| ||Wake Forest coach Dave Odom believes the ACC is in trouble. More likely, it's been in a bit of a slump.
Odom raised a cry of alarm among his colleagues at last spring's ACC meetings after the league got only three NCAA Tournament bids, fewest since the number of entrants allowed per conference was expanded to eight in 1980. "Last year was criminal that the ACC only had three teams," snaps Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "It was ridiculous."
|Wake Forest will be counting on Robert O'Kelley to lead the Deacons back to the NCAA Tournament.|
That's not how ACC adherents expect the world to work. Undertake a reasonably difficult non-conference schedule that dares a few losses -- ambition that's supposedly encouraged -- then battle your way to around a break-even record within the league, and until last season that was good enough for an ACC squad to earn an NCAA bid. Now Odom frets ACC teams are increasingly doomed to NCAA exclusion.
"You can't get to what the NCAA Tournament committee expects you to get to, doing business the way we do it," Odom says. "Which I think is the right way to do business. I'm not criticizing the ACC. I think double-round robin, conference tournament is the way to do business."
Odom points out that, in an era of expansion and dilution, the ACC is one of the few remaining power conferences where members play each other twice during the regular season. The ACC is noted for its internal balance, with teams knocking each other off with regularity. That makes it difficult to break even in the league. Fail at that, though, and NCAA inclusion is problematic.
"That's the cold, hard facts," said the 11-year ACC coach. "It can't be done."
Getting down to bid-ness
Krzyzewski missed the spring meetings while recovering from hip surgery, and has his own theory about this NCAA bid-ness. His view, also popular among ACC colleagues, has the excellence of a few squads (Duke and North Carolina in 1998, Duke and Maryland in 1999) unfairly coloring impressions of the remainder.
"We should always have five teams in, because we're a great league," Krzyzewski said. "There are not 30 teams better out there, at-large, however many they come up with. Because the league chews you up, tears you up."
But recent results lend themselves to another explanation for the ACC's decline in NCAA bids. Quite simply, a conference that prides itself on the intensity of its internecine competition -- a crucible that has tempered seven of its nine members into Sweet 16 teams over the past five seasons and sent at least half its members to the NCAAs in 18 of the past 19 seasons -- simply wasn't very good in 1999.
Certainly the ACC's customary prowess was less evident than usual, with only three teams managing winning league records or fewer than a dozen regular-season losses.
Duke and Maryland both ranked in the nation's top five throughout the season and were among the best ever at their respective schools. North Carolina, the third-place ACC finisher, finished with its most losses since 1990.
Beyond that trio, no other ACC teams clearly deserved an NCAA bid.
Duke and Maryland were 35-1 against the rest of the league during the regular season, while UNC lost but twice against the other six teams.
For the second straight year the ACC's fourth-place teams had losing league records, managing just seven wins. Before that, no fourth-place finisher had posted a losing record since Clemson in 1976, when the conference had seven teams instead of the current nine.
Odom's is certainly a defensible interpretation, and understandable considering his last two squads tied for fourth in the ACC with 7-9 records. Yet they also had double-digit losses and only a handful of quality wins.
Not starting a trend
"I think the league will be very good again," said Bill Guthridge, whose North Carolina squad is the favorite. "I don't think it will be as top-heavy."
Three of four ACC teams that won at least 20 games in 1999 -- Duke (37-2), Maryland (28-6) and Clemson (20-15), which reached the NIT final -- suffered extensive personnel losses. That levels the playing field, especially in the case of Duke, the first squad in a dozen years to go through the ACC season without a loss.
Much has been made of Duke's defections, which included the transfer of Chris Burgess and early NBA exits -- the first in school history -- by sophomores Elton Brand and Will Avery and freshman Corey Maggette. "Duke would have been unbelievable this year had all their players returned," Guthridge said.
But the Blue Devils compensate with the arrival of the nation's top recruiting class, led by guards Jason Williams and Mike Dunleavy Jr. and forward Carlos Boozer. "It's a lot different from last year, and what probably would have been this year," Krzyzewski said. "I don't think that's bad."
Certainly league rivals don't mind watching Duke reload after going 69-6 during their two-year tear that included a pair of first-place finishes, an ACC championship, a No. 1 ranking in the final polls, a national player of the year in Brand, five first-round NBA draft choices and a trip to the 1999 national title game.
Maryland, which last season posted the most wins in program history, has been on a roll. Gary Williams' squad has finished among the ACC's top four every year since 1994. Now the Terrapins must replace junior guard Steve Francis, an early departee for the pros, and three senior starters who completed their careers.
There's still enough talent on board, led by forward Terence Morris, a favorite for ACC player of the year, to carry the Terps to their seventh straight NCAA appearance, extending a school record.
The talent drain is more catastrophic at Clemson, which bid adieu to a junior (Vince Whitt, who broke team rules and subsequently transferred) and five seniors, among them guard Terrell McIntyre, the ACC's leading scorer (17.9), and big man Harold Jamison, the top rebounder (9.9). The Tigers, with rebuilding Florida State, figure to be the only ACC members out of the hunt for NCAA selection in 2000.
Despite these results and Odom's warnings, the recent imbalance may be less a trend than an aberration. The ACC, after all, is a conference that during the '90s saw each of its members reach the NCAAs and had a team finish in top 10 in the AP poll 19 times. Rather than a continuation of declining prowess, all indications point toward a return to a broader band of talent and competitiveness in 1999-2000.
Heels hold on to bad memories
Last season North Carolina had to adjust to the early departure of lottery picks Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter, the graduation of two senior starters, injuries that plagued both its wings, an NCAA suspension that sidelined a reserve forward for half the season, and football duty that limited the service and effectiveness of backup point guard Ronald Curry.
