have merely been Oz - part fantasy, part nightmare - for all the changes that seem to have occurred in the power structure of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

When Williams departed Chapel Hill for Lawrence to pursue a head coaching career in 1988, Duke and North Carolina finished fifth and seventh, respectively, in the country. The way this season is shaping up, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels are again the top two teams, according to coaches, fans and the media.

But there is one major difference.

"When I left the ACC 15 years ago, it was pretty much a consensus that it was the best league in the country," Williams said recently. "The last few years I don't know whether that was the consensus. From what little I know, I think things are in place for us to be on the rise again."

FOR THE RECORD - The spelling of Lonny Baxter has been corrected for the electronic database. See microfilm for original story.

The ACC doesn't have a lot of time for its ascent to take shape before the questions begin anew, as soon as football-rich and basketball-mediocre Miami and Virginia Tech join the league next season. This could be the ACC's last hurrah.

With one wary eye on the future, and perhaps a teary one on the past, the ACC will begin playing its final season as a nine-team league.

"I think some people will have some nostalgia for the simple round-robin [home and home] purity of that, and rightfully so," ACC commissioner John Swofford said recently. "I also think there's an awful lot of excitement in looking forward in terms of what the future brings."

Billy Packer is not looking at this season with any sense of melancholy. An All-ACC player at Wake Forest in the early 1960s, and a broadcaster of conference games for more than 30 years, Packer said he doesn't foresee any great shift for ACC basketball in the future.

"This is a football issue," Packer said. "I don't think it's as dramatic as when South Carolina left the league [after the 1970-71 season]. I don't think anyone really cares outside their area. Do you think there are people at Clemson who think about what Miami is doing?"

Williams is careful not to make too many enemies before the first game is played.

"I think it's great for the league that Maryland-Duke is a great rivalry," the Carolina coach said. "I think it's great for the league that North Carolina-Duke is a great rivalry. The last couple of years we struggled and maybe I'm being hopeful, but I think it can regain some of its luster.

"I don't think it has to supplant or replace Maryland-Duke."

Those dynamics played into the ACC's expansion plans. To gain Maryland's support for expansion, the ACC had to break up its North Carolina power base and agree to let the Terrapins continue to play the Blue Devils at least twice every season in men's basketball.

It will mean North Carolina won't play Wake Forest twice a year and Duke won't play North Carolina State home-and-home annually, at least under the current scheduling model. It also means some of those traditional rivalries will be played out in a round-robin format for the last time this season.

"There will be some slippage in that; there has to be when you're not playing everyone in a true round robin. I can speak from some experience that when we went from the Big Eight to the Big 12, we were still extremely strong, even though at Kansas, we only played Oklahoma once and Texas once," Williams said.

"When Kansas played Oklahoma State, I don't care where the game was, it was still packed and still as competitive as it can be. The fact that you're not doing it twice, mathematically, you have to know that it's going to affect you some."

Dave Odom, who was an assistant at Virginia and the head coach at Wake Forest before leaving the ACC for South Carolina, has watched with some sadness the end of the league he has known since growing up in Elon, N.C.

"Anytime you change, you're not the same," Odom said earlier this week. "If you're asking me if it's going to be changing for the better or the worse, there's no way anyone can know that. There are certain things that are intrinsic in a smaller conference such as the ACC. The ACC has been the league in the country that has stood pat - the only exception being Florida State and Georgia Tech - and had flourished with the geography and the intimacy that had bred the rivalries.

"We didn't need to foster anything else to make it better. Everything was there to make it a great league. As the landscape changed, I think the leaders of the conference looked at it and felt this was the time to move to protect the strength of the league and make sure it remained viable. To answer your question, `Will it ever be the same?' No, it won't be the same, and I don't think the people who run the league want it to be the same. They want it to be different. Does that mean it will be better or worse? No, it means it will be different."

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