The ACC tournament opens Thursday in Greensboro, N.C., with Maryland favored by two points over North Carolina State, Wake Forest an 8 1/2-point choice over Virginia and Clemson rated eight points stronger than Duke.
North Carolina, the regular-season champion and tourney favorite, enjoys a bye.
Take the points in all the first-round games. State can beat Maryland, if Kenny Carr will play both ends of the floor. The spreads on the other two contests appear a bit high.
When was the last time Wake beat anybody by nine?
There have been recent seasons when the ACC was the strongest and best-balanced conference in the country. That probably is not true this year. Balanced, yes. Strongest, who knows? There are more good squads than ever before, from San Francisco to providence, but there does not appear to be one truly outstanding team. No, not even the undefeated Dons. Last year's Indiana or Alabama teams would have breezed home this season.
The ACC offers this year, in addition to its traditional excellent balance, the finest group of coaches in college. I have never been a Norm Sloan fan. And Lefty is in over his head, tactically, at tournament time. But Carolina, Wake Forest, Clemson, Duke and Virginia are in excellent hands.
The Cavaliers' Terry Holland literally stole last season's tournament.
Dean Smith, in particular, has done a brilliant job with Carolina the last two weeks despite losing 6-10 center Tommy LaGarde because of a knee injury. The Tar heels' poise and polish was never more apparent than Sunday in Charlotte. They dismantled a strong Louisville team although they figured to be mashed under the boards.
Carolina is the class again in the ACC. If LaGarde is back by mid-March the Tar Heels can make a serious run for the NCCA championship. Without him, they are vulnerable to losing the ACC tournament. They lack strength inside, a fact Smith has been camouflaging beautifully in recent game by rotating three inexperienced freshmen centers.
Wake Forest poses a strong threat. Unfortunately, the Deacons made the tragic mistake of losing to Maryland and to State last week, handing the league's No. 1 spot and one important day of rest for the tournament to the Tar Heels.
Wake Forest must play three games in as many days - against Virginia, probably Clemson and Carolina if all goes well. Wake has the tournament's best starting five but it lacks depth and is not equipped for this demanding 72-hour schedule. By the time the Deacons oppose Carolina they are going to be tired.
It is a tired team going into the tournament, and Smith will try to run and present early foul trouble, if Wake makes the final.
Clemson could win it all, if Wayne Rollins could stay in the games long enough to make his seven-foot presence felt. The Tress usually runs into personal fould trouble, especially on Tobacco Road, often because of his unthinking mistakes and sometimes because the officials apparently know only his number.
A Wake Forest-Clemson semifinal would be rated even. North Carolina would be a six-point favorite over Maryland, an eight-point pick over State in the other semifinal. Carolina would be a two or three-point choice over Wake Forest or Clemson in the title match.
Can the Terps go all the way? I doubt it. Maryland is capable certainly of winning one or, maybe two games. But the Terrapins are long shots to putting three solid efforts back to back. They would have to attack Carolina inside and hope to get Walter Davis in foul trouble in order to upset the Tar Heels. Phil Ford is Smith's flashiest performer but Davis is the most valuable.
I plan to give the points and go with UNC on Friday and Saturday no matter who it plays. Carolina is far from being overpowering, particularly without LaGarde, but it moves the ball beautifully on offense against either zones or man-toman, and Smith knows how to disguise his multiple defenses in order to mask a weakness.
Smith, occasionally, will overcoach because he attempts to become too clever for his team's good, often substituting too much. Now, he is by far the most importatnt man on the Carolina bench, He is the Dean, and he could well be the difference this weekend.
From a coaching standpoint, he is in terribly tough company.