The Atlantic Coast Conference tournament begans today in Greensboro, N.C., with Maryland favored by three points over Clemson, North Carolina State a two-point choice over Virginia and Duke rated 11 points beter than Wake Forest.
These are the national prices posted by Sonny Reizner at the Castaways' "Hole in the Wall" sports book in Las Vegas. Reizner projects North Carolina as a six-point favorite over Maryland and Duke a 6 1/2-point favorite over N.C. State in the semifinals, with Duke favored by two over Carolina, should form hold true throughout the tournament.
Duke, as the line suggests, is the team to topple on Tobacco Road this weekend. Either North Carolina or Virginia could upset the Blue Devils but there is no guarantee that either of those squads will get the opportunity. The Maryland-Clemson winner could defeat Carolina on Friday, and I make North Carolina State, giving two points, the best bet of the threeday event against Virginia this afternoon.
How a team with as much talent as State could have tied for last place with Wake Forest is difficult to explain.
Never underestimate the importance of coaching -- both pregame preparation and adjustments from the bench -- in this tournament. Virginia's Terry Holland has shown more than once that the best players do not always end up on the long end of the score.
Virginia has the league's finest offensive weapon this season in Jeff Lamp, except when they overdo a good thing and design every play to feed him. When that happens, the nine other guys on the floor all begin looking for the same man, and that includes Virginia's four players, who start standing around, anxious to see what their star does.
This situation prevailed when State mugged Virginia in Raleigh this year. Lee Raker was injured and did not play for the Cavaliers that day, but Raker's presence does not alter the balance of power State enjoys inside, where the Wolfpack is stronger and deeper and where Virginia is so vulnerable.
A superior inside game does not always prevail, but that is the way to bet and I will give the two and hope State Coach Norm Sloan doesn't go to sleep.
Inside-outside matchups are the basis for any solid approach to handicapping college basketball. I am certain, for example, that Duke would prefer to meet State instead of Virginia on Friday. The Cavaliers do not have as much muscle or as deep a bench as State, but they have the discipline needed to give Duke a tough time. State lacks that discipline.
This consideration prompts another question; who is going to be the disciplined player for Maryland if Greg Manning is not available? The Terps always to to emanning when they need a clutch play. He is injured, and may not be at his best if he plays, so Maryland is hurting.
Clemson, accordingly, has an excelent chance to take the Terps out in the first round. The Tigers, a known club, improved in a hurry during February. They have the advantage, psychologically, of having lost to Maryland twice during the season. Lefty might have a hard time covincing his troops that a third victory will be more difficult than the first two. I will take Clemson, getting the three.
Which brings us to Northe Carolina, the 9-3 cochampion (with Duke) that drew the first-round bye. This is Dean Smith's poorest collection of athletes in more than a decade. The fact the Tar Heels were rated (o. 4 in the country as recently as tow weeks ago goes to show how easy it is for Smith to fool the voters.
No one knows better than Smith just how limited his current team is. He broadcast that fact Saturday night in Durham when he was afraid to have his boys play Duke. During 20 minutes of nonbasketball, Smith showed he can be as desperate to have face as all the other barracudas in the ACC. He knew that Duke, when primed and playing at home this year, was as good as any team in the nation.
The Blue Devils have not been that frightening away from their home court, however. Smith, on a neutral site, might find a way for Carolina to beat the superior forces. He has done it before. This is a wonderfully resourceful coach. And Duke seems to play scared against him.
Duke should win this tournament. I would back them, mildly, giving two points to Carolina in the finals. Indeed, Duke, with alittle luck, could go on and capture the NCAA title. Carolina couldn't do that, no matter what. But that is not the question this weekend in Greensboro.