CHAPEL HILL, N.C., DEC. 7 -- The ACC is likely suffering from a bit of indigestion today, following a disappointing 2-6 performance in the second year of the ACC-Big East Challenge series. But the discomfort is surely minor, particularly if one believes that, come March and the NCAA tournament, the ACC could well be sitting at the head of the table.

North Carolina Coach Dean Smith isn't sure of that yet, allowing only that "you can certainly see the room for improvement, can't you?" And he was one of the winners, the Tar Heels rallying in the final seven minutes Thursday to down Connecticut, 79-64.

In between that game and Virginia's series opening triumph over Pitt, the ACC lost six consecutive games: Boston College over Maryland, Seton Hall over Clemson, Syracuse over North Carolina State, St. John's over Georgia Tech, Georgetown over Duke and Villanova over Wake Forest.

"There was definitely a little more pressure to come out and have a good showing," said North Carolina forward Rick Fox of the final game of the Challenge. "The ACC's been a little disappointed and we just wanted to play well, but the Big East is a great league."

The ACC is too, or it will be later in the season, and Smith's cautiousness is a prime example of why. In Clifford Rozier, Eric Montross, Brian Reese, Derrick Phelps and Pat Sullivan, the Tar Heels have the finest group of freshmen in the country. They also have so many other returning talents that Smith used 13 players in the opening 11 minutes of Thursday night's game.

Once he settles on which nine or 10 will get the bulk of playing time, it's easy to envision North Carolina rocketing into the top five. Unless the team is knocked off by Duke and its handful of developing talents, such as freshmen Grant Hill and Antonio Lang; or Georgia Tech, which has Kenny Anderson and a front line with three seven-footers; or N.C. State, which may have the best starting five in the league.

That doesn't take into account Virginia, which has all five starters from last season returning, or Wake Forest, which may have the best freshman of all in Rodney Rogers and the size and depth to beat everyone.

"To me, the series score doesn't mean very much," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said Wednesday night after his team's 79-74 loss to the Hoyas at Capital Centre. "If you had had different matchups, the outcome would have been just the opposite."

Added Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun: "What did this series mean? That there were 16 pretty good basketball teams playing each other -- no, I don't like my team right now -- there were 15 good teams playing each other."

Smith said that had Syracuse played at N.C. State, or if the Tar Heels were forced to travel to Connecticut, things might have been different in the series. The time of year was another key factor.

The second-seeded Blue Devils, presently searching for an inside player to complement Christian Laettner, were no match for Alonzo Mourning or Dikembe Mutombo in early December. Similarly, Calhoun knew that although his Huskies were seeded first in the Big East, his team was going to lose unless it generated most of its points from the defensive end of the floor.

"The matchups {which were made in May} weren't clean ones. Pitt or Syracuse probably should have been seeded first from our league," he said. "Right now, we've played only a few games without Tate George as our point guard.

"Chris Smith can play the point but he's spent all that time with Tate, then he played all summer alongside Kenny Anderson {in the World University Games} -- when has he had to handle the ball?"

Smith had five turnovers in the loss to North Carolina. Even more disheartening to Calhoun was his team's inability to settle down in the late going, when a little patience and better shot selection might have enabled Connecticut to pull off the upset.

Chances are the Huskies will improve that aspect of their play as the season progresses. If Wake Forest does the same thing, it may turn out to be the surprise team of the ACC.

Rogers, Chris King, former Dunbar High star Anthony Tucker and Derrick McQueen are all as solid as their counterparts at the bigger-name schools and the Deacons also have a talented bench. However, after leading in the second half against Villanova, Wake Forest sputtered and fell, 91-82, losing in part because its players didn't believe they were good enough to win.

"For the last five years, players from this school have come out and haven't won," said Coach Dave Odom. "That takes time to get over. When we're going well they seem to believe in themselves but when things aren't going well you'd have a hard time convincing them that they're worth it.

"But I think we're making improvement in that area and we're in position to be a good team. A game like the one against Villanova exposed a lot of the flaws that we'll have to go to school on, but hopefully by the first of the year we will be a good team."

That's what the Challenge series is all about and chances are, come January, a number of other ACC schools will be able to make the same claim.