ACC knows title goes through Tobacco Road

Originally Published: January 13, 2004
By Michael Vega | Special to ESPN.com

The tectonic plates may have shifted a bit in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But, really, it's only been subtle movement.

After all, it would take a major seismic event on Tobacco Road to cause any real upheaval in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill axis of power. And, as everyone in the land of ACC knows, the championship fault lines have been pretty stable for decades.

"If you ask people around the country to name the five best programs in the country, they would pick Carolina and Duke as two of them," Maryland head coach Gary Williams said. "And that's what we deal with in the ACC. Every year we know they're going to be good and then you look around and it's, 'OK, how's Maryland going to be? How's Wake going to be? How are the rest going to be? And that's where you are."

Isma'il Muhammad
Isma'il Muhammad and Georgia Tech failed to stand up to UNC on Sunday.

Even during North Carolina's great depression of the past two seasons, Duke has been there to carry the load -- winning the past five ACC titles. And when the Blue Devils were down (hey, they did miss the NCAAs back in '95), the Tar Heels were there to represent in the Final Four.

Together, the rivals have combined for 29 ACC titles, including 10 of the last 14. Add neighboring North Carolina State's 10 titles to the mix and that makes for 39 championship banners between three of the ACC's most venerated programs. Oh, and the trio have hung eight of the ACC's nine national titles.

So, to say that the ACC has experienced a shift in power a few weeks into 2004 -- with No. 3 Wake Forest (11-0, 2-0) and No. 14 Georgia Tech (12-2, 0-1) grabbing some early headlines -- would be a tad premature, so says Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser.

"I think it's really too early to tell," said Prosser, whose Deacons scored a 78-63 victory over Clemson on Saturday to remain undefeated heading into Tuesday's tough non-conference date at 16th-ranked Texas.

"We've only played one or two ACC games. I think if there's any reports of the demise of the triangle, I mean they've been greatly exaggerated to this point. It's still very, very early in the season."

So, while Maryland won it all in 2002 and Wake won the regular season title a year ago, when it comes right down to it, it's still about beating one of two teams.

Duke or Carolina.

Carolina or Duke.

Doesn't matter which team gets top billing, the rest of the ACC knows it will be difficult to tip the league's balance of power without toppling one (or both) of those teams. Virginia and Georgia Tech found that out the hard way Sunday night.

The second-ranked Blue Devils (12-1, 2-0) went into Charlottesville, Va., and got double-figure scoring from six players, including a game-high 21 points from sophomore Shelden Williams (17 in the second half), to post a 93-71 blowout of the Cavaliers (10-3, 0-2). It was Virginia's 17th loss to Duke in the teams' last 19 meetings.

The 13th-ranked Tar Heels (10-2, 1-1), meanwhile, finally rid themselves of that triple-overtime aftertaste that came with losing to Wake in their ACC opener nearly a month ago. UNC confirmed Prosser's words with an impressive 103-88 throttling of Tech in Chapel Hill. One reason UNC coach Roy Williams was able to savor his first ACC win was due, in very large part, to the 28-point, 8-rebound effort of sophomore Sean May, the league's second-leading rebounder (10.5 rpg) and No. 6 scorer (16.3 ppg).

And, with three of league's top six scorers attired in Carolina blue -- including No. 2 Rashad McCants (17.3 ppg), No. 5 Jawad Williams (16.3 ppg) and May -- the Tar Heels, who rank third in the ACC in field goal percentage (.481), loom as a gathering threat now that conference play is in full swing.

But, above all else, there is the omnipresent threat posed by Duke.

"Last year we were fortunate enough to win the regular season," Prosser said. "The year before that, it was Maryland who won the regular season. But both those years, Duke won the conference tournament, so I guess it's all in how you look at it. I just think there's several, several very good teams.

"I think the thing that's going to happen is that you're going to have a very good ACC team finish seventh in our league. That's the reality when you have that many good teams in our conference."

While the ACC is expected to undergo a bit of a facelift next season with the addition of two Big East teams (Miami and Virginia Tech) and a third (Boston College) in 2005-06, it's not likely to cause as much of a tremor on the basketball side as it will in football. No, it's up to those already familiar with Chapel Hill and Durham to challenge the boys in blue.

Tech, with its backcourt depth and talent, emerged early in 2003 as a contender to the crown after its 12-0 start and Preseason NIT championship that included a victory over No. 1 Connecticut. But the Yellow Jackets have stumbled of late with back-to-back road losses at Georgia and UNC.

NC State, led by ACC scoring leader Julius Hodge (19.3 ppg), improved to 9-2 overall (2-0 conference) by pinning an improved Florida State squad with its first conference loss in a 58-53 decision in Tallahassee. The Wolfpack will put their perfect conference record on the line when they travel to Durham for a date with the Blue Devils Thursday.

Maryland appeared poised for a breakthrough after back-to-back trips to the Final Four in 2001 and 2002, the latter of which resulted in the Terrapins' crowning victory over Indiana in the NCAA championship. But, with nary a soul who played on that championship squad on this year's roster, Williams has had to mold a team from a roster of freshman and sophomores who comprise nine of his top 11 players.

