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On Basketball

No Free Passes, Not Even for Big-Ticket ACC

By John Feinstein
Thursday, November 11, 2004; Page D04

In the winter of 1980, the Atlantic Coast Conference was loaded with talented basketball teams. Night after night the top six teams took turns beating each other and, as January became February, there was considerable concern that the ACC wouldn't get all the NCAA bids it thought it deserved. And so, the politicking began.

"The ACC is so strong," Duke star Gene Banks declared one day, "that if six teams get into the NCAAs, all of them will make the Final Four."


Maryland's Gary Williams is among ACC coaches arguing for at least seven NCAA bids for the conference. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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Okay, so Banks wasn't a math major. The ACC got five bids that year, and the sixth team -- Virginia -- won the National Invitation Tournament. It was, without question, the best league in the country that season. Banks, however, was just a little bit off in his calculations. The ACC didn't send to the Final Four all five teams that got in, or even a more plausible four. Or three, two or one. It sent none.

All of which proves the credo that brings everyone back to the game come March: Nothing is certain in college basketball. Anyone out there who had Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State in the Final Four at this time a year ago, raise your hand.

And so, here we go again.

Twenty-five years after Banks, the ACC is loaded again. There are three teams in the preseason top four; six in the top 25. Duke, which has spent almost every minute of the last seven basketball seasons ranked in the top five in the nation, may have trouble cracking the top five in the conference. Maryland, picked No. 15 in the first poll, is picked no higher than fourth in the conference and as low as sixth -- all of which delights Gary Williams, who will spend countless hours telling his players that no one respects them.

The ACC will not get six teams to the Final Four. It could get four. Or, it could get none. Teams such as Kansas, Illinois, Oklahoma State, Kentucky, Syracuse and defending champion Connecticut all have legitimate aspirations to meet in St. Louis the first weekend in April. The list of teams with the potential to play for the national title on April 4 is long, and as always, there are one or two teams not on any lists who will be factors once the field is announced March 13.

The reason everyone is oohing and aahing about the ACC is that most of the key players in the conference from last season have returned. Duke lost two starters -- and a critical recruit -- and North Carolina State lost two starters. Georgia Tech (championship game); Wake Forest (round of 16); North Carolina (second round); and Maryland (second round) all return four or five starters and most of their key backups. In an era when there are almost no great seniors and not that many more juniors, these are experienced teams. What's more, everyone in the ACC will get a chance to pad their records with the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech. Those schools have already assimilated as football programs -- becoming, like the rest of the ACC, Peach Bowl-worthy teams. It will take them considerably longer to adapt in basketball, where the league has real top-25 teams, not teams that get ranked by scheduling Temple, William and Mary and Akron, among others.

Already, the ACC's coaches are campaigning for at least seven bids. The most the ACC has ever received is six, but that was as a nine-team league. Now it has 11, the same as the Big Ten, which has received seven bids in the past.

"They always said the Big Ten got seven because it had more teams than us," Williams said recently. "Well, now we have 11 teams. It's supposed to be the best teams that get in, right?"

Actually, if that was what the NCAA tournament was supposed to be, about 60 teams would come from seven conferences, and we'd lose those early games when teams such as Valparaiso and Butler get their chance to shine. In other words, college basketball would be college football, where money and power are the only things that matter 99 percent of the time.

So, whether Williams and the other ACC coaches like it or not, they aren't a lock for seven or eight bids. Heck, they might only get five. More intriguing, as the regular season begins, is who might emerge as this year's Saint Joseph's. The Hawks went 30-2 a year ago and were a jump shot -- actually a near steal -- from the Final Four. A couple of area teams might become national dark horses by March: One is George Washington, which made the NIT a year ago and is poised in Karl Hobbs's third season to seriously contend for an Atlantic 10 title. The other is Virginia Commonwealth, where Jeff Capel became the youngest coach to take his team to the tournament a year ago.

Illinois is the favorite in the Big Ten, but Michigan State and Michigan are teams to watch. Gene Keady coaches one more season at Purdue, and Mike Davis, just three years removed from the national championship game, might be coaching his last season at Indiana. Kentucky is young but tremendously talented in the SEC, and Mississippi State isn't young and is talented, as is Florida. Louisville, Cincinnati, DePaul and Marquette spend one more season in Conference USA before transforming the Big East into the Humongous East next season. The Pac-10 is down. Ben Howland needs another year to get UCLA on its feet; Mike Montgomery has left Stanford. Only Arizona, still coached by Old Man Lute (Olson), keeps rolling along. The Big 12 could produce the national champion -- Kansas -- especially because the league isn't as talented as in recent years. Bob Knight is a little less than two seasons from passing Dean Smith as the winningest coach in college basketball history. The key, of course, will be avoiding Lubbock's salad bars.

Several local teams have legitimate March aspirations: George Mason lost to VCU at the buzzer in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game, then won two NIT games. Jim Larranaga has a competitive team every year in Fairfax. American has reached three straight Patriot League championship games under Jeff Jones and, with no dominant team in the league this season, has a legitimate shot to get over that hump this season. Georgetown is rebuilding from The Crash of Craig (Esherick) and starts pretty close to square one with John Thompson III now in his father's old office. The Hoyas will struggle in a Big East that includes not only Syracuse and U-Conn., but also Notre Dame, Providence and Boston College.

It all opens tonight. Only one thing is guaranteed whenever a basketball season begins: By February, there will be a whole lot of spinning going on among coaches campaigning desperately for those final tournament slots. It's a shame that Banks isn't still playing or coaching. If he were, he could tell us come February: "If the ACC gets nine bids, all nine teams will make the final eight."


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