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Michael Wilbon

The Best Ball Is in the ACC

By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page D01

It became fashionable for a while to look at Connecticut and Syracuse and think the Big East was having the best season of any conference. The devoted believers in the RPI point to Kansas being atop that rating and that Oklahoma State and Oklahoma rating so highly as well makes the case quite nicely for the Big 12. But sometimes you need to trust less in data and believe what you see on the basketball court. The ACC was the best league in the country when the season began and even with three prominent teams slipping up, there's plenty of evidence that tells us the ACC is the best league right now.

Okay, it's not the early 1980s when James Worthy, Michael Jordan, Ralph Sampson, Buck Williams, Mark Price, Johnny Dawkins and Len Bias were in the league. But at a time when players leave college for the NBA before having a chance to prove themselves at the college level, the ACC this season is about as good as it gets -- maybe as good as it will be until the NBA adopts a minimum age requirement.

No conference has ever had three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament in one season, but it's possible -- not probable, but possible -- the ACC will have three No. 1s when the Big Dance Card is announced tomorrow evening. North Carolina is already a lock for a No. 1 seed. Wake Forest, No. 2 in the RPI and No. 3 in the Associated Press poll, gave a less-than-inspired effort and lost to North Carolina State, which should have secured an at-large spot. But the Demon Deacons may very well receive a No. 1 seed anyway because the selection committee likely will treat the one-game suspension of Chris Paul, Wake's best player, as an injury and not dock Wake for the loss.

And if Duke beats N.C. State today to reach the ACC final, the Blue Devils' RPI ranking has to rise from No. 5 and they could pick up a No. 1 seed, depending on what happens to Kentucky, Louisville and Oklahoma State in their conference tournaments.

So the ACC tournament semifinals will comprise two potential No. 1 seeds (North Carolina and Duke) and last year's NCAA runner-up (Georgia Tech), which has all but one of its key players back from the championship game. Oh, and a generously talented N.C. State team that much like Georgia Tech might be coming on at just the right time. Julius Hodge, who led N.C. State with 22 points and eight rebounds, is just the kind of senior all-court player who gives opponents fits in late March.

North Carolina Coach Roy Williams, who has spent a lifetime in the ACC and Big 12, said after his Tar Heels came back to beat Clemson: "Top to bottom, this is the most difficult I've ever been in. I believe we've got some seven to nine teams in this league that are in the top 64 in this country."

The reason the ACC has so many good teams this season is simple. The top teams have back their best players from a year ago. That, in the current basketball culture, is a luxury most schools with legitimate NBA prospects do not have anymore.

But this year Hodge returned to N.C. State even though he was the league's player of the year last season. There was talk that Paul wasn't going to return to Wake Forest for his sophomore season, but he did. And staying at Wake with him were shooter Justin Gray and a heavyweight forward named Eric Williams. Duke graduated Chris Duhon and lost Luol Deng to the NBA but kept J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams. Georgia Tech returned the league's only true low-post center in Luke Schenscher, plus the preposterously explosive Ismail Muhammad, point guard Jarrett Jack, who may be better suited for the NBA than Paul, and the team's best player, B.J. Elder.

North Carolina freshman reserve Marvin Williams is said by some NBA scouts to be not only the most talented player the Tar Heels have, which is saying something considering he shares the floor with Sean May and Raymond Felton, but also one of the two or three most talented players in the conference. Felton analyzes a basketball game in the same vivid detail as a golfer who remembers the direction every blade of grass was blowing when he lines up his stroke.

Having Jack, Felton and Paul playing the point at one time gives the ACC a level of playmaking talent no other conference can come close to. Miami's Guillermo Diaz isn't a classic assist guard but reminds some folks of a young Steve Francis. The players are talented and in just about every case they're playing for good coaches.

After losing to North Carolina, Clemson Coach Oliver Purnell said: "Nobody lets you up in this league. It's just a tough, tough league."

Of course, the wild card in all this is Georgia Tech. When Elder suffered a hamstring injury that greatly reduced Tech, a whole lot of people started jumping off the ACC bandwagon, especially with Maryland and N.C. State struggling and Duke at times appearing more vulnerable than we're accustomed to seeing the Blue Devils. It would be a pretty amazing feat for this Duke team, which has only modest talent, to earn a No. 1 seed. The Devils struggled at times with Virginia, which had plenty of incentive to keep their season going and extend the tenure of Coach Pete Gillen, who after seven years in Charlottesville is going to be looking for new work.

But the Yellow Jackets might be all the way back now, at least to the level of play they maintained through an 11-2 start. Elder, it should be noted, hit 8 of 14 shots, scored 19 points and led the 73-54 dismantling of Virginia Tech.

Georgia Tech could very well be the lowest-seeded team nobody wants to play in the NCAAs. The Yellow Jackets held the Hokies to 37 percent shooting, prompting Coach Paul Hewitt to say: "When we defend that way it makes us very optimistic about what we're capable of doing. I don't know if this puts us in. [But] we have a chance to take all the doubt out of the equation."

The Ramblin' Wreck played with the kind of passion and purpose that suggests it knows its close. So did N.C. State. You watch a day of quarterfinal play in the ACC, compare it to the play in other conferences, such as the awful Big Ten and the overrated Big 12, and it's easy to make a case for a sixth ACC team being invited to the NCAA tournament. Problem was, Maryland and Virginia Tech couldn't get that one victory in the conference tournament that would allow them to ride the coattails of the country's best basketball one more weekend.

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