The Terps (9-3, 0-1) get their first shot at the favorites in '04 when they host 11th-ranked North Carolina on Wednesday (ESPN, 9 ET).

"What there is, there's more good teams in the league now," Williams said. "But Duke and Carolina are still Duke and Carolina. What we have this year, I think, is the strongest league from top to bottom. There's eight teams in our league right now, legitimately thinking they have a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament."

Still, Prosser believes that no matter how many teams rise up to make a run, Duke and Carolina aren't likely to shrink from the task or the fight in the ACC.

"Absolutely not, absolutely not," Prosser said, emphatically. "I mean, they remain Carolina and Duke, two of the most tradition-rich programs in the country, two Hall of Fame coaches, I think it would be foolhardly to suggest that they are indeed going to go away any time soon."

Games to Watch
Wake Forest at Texas, Tuesday
The Demon Deacons put their unbeaten record on the line in a tough non-conference road game against the No. 16 Longhorns. If the Deacs intend to escape Austin with a victory, they cannot afford to shoot 40 percent as they did in a victory over Clemson on Saturday.
N.C. State at Duke, Thursday
The ACC race will gain further definition when these two teams with unbeaten league records square off in Durham. Julius Hodge, who has scored in double figures 16 straight games, leads the ACC in scoring (18.9 ppg) while Duke's Luol Deng leads all ACC freshmen in scoring (14.4 ppg).
Connecticut at North Carolina, Sunday
This one will be well worth the price of admission just to watch the frontcourt duel between UConn's Emeka Okafor, who came one blocked shot of recording a triple double (21 points, 10 rebounds, 9 blocks) in an 86-59 rout over Oklahoma, and Carolina's sophomore stud, Sean May, who ranks as the ACC's second-leading rebounder and sixth-leading scorer. As an added bonus, Ben Gordon and Raymond Felton will thrust and parry on the perimeter.
Around the East
  • When the final horn sounded Monday night in Providence's 63-60 Big East victory at Seton Hall, Friars coach Tim Welsh responded with a long exhale and a weary smile. It was not quite the reaction Welsh had in Providence's two previous games against Texas and at Rutgers, both gut-wrenching losses that came on buzzer-beating plays.

    After P.J. Tucker went the length of the court at the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence for a controversial basket that lifted Texas to an improbable 75-74 victory, the Friars were dealt yet another shattering loss in their very next game against Rutgers when Herve Lamizana hit a pair of 3-pointers in the final 10.5 seconds, stroking the game-winner at the buzzer over Ryan Gomes.

    "It's tough when it happens to you like that in five days," Welsh told the Providence Journal. "It can shake you up losing those games, but you have to stay stable and keep the guys confident."

    No Friar's confidence appeared to be more shaken than that of Donnie McGrath. The sophomore guard, a 75 percent free throw shooter, missed 4 of 5 foul shots in the final 2:31, including a pair of insurance shots that would have stretched Providence's 64-62 lead with 7.3 seconds left. McGrath, though, wound up missing both shots, opening the door for Lamizana's heroics to deliver the Scarlet Knights (8-4, 1-2) their first conference win of the season after pulling a near-upset in a 75-74 loss to top-ranked Connecticut.

    Against the Pirates, however, Providence staved off heartbreak for the third game in a row when Seton Hall missed three game-tying attempts before the final horn.

    "I'm not that bad of a person. It can't happen to me three times in one week,'' Welsh told the Journal. ``Our kids hung in there. They showed me a lot on this trip because after [Texas] and [Rutgers], even the strongest could crumble. But our guys didn't."

    After surviving that wrenching week, the Friars (9-2, 1-1) are probably feeling like they can survive anything else the Big East has in store for them.

  • Pittsburgh, the only unbeaten team in the Big East and one of seven remaining undefeated Division I teams in the nation, is off to its best start at 17-0 since 1928 when the Panthers went 21-0. But, only after surviving a scare in South Florida.

    The Panthers needed a end-to-end basket by Carl Krauser at the buzzer to send its game against Miami into overtime, and eventually needed double overtime to pull out an 84-80 victory. Pittsburgh then extended its winning streak to 17 games, the nation's longest, with an impressive 74-71 home triumph over Notre Dame, extending the nation's longest home winning streak to 36 games.

  • Speaking of streaks, Boston University has poised itself as a strong contender to take the America East crown after winning its 10th in a row with a 63-59 home win over Binghamton on Saturday. The Terriers (10-3, 4-0) gained a share of first place with Vermont, who will visit Case Gym this Saturday. It no doubt will be a nostalgic visit for the Catamounts (7-5, 4-0), who defeated BU on its home floor in last year's conference championship game to clinch their first NCAA berth in school history.

    Quote to Note
    "The only thing I have in common with John Wooden is that I wear glasses and coach basketball. That's it."
    -- Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose 664th career victory -- a 96-73 win Boston College -- tied him with Wooden for 19th on the NCAA's list for Division I wins.

    Michael Vega covers college basketball for The Boston Globe and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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