There's no favorite in ACC basketball this season

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010

When Duke takes the court at Verizon Center to play Georgetown on Saturday, the Blue Devils will have a chance to earn an attention-grabbing victory for a conference looking for a national championship contender to emerge.

Without a juggernaut like last season's North Carolina team -- the Tar Heels won the national title and had three players selected in the first round of the NBA draft in June -- the ACC has been more entertaining than elite. Despite being the nation's only conference without a team that has a losing overall record, the ACC pales in comparison to the Big East, which has six teams ranked in this week's Associated Press top 25, while the ACC has two -- Duke and Georgia Tech.

"The Carolina team last year does not happen very often, a kid like [Tyler] Hansbrough who is there for four years," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said about this season's ACC parity. "Unless something like that happens, I think pretty much everybody is going to have a shot. The landscape of college basketball has changed during this decade to produce this, and we see it in our league."

If there is a major conference with no clear favorite -- or even a well-established upper echelon -- it is the topsy-turvy ACC. Predicted to finish 11th in the league's preseason media poll, Virginia won its first three ACC games. Perennial stalwarts Duke and North Carolina lost by double digits on the same night. A Maryland team that lacked a quality nonconference victory sits alone atop the standings.

Clemson Coach Oliver Purnell has said the regular season champion may finish the season with as many as five losses in conference play. Wake Forest Coach Dino Gaudio believes as many as eight teams harbor realistic hopes of winning the regular season title.

"Anyone can win the league right now, I really believe that," Gaudio said.

The league's unpredictability is less of a question than the league's overall strength. While the ACC bears no resemblance to the downtrodden Pacific-10, which may only have one team make the NCAA tournament, the ACC has a dearth of teams with realistic hopes of winning the national title.

The conference is rated third in the Ratings Percentage Index, the mathematical measurement of teams' strength that is used in the NCAA tournament selection process. It is the lowest the ACC has been ranked since it ranked fourth in the 2005-2006 season.

And while Duke has earned its share of impressive nonconference victories -- beating Gonzaga and Connecticut -- other ACC teams near the top of the standings have struggled to distinguish themselves out of conference.

Virginia, Maryland and Virginia Tech, three of the ACC's top four teams in the standings, have beaten a combined one top 50 nonconference opponent -- Virginia's Dec. 30 victory over Alabama-Birmingham. On the other hand, two teams in the bottom half of the league standings, North Carolina and Clemson, have impressive victories over Michigan State and Butler, respectively, under their belts but have since encountered turbulence in conference play.

A combination of injuries and ineffective guard play helped put North Carolina Coach Roy Williams through his first three-game losing streak since he was head coach at Kansas in 1994. Clemson is in the midst of its own three-game losing streak.

"There is not as much of a gap between one and 12 as there has been in the past" in the ACC, Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton said. "I hope we don't get to the point and see people beating up on each other and say that's a bad thing. I think it's kind of like a new day in the ACC, and that's not negative."

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