| ||The suspense is back in ACC basketball. No, not the tingle, the anticipation, the excitement associated with individual conference games -- thanks to the vibrant venues, raucous crowds, and the passion of players, fans and coaches, that suspense never went anywhere. What has been missing is the "big picture" suspense, which appears likely to accompany the new millennium. For the first time in a couple of seasons, the question, "Who will win the conference crown?" is not an either-or proposition. With as many as five or six teams able to contend, the question has become multiple choice -- maybe even an essay question.
While North Carolina and Duke, the league's perennial front runners, may still lead the pack when March rolls around, there is no team which appears to have the ability to dominate the conference. Wake Forest, Maryland, N.C. State, and Georgia Tech could make runs at the regular season title. Virginia appears to be making a move back toward the top, although they could still be a year away. With one of the conference's most experienced teams, Florida State could present real headaches for the erstwhile contenders. Only Clemson, which lost four seniors, seems unable to mount a serious challenge in this year's ACC race.
The other item of "big picture" suspense is one the league's coaches would have preferred remain the problem of other conferences -- that is, how many teams get into the NCAA Tournament. Until 1999, the conference seemed like it could count on a minimum of four bids every year.
The 1999 domination of the league by Duke, Maryland, and, to a lesser extent, North Carolina, limited the ACC to three NCAA berths. That caused the league's coaches, whose fans and athletic directors have become accustomed to regular trips to the Big Dance, to wonder whether last year was a mere blip on the radar screen, or the start of a discouraging trend. Young players forced into key positions, lots of teams with the potential to be good, even very good, and the always intense competition of the best amateur basketball league in the world could make NCAA Tournament bids even more precious than usual.
Terence Morris, junior, F, Maryland: 15.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg
Ed Cota, senior, G, North Carolina: 10.5 ppg, 7.4 apg
Shane Battier, junior, F, Duke: 9.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg
Robert O'Kelley, junior, G, Wake Forest: 17.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg
Jason Collier, senior, C, Georgia Tech: 17.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg
Player of the year: Terence Morris
The term "complete player" has become a coachspeak cliché. However, there is no better way to describe Terence Morris. An excellent shooter around the basket who has the ability to knock down the 3-point shot, Morris also possesses outstanding scoring ability in the no-man's land of today's basketball -- the area between the dunk and the 3-pointer, the place that used to be called the "mid-range."
Although slender in appearance, he is strong enough to compete with big bodies inside, and quick enough to win that competition. He can handle the ball, if necessary. He shot almost 83 percent from the line last year, while blocking 77 shots and coming up with 50 steals. The sum of those numbers, and those skills, is ACC superstar.
Jason Williams, freshman, G, Duke
Michael Dunleavy Jr., freshman, G/F, Duke
Damien Wilkins, freshman, F, N.C. State
Majestic Mapp, freshman, G, Virginia
Joseph Forte, freshman, G, North Carolina
Newcomer of the year: Damien Wilkins
To succeed as a freshman, you not only need the opportunity to play but the ability to avoid being overwhelmed by expectations. At 6-6, 220 pounds, with the ability to score from inside and out (including from 3-point range) and to create off the dribble, Wilkins figures to have plenty of opportunity to help the Wolfpack. And when you're the son of NBA fixture Gerald Wilkins and the nephew of Dominique Wilkins, high expectations on the basketball court have become as ordinary as picking up the morning paper.
Best backcourt: North Carolina
In a year when most of the conference's teams have questions in the backcourt, the league's best point guard is Ed Cota. It is the presence of Cota which gives the Tar Heels the top backcourt -- even without Ronald Curry, who was lost for the season with a football injury. The top assist man in the ACC for the last three years, Cota has the ability to break down any defense. Joining Cota is Max Owens, who came on strong at the end of last season. High school All-American Joseph Forte has excellent offensive skills, and, after a prep career under Morgan Wooten at DeMatha, is fundamentally sound and unawed by the pressure of big-time college basketball.
Best frontcourt: Georgia Tech
While the conference sports some solid frontcourts (most notably North Carolina State and North Carolina), no team has two potential All-ACC performers like Alvin Jones and Jason Collier. Collier is a very mobile big man who causes problems for opponents with his ability to score from the outside, while Jones has been a defensive catalyst for the Yellow Jackets (he already is tops on the school's blocked shots charts after just two seasons). Jason Floyd has shown flashes of explosiveness, that, if they can be sustained, might make this one of the nation's top frontcourts. Air Force transfer Michael Isenhour, Jon Babul and freshman Clarence Moore provide Bobby Cremins with some unaccustomed frontcourt depth.
Team on the rise: Virginia
After being surprisingly, even stunningly, competitive last season with only six scholarship players and a cast described by coach Pete Gillen as being like "Toothless, Bullhead, and Three-Finger Willy," the Cavaliers look forward to the return of 6-9 bruiser Colin Ducharme from the injured list and the addition of one of the nation's most heralded recruiting classes. If Gillen and his staff can find the proper mix of returning veterans and young talent, and continue to generate the relentless intensity of last year's overachievers, Virginia could present a different kind surprise for ACC foes: the Cavaliers might contend.
Team on the fall: Clemson
Coach Larry Shyatt's cupboard is not entirely bare, but one does not lose the likes of Harold Jamison, Tom Wideman, and Terrell McIntrye, all of whom were mainstays for four years, without suffering at least a minor dip. Only three returning Tigers -- Andrius Jurkunas, Will Solomon and Adam Allenspach -- averaged more than ten minutes per game a season ago, so Shyatt must rely on more unproven commodities than advisable in a league like the ACC.
Unsung player: Adrian Crawford, Florida State
The Seminoles' top 3-point shooter last season, Crawford averaged almost 11 points per game playing primarily as the sixth man. At 6-5, 195 pounds, Crawford has excellent size for a backcourt player and seems to possess that savvy associated with being the son of a coach -- in this case, FSU assistant Coleman Crawford. The only thing lacking for Adrian Crawford has been the kind of opportunity he is likely to receive this season as one of only two proven players in the Florida State backcourt.
Toughest road game: Duke
One of the essential ingredients in creating a tough place to play is the quality of the home team. Duke, of course, features little but the highest quality in its home teams, which is the most important factor in home-court advantage. When the home team's skill is mixed with the proximity, creativity, and enthusiasm of the hometown fans at Cameron Indoor Stadium, it is hard to beat the atmosphere in Durham.
NCAA: North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina State, Maryland, Georgia Tech