When the ACC tournament arrives in town this week for the first time since 1987, the league will showcase the storied tradition that has set it apart from virtually every other conference in the country the past 50 years.
But the real intrigue of this year's ACC tournament, which begins Thursday at MCI Center, surrounds NCAA tournament ramifications. There is more at stake, and more uncertainty, entering the league tournament than in recent years.
_____The Home Stretch_____The ACC tournament will begin Thursday at MCI Center. Pairings will be determined after today's games.
Thursday's first round: noon, 2, 7.
Friday's quarterfinals: noon, 2, 7, 9:30.
Saturday's semifinals: 1:30 and 3:30.
Sunday's final: 1.
At Stake Today
No. 6 Duke (22-4, 11-4) at No. 2 UNC (25-3, 13-2) , 4
The Tar Heels can clinch the regular season title and the top seed in the tournament with a win.
No. 4 Wake Forest (25-4, 12-3) at N.C. State (17-11, 7-8), 8
If North Carolina wins the early game, the later one will mean much more to N.C. State than to Wake.
Only three schools -- North Carolina, Wake Forest and Duke -- are locks to earn bids to the NCAA tournament. All three, which finish their regular seasons today, are still in contention for top seeds in the NCAA tournament, though it is unlikely that all three will earn one.
Five other schools -- Maryland, Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia Tech and North Carolina State -- still have hopes of earning at-large bids to the NCAA tournament with runs in the ACC tournament. "It's unusual," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "Those top three teams, they've separated themselves, but no one else has."
The ACC is rated as the country's strongest conference, which was expected, but few envisioned the season would shake out like it has. Before the season, the ACC was viewed by some as the best conference since the 1985 Big East because six ACC teams returned at least four starters. As many as eight schools -- which would have been a record -- were believed to have had chances at earning NCAA tournament bids.
But critics say the league has proven to be only elite at the top; North Carolina, Wake Forest and Duke all have lurked among the nation's top 10 for the bulk of the season.
Entering the final day of the regular season, they are the only three ACC teams with winning records in league play. No other team has more than 17 total victories.
"You don't have a lot of teams with 20 wins because we beat each other up," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said.
Some, such as former Duke player and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, said the congested middle of the ACC represents some of the nation's "middling major programs." Others, such as North Carolina State Coach Herb Sendek, said the parity in the middle of the conference is merely a byproduct of the league being so difficult from top to bottom.
"It's a mathematical fact," Sendek said, "when a game is played, one team has to lose. At the end of the season, no matter how strong your league is, 50 percent of the numbers in the columns are losses. We see some of that in the NFL."
Gary Williams agrees, saying that there is no reason why any conference should get more bids to the NCAA tournament than the ACC this season. But the Big East likely will earn more invitations even though few believe it is stronger at the top.
Williams and Sendek endorse expanding the NCAA tournament to 128 teams now that there are more than 300 schools competing in Division I basketball. The tournament has continued to grow through the years, as Williams noted, so much so that not even 64 teams is enough: A play-in game was added in recent years to make it a 65-team event.
"Why not give more athletes the opportunity to participate in one of the greatest sporting events on earth, and let them feel good about their seasons," Sendek said. "Each year, no matter how you do it, teams that have really good seasons don't make the cut. Which teams deserve in at the end, a lot of times it comes down to very difficult choices and personal preferences."
Perhaps three of the five ACC bubble teams will compete this postseason in the National Invitation Tournament, which is a small consolation for most ACC teams. For Virginia Tech, however, any postseason appearance will be considered a success, according to Coach Seth Greenberg.
The three teams at the top of the ACC, meantime, are looking to best position themselves to make a run at the national championship. Greenberg said that throughout the season, Illinois and North Carolina (25-3, 13-2) have proven to be "head and shoulders" the two best teams in the country.
North Carolina demonstrated its power last week when the Tar Heels won games at North Carolina State and Maryland without its leading scorer, Rashad McCants, who is sidelined with an intestinal disorder.
If Duke (22-4, 11-4) wins at North Carolina today and Wake Forest (25-4, 12-3) beats North Carolina State, both the Blue Devils and the Demon Deacons will be in prime position to make a run in the ACC tournament and solidify top seeds in the NCAAs.
Eight teams will begin the ACC tournament with realistic hopes of either earning an NCAA tournament bid or claiming a top seed in the NCAAs. It remains to be seen, however, whether the entire league will be rewarded by the NCAA selection committee for the power of the top three schools.
"That's a concern for the league," Greenberg said. "It's not teams one through nine, it's one through 11. Every single team is capable of winning at home or on the road. This league has tremendous parity, especially in the middle. I've been in different leagues, it's hard winning seven, eight or nine games in this conference."