Purists enjoy league's stellar season

Rated as top conference in nation, ACC struts stuff in last year with 9 teams

ACC notebook

March 05, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

The longest home-court winning streak in the nation evaporated Wednesday night, when No. 19 Georgia Tech ended its own 15-game skid against third-ranked Duke, marking the end of the Blue Devils' 41-game tear at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

On the surface, the Yellow Jackets' 76-68 win was a surprise. But in the context of a wildly competitive Atlantic Coast Conference season, Georgia Tech added another page to the script that grows more memorable as the ACC closes out an era on a powerful note.

The examples abound. Look at Maryland, which seemed to be lingering on life support, then sprung to life by upsetting No. 16 North Carolina State in Raleigh on Wednesday. Suddenly, the Terps (15-11, 6-9 ACC) are within a victory over Virginia of finishing in sixth place and likely cementing their 11th straight NCAA tournament bid.

Look at Virginia, which three weeks ago seemed a lost cause once again. Poof. The Cavaliers, with three buzzer-beating, three-point baskets by senior guard Todd Billett making the headlines, have won four out of five games, including three against ranked opponents North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, and are 16-10 overall and 6-9 in the ACC to move toward a possible NCAA berth.

A week ago, N.C. State was 14-0 at home. Then came back-to-back losses to North Carolina and unranked Maryland. Wake Forest negated a 10-0 start in non-ACC action with a 2-5 slide in league play, then ran off six straight wins, including road victories against Tech and Maryland, before falling against surging Virginia on Tuesday.

Tech, stung by back-to-back home losses to Wake and N.C. State, responded by beating Clemson and Duke on the road. Even the last-place Tigers, who finished with a 3-13 record in league play, stunned Carolina and N.C. State at home.

The basketball purists, the ones who object to the ACC's football-driven decision to add Miami and Virginia Tech next year and add Boston College a year later, are having a ball right now. And they are running out of time to enjoy it, since the league's nine-team, double round-robin schedule is about to end. Starting next season, each team will play only some of the league's schools twice in a home-and-home series.

What a send-off. The ACC has been rated the best conference in the NCAA all year. Five schools - Duke, N.C. State, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and North Carolina - have garnered top 22 Rating Percentage Index ranks. Eight are in the top 47. The ACC has a 30-15 record against the other nine leagues ranked in the top 10 of the RPI.

"This league has always been competitive, but this is probably the most competitive year from top to bottom since I've been here. The conference is nuts," said 15th-year Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose Terps are in position to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time with a losing record in conference play. "This is what the ACC is about. This is why the double round robin has worked so well all these years."

With one weekend left in the regular season, the top five ACC teams appear destined to earn at least No. 4 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Seven teams could get into the 65-team mix, which has never happened. Seven teams are separated by four games in the loss column.

"This is the last time the regular-season champion will be the true champion. This is the last time there will be an equitable schedule in the league," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "You go along with change, and we'll make the most of it. But as a basketball purist, I feel we've let a tradition go here that is one of the things that made our conference so great."

Who's the best?

Picking the ACC Player of the Year appears to be as challenging as choosing the winner of next week's league tournament.

One could make strong cases for North Carolina swingman Rashad McCants or N.C. State's Julius Hodge, who plays three positions effectively. McCants leads the ACC in scoring (19.9), has scored at least 20 points in 10 of his past 13 games, and is second in three-point field-goal percentage (.425). Hodge ranks in the top 10 in five offensive categories.

Or how about Wake Forest guard Justin Gray or Georgia Tech small forward B.J. Elder? Gray is third in scoring (17.1) and had a blistering February, averaging 22.1 points. Elder (16.6 ppg) has been Tech's steadying force.

Talk to ACC coaches - and not just Krzyzewski- and one hears a case building for Blue Devils senior point guard Chris Duhon. Although he doesn't lead the conference in any category and doesn't crack the top 25 in scoring, Duhon earns high marks for his clutch plays and ability to keep the Duke offense humming.

"My theory has always been, ever since I was a high school coach, pick the best guy on the best team, as long as he's not a jerk," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said.

"[Duhon] is in charge of his team winning the game ultimately, and he's done that incredibly well throughout his career. He might not be the best player on Duke's team, but he might be the most valuable player of our league. I wouldn't have a problem with that selection at all."

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