ACC parity ruins forecasts of doom, gives fans hope

March 05, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

This is what happened on the final regular-season weekend in the most storied college basketball conference in the land: Four teams could have positioned themselves for the top seed in the postseason tournament with a victory over a team well beneath them in the standings, and only one pulled it off.

That's the league Maryland had no chance of even competing in a little more than three weeks ago. A whole lot of people thought the Terps couldn't get on any kind of a run the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference season - apparently failing to realize, even then, that the ACC was in the throes of its most perplexing, least-predictable season.

In the end, the Terps finished one game out of first place, with just two teams sporting better conference records. Hard to believe, isn't it?

"No," senior Ekene Ibekwe said Saturday night after the home-finale win over North Carolina State. "It's not hard to believe."

Really, it's not, for Maryland or anyone else. And truthfully, this isn't about Maryland, not completely. Eventually it will be forgotten at best, and filed away as campus lore at worst, that hordes of followers quit on this team with just under half of the conference season remaining, even though there was no sign that the Terps were significantly worse off than all the teams in front of them - or, for that matter, the ones behind them.

Like Wake Forest. Last place beckoned Saturday, as Virginia came to Winston-Salem, N.C. Virginia, with one foot in the door of first place, the only team in complete control of its destiny, was coming off a signature win over Virginia Tech earlier in the week. Oops. Wake 78, Virginia 72.

But were we supposed to be buckled in an upright-and-locked position on that bandwagon? Before Christmas, the Cavaliers lost in Puerto Rico to Appalachian State and Utah on back-to-back days.

Yes, Virginia lost its chance Saturday and opened the door for the three schools behind it. In quick succession yesterday, Virginia Tech blew its chance at home against Clemson, and Boston College blew its chance at Georgia Tech. Three chances, three losses to teams with losing conference records.

But what do losing conference records mean this season? Not a whole lot, because anybody can beat anybody. Sure, they say that every year; it's league policy going back at least to the 1970s. It has never been more true than now.

North Carolina, the preseason favorite, was the one that got the job done. The Tar Heels did it yesterday against Duke, which is living proof that the name across the chest only gets you so far in this conference.

The five teams with double-digit ACC wins are the most in the league's 54-year history - and even factoring in that there are 12 teams on a 16-game schedule where there once were seven playing 12 games, it's still a big number. Plus, the top seed has just 11 wins, the fewest since the conference schedule went to 16 games in 1991-92; its five losses are the most for a top seed in 22 years.

Neither youth nor a talent drain nor upheaval in the coaching ranks was a prominent issue this season. The unpopular unbalanced schedule likely played a role. Whatever the case, there were no tiers of teams as in years past; all the usual lines were blurred. They're so blurry, nine teams might go NCAA dancing; who's to say which team has an edge for the last few bids?

Yet certain teams were getting written off less than a month ago. For shame.

The ACC didn't run to form all season. Face it, until the final seconds yesterday in Chapel Hill, most of America was expecting Duke to turn back into the Duke it recognizes from years past. Now it has to grasp that Duke is a .500 ACC team that might be done by Friday night if it sees a Virginia team it already lost to.

Half the teams in the ACC were counted out at some point because of injuries, suspensions, cold streaks, anything - Boston College, Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, even Duke. And some other school, whose name escapes me.

Everyone had an ugly, borderline-inexplicable loss to go with each uplifting, storm-the-court win. North Carolina might nab a No. 1 NCAA seed, but it lost to Virginia Tech twice. The Hokies went 3-0 against Duke and Carolina, but 0-2 against N.C. State. Virginia beat Maryland twice, but its last two losses were to Miami and Wake.

Let us not forget the "timing error" Jan. 25 when Duke "defeated" Clemson at home. Flip that result, and the Blue Devils have a losing ACC record and the ninth seed. Yikes.

Back to Maryland one last time. The Terps have to play a first-round game this week against last-place Miami - as in Miami 63, Maryland 58, at Comcast Center on Jan. 10.

With a season like this, from top to bottom, how can anyone get mad about that?

david.steele@baltsun.com

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