Rankings signal first-rate league

Led by Duke, Tech, Wake, four schools are in Top 10

ACC 7-4 vs. ranked teams

ACC notebook

College Basketball

December 26, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Coming into the season, the Atlantic Coast Conference appeared poised to regain its status as the premier league in men's college basketball.

Five weeks into the season, that perception looks more and more like reality.

For the first time since January 2001 and sixth time overall, the ACC has four teams ranked in the Top 10: No. 3 Duke, No. 4 Georgia Tech, No. 8 Wake Forest and No. 9 North Carolina. Maryland weighs in at No. 24, meaning more than half of the nine teams are in the Top 25.

The ACC is the top-ranked conference in both the Rating Percentage Index report and the Sagarin computer ratings.

"I think the league might be the strongest it's been since I've been here," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who is in his 15th season with the Terps.

All Maryland has done with the ACC's youngest team is knock Florida out of the No. 1 spot on the road, eight days after beating then-No. 15 Wisconsin.

The ACC is 67-10 in nonleague play, 7-4 against ranked opponents and 2-0 against top-ranked teams, and it recently crushed the Big Ten in the annual ACC-Big Ten Challenge by winning seven of nine games. That included routs by Duke and Georgia Tech on the road against Michigan State and Ohio State, respectively.

At 11-0, Tech is off to its best start since the 1985-86 season and has beaten top-ranked Connecticut while routinely winning by at least 25 points. Carolina (6-1) has the league's top three scorers in forward Jawad Williams, guard/forward Rashad McCants and center Sean May and looks as good as advertised under first-year coach Roy Williams.

Duke, with freshman Luol Deng leading the way, bounced back from a loss to Purdue by routing then-No. 5 Michigan State by 22 points. On Saturday, the Blue Devils pounded 11th-ranked Texas, 89-61.

Wake Forest, the defending regular-season champion, has maybe the league's most exciting freshman in point guard Chris Paul and possibly its most improved player in sophomore center Eric Williams. The Demon Deacons, who are 53-19 under third-year coach Skip Prosser, reached the Top 10 last week after outlasting Carolina, 119-114, in a classic, triple-overtime thriller in Chapel Hill.

In three weeks, conference play will begin on a wide scale. Expect visiting teams to struggle regularly to win games. Expect second-division schools, such as Florida State and North Carolina State, to pull off upsets against the big boys. Expect one of the more exhausting races in the league's 51-year history.

"I look back on my teams at Dayton, and we had some tremendous challenges with our nonconference schedule and some in the league, but not night-in, night-out like you get in the ACC," first-year Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said. "You don't go into a game where you can be subpar and expect to win. You just don't get a break."

Fasten seatbelts

If last week's ACC opener is any indication, the conference is in for a wild ride during the next two months.

Wake Forest and North Carolina engaged in a 55-minute battle. Thirteen players scored in double figures. Three fouled out. Both teams shot better than 48 percent from the field. Both teams made less than 55 percent of their free throws.

In the end, Wake's 119-114 victory tied for the second-longest game in ACC history and second-highest-scoring game in league history. The longest game was N.C. State's 110-103 victory in four extra periods over Wake on March 4, 1989. The highest-scoring game - by a single point - was Maryland's 124-110 win over N.C. State on Dec. 20, 1978.

It also marked the most points ever scored against Carolina, topping the 112-79 blowout at the hands of Maryland on Jan. 9, 2002.

"I told the kids before the game, `This is one of those games you remember for the rest of your lives,'" Prosser told the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer. "I wish I was that accurate about everything, because this was certainly one for the ages. If that is a precursor to the next 50 years of ACC basketball, wow."

Three unbeatens left

With Florida State having fallen to its first ranked opponent in No. 16 Pittsburgh, the Seminoles are no longer undefeated. That leaves Wake, Georgia Tech and Virginia as the league's remaining unbeaten teams.

Don't be misled by Virginia, which knows a thing or two about getting fat on a weak schedule, only to tumble when it's time to face the music in the ACC.

Remember the 9-0 Cavaliers team that reached No. 4 two years ago, only to drop out of the Top 25 with a late-season collapse before failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament?

Virginia is 8-0 and has claimed such victims as Mount St. Mary's, High Point, Virginia Military Institute, James Madison, Coastal Carolina and Virginia Tech.

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