ACC expansion hasn't shrunk on-court competition

Miami, Va. Tech succeed, await as Terps opponents

February 05, 2005|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

CORAL GABLES, Fla. - It was a landmark for Atlantic Coast Conference basketball, not that anyone noticed.

Maryland plays today at Miami, then returns home to face Virginia Tech on Tuesday. The ACC presumably will never again see expansion teams match up for the first time, but when they met here three days ago, there was no fanfare for Hokies-Hurricanes I.

The Virginia Tech media guide lists more than two dozen newspapers among its media outlets. None sent a reporter to the Convocation Center. The Miami Herald advanced the game on Page 12D, albeit behind three pages of football signing news on national letter-of-intent day, which is to Florida what the opening of deer season is to Pennsylvania.

The game wasn't televised. The rematch in Blacksburg in two weeks won't be either. Seven ACC games won't be on television this winter, and all but two involve either Miami or Virginia Tech, the first wave in a two-year process that will bring Boston College on board in 2005-06.

The ACC raided the Big East, endured torturous negotiations and voted to expand to 12 teams in the summer of 2003. Having to follow football's cash flow disrupted the symmetry of home-and-away scheduling, and it was supposed to dilute the best basketball conference in the nation.

The newbies were expected to go over as big as a belching third cousin at a family picnic, but the sky hasn't fallen on ACC hoops. Boston College is one of the nation's two unbeaten teams, and Virginia Tech and Miami, picked to finish in the conference cellar, are doing just fine.

Despite losing, 73-63, to the Hokies, the Hurricanes still have as many conference wins (four) as Maryland. Virginia Tech is 5-3 at the midway point of ACC play, but coach Seth Greenberg isn't making any Final Four itineraries.

"We're still not where we need to be," Greenberg said. "We have to acquire talent and educate our guys on the intensity of the league. It's not like I can sprinkle Michael Jordan's magic dust on our guys. It's going be painful at times, but we are creating an ACC atmosphere."

Virginia Tech will have a full house in Blacksburg for this afternoon's game against Wake Forest. Maryland-Miami is also a sellout, and Greenberg has a unique take on that rare coincidence.

Last year was his first with the Hokies and their last in the Big East, and they played Providence and others before several thousand empty seats. Twenty years ago, he was a Miami assistant when it brought back basketball after a 14-year absence. Rick Barry played here in the early 1960s, but lack of interest and no home court killed the Miami program in 1971.

"That first year back [1985-86], we played in an auditorium that doubled as a theater," Greenberg said. "One night it had Phantom of the Opera, the next college basketball."

The Convocation Center is a short walk from the football practice fields and the baseball stadium where Miami built its national reputation. Opened two years ago, its capacity can grow to 10,000 seats. Besides the newest arena in the ACC, the Hurricanes also have the greenest coach.

Butch Davis and Larry Coker shepherded Miami football just fine without any head coaching experience, and athletic director Paul Dee did not hold that against Frank Haith. His resume included assisting Dave Odom and Rick Barnes, two of the few men who dared challenge Duke and North Carolina in the 1990s.

At Texas, Haith helped Barnes turn a football-oriented campus onto basketball, as he had a big hand in the Longhorns' renowned freshman class. Haith's first full recruiting effort will include three of South Florida's top prospects.

"We didn't look at football's tradition as an issue at Texas," Haith said, "and it won't be one here, either. It should help recruiting, not hinder it."

The ACC's last rookie coach was Bill Guthridge at North Carolina, which was on auto-pilot when he replaced Dean Smith in 1998. Leonard Hamilton, now the Florida State coach, took the Hurricanes to the Sweet 16 in 2000, but Haith got this opportunity because they lost direction under Perry Clark.

Haith's starters include three 6-foot-2 guys. An inferior player as a freshman, Anthony Harris has become a serviceable point guard. Guillermo Diaz, a native of Puerto Rico, had 26 points in a big win over North Carolina State. The Hurricanes didn't protect the ball down the stretch against Virginia Tech, which has three sophomores and two freshmen among its top six players.

Greenberg is unsure if 6-7 forward Deron Washington, who prepped at National Christian Academy in Prince George's County, would be at Virginia Tech if it were still in the Big East. He knows Marquie Cooke, who is from Suffolk, Va., would not be.

They took a chance on a program that has one NCAA appearance since 1986. So did Greenberg, who regretted the unfinished business he left behind at South Florida when he was hired by Virginia Tech a few months before its move to the ACC was negotiated.

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