ACC basketball is on a downward slope this season

Hoyas, Terps, Capitals and NFL playoffs are the topic of discussion and debate in this first edition of Post Sports Live with The Washington Post's LaVar Arrington, Cindy Boren, Dan Steinberg and Jonathan Forsythe.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011; 12:03 AM

More will be at stake Saturday than an opportunity for a young Maryland team to improve its nonconference credentials against seventh-ranked Villanova. The game also stands as one of the final opportunities this season for an ACC team to give a diminished league a much-needed reputation boost.

The ACC has been the epicenter of college basketball before and likely will be again. It is home to the past two national champions - North Carolina and Duke - and the Blue Devils have a reasonable chance to repeat. But this much is also true: The conference has taken a considerable step back this season.

For evidence, study the rankings that list only one ACC team - No. 1 Duke - among the nation's top 25 teams. Or rattle off unsightly nonleague losses that ACC teams have suffered against the likes of Yale, Seattle, Auburn and Kennesaw State. "Or you can just open your eyes and look at it," said Jay Bilas, the ESPN analyst and former Duke player. "No reasonable basketball person can look at the ACC and say, 'Boy, this is as strong as we have been.' It is down. And it is weak. And it is incontrovertible."

This is the weakest Bilas remembers the ACC ever being. Perhaps it is fitting that the only ACC team with three conference wins - Boston College - already has a resume marred by two home losses to Ivy League teams.

Debates about the nation's strongest basketball conference in any given year usually include the ACC, whose teams have won five of the past 10 national championships. A more apt discussion this season is whether the ACC belongs in the same category as the Mountain West, which ranks fourth - one slot ahead of the ACC - as a conference in terms of the Ratings Percentage Index, the mathematical measurement of teams' strength that the NCAA tournament selection committee uses to help determine at-large berths and seeds.

"Now, I understand it is a good year for the Mountain West," said Jerry Palm, an independent analyst who simulates the RPI ratings on his Web site, "But that's about all you need to know about this year's ACC. In the last 17 years, the ACC has been worse than third in the rankings only once [it was seventh in 1999-2000]. How's that for mediocrity?"

Even during a season in which the NCAA men's basketball tournament is expanding by three teams to 68, the ACC may not see more than five teams earn invites. The opening round of the ACC tournament - in which teams that finish fifth through 12th play - may not be easy on the eyes.

Joe Lunardi, who projects the NCAA tournament field for ESPN, wrote last month that the projected seeding gap between the best ACC team (Duke, a projected No. 1 seed) and the league's second- and third-best teams (North Carolina and Boston College, then projected as No. 8 seeds) would be the largest in the history of the conference if such a disparity holds up. Lunardi noted that the ACC has never had a second team seeded worse than No. 4 in the history of the expanded NCAA tournament field.

The RPI has not been kind to most ACC teams. While the Big East had eight teams in the top 17 of the RPI earlier this week, the ACC only had six teams in the RPI's top 100, the same number as the Colonial Athletic Association.

The ACC's self-inflicted damage occurred in nonleague play. While North Carolina lost three games to quality opponents - Minnesota, Vanderbilt and Texas - by seven points or less, the Tar Heels were the exception. Florida State lost to an Auburn team (308th in the RPI as of Thursday) that on Saturday scored six points in the first half against Louisiana State. Virginia lost to Seattle (300). Georgia Tech lost to Kennesaw State (330) and Siena (186). Wake Forest lost to Stetson (212), Winthrop (151) and Presbyterian (130).

Each team can cite reasons for uneven seasons. Georgia Tech's Derrick Favors, Wake Forest's Al-Farouq Aminu and North Carolina's Ed Davis all left school early and were drafted in the first round of the NBA draft. Clemson's Brad Brownell, Boston College's Steve Donahue and Wake Forest's Jeff Bzdelik are first-year coaches at their respective schools.

North Carolina State standout Tracy Smith is back after the Wolfpack went 6-4 during his 10-game absence because of injury. Virginia Tech is down to eight scholarship players after injury and illness robbed Coach Seth Greenberg of the roster that was predicted to finish second in the league.

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