Closet critics of the Atlantic Coast Conference and coveters of its prestige threw open the doors and bellowed yesterday.

Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim equated the ACC aura with myth.

But the barbs are bouncing off the ears of players, many of whom are vacationing in Florida, and coaches, scattered on recruiting trips.

After the Duke-North Carolina double demise in their first games of the NCAA tournament Sunday, and Monday night's triple disappearance of Maryland, Virginia and Clemson in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament, the conclusions are pouring in. It is being said:

ACC players are oversold by their promoters, overrated by their (sic) media and overtaxed by their own tournament, which they snobbishly deem more important than the national tournament.

Now it is being said with a snicker that the ACC types have drowned themselves in a sea of self-importance. Point an ear in any direction and catch the same syllables: over-(Fill in the blank).

For ACC players, the season is unexpectedly over, period. In two days the five ACC teams participating in postseason play wiped themselves from the brackets by a grand deficit of 14 points.

"As far as the ACC aura is concerned," said Boeheim, "I really think it is a myth created by one league's publicity departent."

North Carolina's aura-producing coach, Dean Smith, replied, "I think it's telling that the Syracuse coach would say that the ACC is overrated only after he is sure he will not have to play an ACC team in the East Regional."

Smith's Tar Heels, ranked third in the nation and picked to win the title by such well-exposed sages as Jimmy the Greek and Billy Packer, started the chain reaction, bowing out of its first NCAA tourney game by a point to Ivy Leaguer Penn.

On a day headlined as Black Sunday by the Raleigh News Observer and Durham Morning Herald, sixth-ranked Duke lost the second game hours later by two points to St. John's, in the familiar North Carolina State arena.

The following night in the second round of the NIT, Maryland lost to Ohio State, 79-72; Virginia was beaten by Alabama, 90-88, and Clemson went scoreless in the last 13:57 of a game with Old Dominion, losing, 61-59, underscoring another delicate issue: The increasing use of slow down or delay offenses.

Yesterday, every ACC team was on vacation and Toledo was still practicing.

Is it embarrassing? Has the ACC been exposed as a pretender?

"I'd like to see the players and coaches who are knocking the ACC play in this league for one year," said Duke's Jim Spanarkel. "Then they'd find out what it's all about."

ACC people questioned yesterday -- players, coaches, sports information directors -- insisted that it is the balance, excitement and pressure within league that is nonpareil, not necessarily the caliber of play.

Smith was the most ardent defender.

"I don't look upon what has happened as embarrassing," said Smith. "When you're on top, people want to find fault.

"We don't vote us No. 3 in the polls. Other coaches and sportswriters do. I still believe Duke and North Carolina are two of the five best teams in the country.

"If college playoffs were handled like professional playoffs, playing best-of-seven series, I believe the ACC teams would come out better, but that can't be proven. Any team can get up for one game and play over its head.

"If Clemson had beaten Old Dominion, what would that prove? I believe that if Clemson and Old Dominion played 10 times, Clemson would win seven or eight. I think people are placing too much emphasis on what happened in a two-day period.

"How do you determine a strong conference? Over a long course of time, our conference has stood up pretty well."

ACC teams posted an 80-20 record against outside competition this year, defeating the two top-ranked teams they played: Notre Dame (beaten by Maryland) and Michigan State (defeated by North Carolina).

The theory circulating strongly is that ACC players burn themselves out playing each other, particularly in the league tournament.

"It is possible that our teams build for the ACC tournament all season long," said Smith, "and there may not be the same adrenalin flowing in an NIT game as there is in a February conference game.

"I think everybody in the country has good players. No one has any more good players on seven conference teams than we do. If you were to take the seventh-place team in the Pac-10 (Oregon) and put them against our seventh-place team (N.C. State or Wake Forest) on a neutral court in St. Louis, I say we're in pretty good shape.

"A few years ago, I believed we had the best balance from top to bottom. This year I think the Big 10's top seven teams were equal to our seven.

"People say, well, the ACC has only one national championship in the last 15 years. But who had more? Only the Pac-10 with their 12, by one school."

North Carolina guard Ged Doughton said, "The ACC gets so much publicity and coverage that it turns into an incentive for other teams, like Penn. There are other conferences with just as good players. But our schools are so close and our rivalries are so strong that we have a lot of upsets, which creates a lot of interest and balance in the league.

"Maybe the whole league does put too much emphasis on the (ACC) tournament. We make the NCAA championship our goal, but sometimes I think the tournament takes something away from us."

Tom Mickle, Duke sports information director, said, "Too much is made out of the conference being superior. We try to avoid that... It is in the back of my mind when I write our releases, not to offend anybody. I don't make reference to the 'tough ACC schedule.'"

His counterpart at North Carolina, Rick Brewer, adds, "People here just get more excited about basketball and that's what creates the so-called aura. They play great basketball all over the country. But I definitely do not think the ACC is overrated."