The roster changes around the league leave the Tar Heels, who return four starters and enjoy good depth at almost every position, in an accustomed role as favorites. And while Guthridge's third squad won't run away from the field, it will be tough to beat.
This year virtually everyone's back, most notably senior playmaker Ed Cota, who struggled last season adjusting to a wealth of talented but young teammates. "A lot of the passes that he threw last year were the same as he threw the two previous years, but he had Jamison and Carter catching them," Guthridge said. "These guys have more experience now."
||I'll never forget that game. Even if we win the national championship this year, it still won't make
up for losing to Weber State. ”
However, there's a cloud hanging over the start of the season due to the indefinite suspensions of Cota and Terrence Newby for their alleged participation in a fight which led to their arrests on charges of misdemeanor assault. Add to that a torn Achilles tendon suffered by Ronald Curry during football season and the Heels are woefully thin at point guard right now.
The Heels, who added freshman off-guard Joseph Forte to the mix, also feel they have a score to settle with themselves. Almost to a man, they concede they were outplayed and outworked by Weber State in the opening round of the '99 NCAAs, resulting in a first-round loss, something no UNC squad had experienced since 1980.
"I'll never forget that game," Cota said. "Even if we win the national championship this year, it still won't make up for losing to Weber State."
Cota still watches a tape of the defeat, caught in an endless loop of misery, while teammates have affixed reminders of the Weber State loss on and in their lockers. Sophomore Kris Lang wrote last year's record prominently on his mirror, along with "first-round."
"It's great incentive," Lang said. "If you don't feel like practicing one day, you just look at the mirror and there it is. That gives you enough to feed off of to have a great practice."
Lang is the starting power forward on the ACC's best frontline, along with classmate Jason Capel, recovered from postseason surgery to correct a chronic back problem, and inconsistent but towering Brendan Haywood, a 7-foot, 270-pound junior. The Heels have seasoned starters at every position, an increasing rarity, and good depth, though they lost Curry to injury and Vasco Evtimov, a crafty forward, to pro ball in Europe.
Searching for bids
"I think we'll be a better team than last year," Odom said. "There's not a great deal of news around us, among us. There's a higher level of confidence, and ability."
Odom has seen more than his share of transfers, and enough injuries to keep his last few squads in flux and to build empathy with Krzyzewski and other colleagues hit by the game's increasing uncertainties.
"When you don't have the players you recruited to compete that particular year, it is a problem," Odom says. "When you try to put a team together and then have it unravel right before your eyes, that causes a certain amount of anxiety, frustration, disgust if you want to call it that."
This season Odom has veterans and quality backups at every position. He also has an ACC player of the year candidate in guard Robert O'Kelley, a prolific shooter who's asked to master point guard duties this season.
While UNC and Wake fill in here and there, entire squads were imported at Clemson, Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia. The infusion of talent could have a major impact at UVa, where second-year coach Pete Gillen kept a thin squad competitive in 1999 and saw guard Donald Hand and forward Chris Williams emerge as front-rank ACC players.
"It looks like the Olympics, we have so many guys out there," Gillen says happily. "We're going to be like the Atlantic Ocean -- waves and waves."
Transfers from other four-year colleges, usually a rarity in the ACC, have suddenly appeared on five league rosters, and could have a major impact. Included is Notre Dame refugee Keith Friel, the only Virginia player with a perpetual green light from 3-point range.
The most crucial transfer, however, is Shaun Fein, from Division II Stonehill College in Massachusetts to Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets' prospects were diminished when stellar wing Dion Glover pledged to return, then changed his mind at the last minute and jumped to the NBA. That means Fein, a 6-3 shooting guard, must provide reliable perimeter scoring and backup ball-handling if the Yellow Jackets, with their imposing frontcourt duo of Jason Collier and Alvin Jones, are to escape recent doldrums that threaten coach Bobby Cremins' job.
Another significant ACC trend is the arrival of three of the nation's top point guards in freshmen Williams of Duke, Steve Blake of Maryland, and melifluously monikered Majestic Mapp at Virginia. Williams and Blake are all but certain starters. Cota remains unmatched among ACC lead guards, but a league that recently scrambled at point suddenly has a wealth of young talent filling the position.
Perhaps the league's best backcourt resides at N.C. State, like Virginia a team with tremendous potential for improvement.
Last year, riven by personality conflict and hampered by injuries, the Wolfpack spoke bravely of returning to the NCAAs after being shut out since 1991, the longest drought among ACC members. But a weak non-conference schedule, a six-win league record, and a 17-12 regular season record didn't impress the selection committee.
This season disruptive scorer Adam Harrington is gone, a possible case of addition by subtraction. The Pack returns veteran guards Justin Gainey, Anthony Grundy and Archie Miller, redshirted last year due to injury. Coach Herb Sendek added a pair of gifted freshmen, Clifford Crawford and Marshall Williams, to the backcourt mix. They in turn join a strong, seasoned frontline set off by wing Damien Wilkins, a prep All-American with great bloodlines and charisma not seen at Raleigh in a decade.
N.C. State even has a new 19,722-seat arena, shared with the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. Some things don't change: Fans deprived of the pleasure of visiting 50-year-old Reynolds Coliseum, one of the college game's great homecourts, must endure yet another of Sendek's unimposing non-league schedules.
The only other ACC squad with comparable experience and depth to North Carolina is Wake Forest, which made seven straight NCAA appearances between 1991 and 1997.
Barry Jacobs, a free-lance writer based in North Carolina, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Chat wrap: Larry Shyatt