Past forward: ACC basketball has returned to its old self

January 26, 2009|By DAVID STEELE | DAVID STEELE,david.steele@baltsun.com

It won't be easy, but Maryland fans should be consoled by the fact that in the debacle at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday, they got caught up in a long-awaited, much-needed renaissance.

Atlantic Coast Conference basketball has returned to its former glory.

Duke is part of it, having looked like the best team in the country in the 85-44 throttling and likely being rewarded for it with the top spot in the polls today. North Carolina and Wake Forest are part of it, too, having been ranked No. 1 for a combined eight of the 10 previous weeks. In agreeing Saturday that those three make a case to be the best three playing right now, Gary Williams and Mike Krzyzewski were not just exhibiting typical conference boosterism.

What seals the deal is that the harshest tests two of those teams have faced have come from within the ACC. Of the three, only Duke has lost outside the conference (at Michigan, a loss the Blue Devils have more than made up for since). Now, they get Wake in Winston-Salem on Wednesday, and North Carolina visits Cameron on Feb. 11.

After defending its preseason No. 1 ranking in dominant fashion, North Carolina fell to Boston College and Wake. And Wake, after handing Carolina that eye-opening defeat at home two weeks ago, was caught by Virginia Tech last week.

All of which means that the ACC's depth, its Achilles' heel in recent years, is improving. Last season, it was top-heavy with North Carolina and Duke, and weighed down not only by longtime members hitting bad stretches but also by recent additions from the 2004 football expansion not holding up their ends of the bargain. Of course, that's exactly what Williams and Krzyzewski warned against in the beginning, then had to look on in horror as they were proven right.

As a result, last season the league's reputation far exceeded its actual performance. Just four teams were invited to the NCAA tournament, and only North Carolina got past the first weekend.

The ACC had that overrated stench around it, and nowhere did it smell worse than around Duke, which barely avoided a second straight first-round loss and then went down in the second round. This year, the Blue Devils are better, deeper, tougher and no longer living off their past.

Check the results, Williams said: "We played Georgetown, and they were good. I know Duke took care of them here." The same Hoyas team handled Maryland easily in Orlando, Fla., during Thanksgiving weekend, then was in turn handled by Duke at Cameron two Saturdays ago.

Still, the depth is what restores the ACC's legitimacy because that is what was missing recently. Look for as many as seven NCAA bids, with three teams likely brawling down the stretch for the last two invitations. Clemson, Miami, Florida State and Virginia Tech are positioning themselves well.

Maryland's game against Boston College at Comcast Center tomorrow night looms huge for both teams because they need wins to get into that mix. All the aforementioned teams have to work like crazy to get an edge on one another and supplement that with wins over the Big Three. Boston College and Virginia Tech have already done it, so it's certainly possible for all.

Even for Maryland, which still believes it can make that Duke game stand for a lot less than it seemed at the time. In the long run, it will help the Terps that this season, with no exaggeration, they're competing - once again - in the best conference in the land.

Listen to David Steele on Fridays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

BOSTON COLLEGE (15-6, 3-3) @MARYLAND (13-6, 2-3)

Tomorrow, 7:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN2

Radio: 105.7 FM, 1300 AM

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