By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 17, 2009
The question was dangled before a succession of Big East basketball coaches this week: Which league is stronger, the Atlantic Coast Conference or their own?
Georgetown Coach John Thompson III demurred, saying he hadn't studied the ACC closely enough, top to bottom, to comment. Cincinnati's Mick Cronin said that obviously the Big East was best but immediately qualified the claim, pointing out that "sheer numbers alone" made it so.
But to the dean of Big East coaches, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, nothing seemed quite so foolish as the question itself.
"The only place they're debating that is in the South, I would think," Boeheim replied during a conference call. "I haven't heard a national announcer say anything but 'the Big East is the best conference in the country.' "
Today's game between 13th-ranked Georgetown and third-ranked Duke may well become the latest exhibit in this debate -- whether it's a matter of national concern or, as Boeheim suggests, an open question only in the ACC's traditional back yard.
But to Thompson, it's simply the next step in a process -- one he has carefully crafted to accelerate the learning curve of his young squad.
"Our out-of-conference schedule this year is difficult by design," he said. "It varies from year to year depending on what experience I think our team needs. This year, we wanted to get tested early so when we get to now, we have some understanding of what we are."
According to college basketball analyst Jerry Palm, the Hoyas' schedule is the most difficult in the nation, largely because of the tough nonconference opponents (Tennessee, Memphis and now Duke), in addition to the 18 mandatory Big East games.
Regarding the broader question of conference superiority, Palm gave the nod to the Big East in the first of what will be a weekly mock NCAA tournament bracket leading up to Selection Sunday.
Palm granted the Big East nine tournament bids; he gave the ACC seven. But he split the four No. 1 seeds equally between them: Connecticut and Pittsburgh from the Big East, Wake Forest and Duke from the ACC. Georgetown ends up with a No. 3 seed, in Palm's computation.
Duke will be the clear favorite today. But Georgetown has confounded prognosticators all season -- toppling then-No. 2 Connecticut on the road but getting blown out at home by Pittsburgh; shooting 35 percent one night and 60 percent another.
While the season is just hitting the halfway point, the Hoyas have clearly made strides as a result of playing so many tough games.
Their once glaring deficiency in rebounding isn't such a liability any longer, though it's hardly an asset. The freshmen and sophomores idling on the bench the first few weeks are now making significant contributions. Jason Clark adds a gutsy punch to the offense, and Henry Sims and Julian Vaughn have proven capable of bolstering what had looked like a thin front line.
That said, Duke presents multiple challenges, which is precisely what Thompson sought in scheduling the game.
The Blue Devils are exceptional at defending the three-point shot -- which has just recently started falling again for the Hoyas -- and forcing turnovers. And they have enough offensive weapons to stock two college teams, with Coach Mike Krzyzewski often employing a 10-man rotation.
"They are such a balanced team, there is no main point of emphasis," Thompson said. "They press you and try to take you out of your comfort zone. At the other end of the floor, all their guys can make shots."
The star among them is versatile 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Kyle Singler, who leads the team in scoring (16.9 points per game), rebounds (7.9), assists (3.3) and steals (30 total).
Then there is the intangible of Cameron Indoor Stadium, which becomes quite tangible to visiting players who can't hear their teammates above the din.
Not surprisingly, Duke's only loss this season has come on the road, at Michigan (81-73). The Blue Devils have won seven consecutive games since, and they have been ranked as high as No. 2 before being overtaken by Wake Forest.
That's one more piece of evidence, in Krzyzewski's view, that the ACC is the superior conference.
"Our league is the best league," Krzyzewski said following Duke's 70-56 victory at Georgia Tech this week. "The fact that we have 12 teams shouldn't be discriminated against. Believe me, we don't want more; I don't want more. But we have a hell of a league."