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Thats still the name of the game in the far-flung ACC

Traffic worsens, and we alter our movements and our schedule. We unlace our shoes at the airport security checkpoint before being asked. Having paid $3 for a gallon of gasoline, we are charged $2.50 and consider ourselves fortunate. A stand of woods that enriches and soothes abruptly vanishes, and we incorporate buildings and asphalt into our worldview.

Gradual or sudden, painful or welcome, change forces adjustment until, unless we remain mindful, we forget what we've lost.

So it has been with expansion of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the region's signature athletic enterprise. Since the move was announced two summers ago, the transition has been surprisingly bearable, at least in basketball, even for those fretful over the irrevocable devaluation of what North Carolina men's coach Roy Williams called "this cute little community league." Complaints have slowed to a trickle, criticisms to a mumbled blur. Besides, there's no going back. Unlike sports, life rarely offers replays.

Now fully expanded to a dozen members (at least for the time being), the ACC stretches 1,200 miles like an athletic fault line linking the old Massachusetts Bay colony to the tip of Spain's former eastern foothold on the North American continent. "If we bring Maine in, you have the whole coast covered," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski says.

It's no secret Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami were added for football purposes, or rather for revenue-enhancement achieved through the improved market value of ACC football. The move was undertaken as a preemptive business decision, over the objections of Duke, North Carolina and most media members and fans and at the expense of the Big East Conference, among others. Judged on a bottom-line basis, expansion has worked as envisioned, populating the national football polls with ersatz ACC members and upping the bowl, TV and rights ante to more than $9 million annually per school. That is the biggest payout per member for any league.

Of course, expansion remains a betrayal of the erstwhile higher values embraced by the ACC, a case made previously in these pages (see "Fourth and 11," July 9, 2003, www.indyweek.com/durham/2003-07-09/cover.html). What's more, the on-field benefits of consorting with football giants, first touted when Florida State joined the ACC in 1992, simply have not materialized.

FSU or Virginia Tech has had a piece of the league football championship in 12 of the past 13 years, a stranglehold broken only by Maryland in 2001. Adding powerhouse programs did not lift all boats, but rather swamped ACC weaklings while draining their coffers.

Spurred by the need to compete with Florida State, ACC members spent generously on facilities and coaching salaries. Around these parts, the infusion of resources had little competitive effect. North Carolina and Wake Forest remain barely able to post break-even football records. Duke has fared worse. The Blue Devils have averaged nine losses per year since FSU's arrival, with a single winning season. Duke's only football victory in 2005 came over the Virginia Military Institute, a Division II school and member of the Southern Conference with significantly fewer scholarships than big-time programs.

Happily for Duke fans, basketball season inevitably follows football as winter follows autumn.

Expansion has not come without cost for basketball. Changes in alignments led to an unbalanced regular season schedule--in the process disrupting traditional rivalries such as UNC-Wake and Duke-N.C. State--and compromised competitive fairness. The ACC Tournament, played this year in Greensboro, will have a more convoluted format and be tougher for lower seeds to win.

But, unlike football, the basketball balance of power is largely unchanged, good news for ACC fans in this state. Piedmont North Carolina remains the heart of the ACC, producing nine of the league's 10 national men's titles, mostly recently by North Carolina in 2005, and the only one captured by the women (North Carolina in 1994).

The last two expansions did temporarily affect the basketball status quo, and Boston College, a power last season in the Big East, is expected to make a big initial splash. Led by senior forwards Craig Smith and Jared Dudley, coach Al Skinner's club brings a slower, more physical style to the ACC. Media prognosticators impressed by the Eagles' experience and a 20-game winning streak to open the '05 season project BC to finish second. That won't happen, although it has a certain logic.

Virginia Tech and Miami were likewise competitive in their inaugural season, much to the surprise of ACC media masterminds. The Hokies finished tied for fourth in 2004-05 (with Georgia Tech) and the Hurricanes finished tied for sixth (with N.C. State). Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg was voted ACC coach of the year, a rare honor for a newcomer to the league. But neither his program or Frank Haith's at Miami has a significant tradition to build upon, and so expectations remain modest for both.

Even Florida State, which entered the ACC with a veteran unit conjured under less rigorous eligibility standards, finished second its initial two years in the league. Since then, FSU has failed to finish in the first division and had losing records in nine of 12 seasons. This year promises more of the same.

There are, however, several basketball trends that bear more scrutiny than the fate of the league's new, tradition-thin football schools.

For one, there's the matter of the continued low profile of women's basketball. Turnout was chronically poor when the ACC hosted an annual preseason conclave where women's coaches and players were made available for media interviews; columnists from the state's major newspapers rarely attended. So the ACC replaced the event this year with prepackaged CDs containing bland responses to comfortable questions, and a single writer (this one) lodged a protest.

Surely there is a relationship between modest coverage and modest public interest. Even as ACC women's basketball continues to close the gap with the SEC as the nation's best league, average attendance in 2005 was 2,510, largely unchanged since 2001. Only Duke, Maryland and Virginia Tech drew at least 4,000 fans per game. Drawing big crowds at College Park "is our way of fighting back, or fighting for women's athletics," says Debbie Yow, Maryland's director of athletics.

On a more positive note, the ACC men's coaching ranks have grown increasingly diverse. This season, African Americans will direct half the men's clubs in the league. Virginia's new coach, Dave Leitao, is the first black head coach in any sport at that school.

Add three Catholics and a Jew, and the sidelines reflect a far different complexion than existed when the conference was founded in 1953.

Back then, the KKK was almost a mainstream organization in many communities throughout the Southeast. The Grand Dragon of the Klan was invited to address the Florida Sheriffs' Association only a year before the ACC broke away from the 17-member Southern Conference. Fitting the tenor of the time, Clemson coach Frank Howard explained the Southern's unwieldy nature by observing, "It was so big, I felt like a member of the Rotary Club and the Ku Klux Klan."

Finally, there's a competitive trend in the modern ACC that shows no sign of abating. Brace yourselves, Tar Heel fans: Duke returns this year to its role as the basketball standard of measure, a status enjoyed by its women with rare exception since the late '90s, by its men since the early '90s.

Duke's Gail Goestenkors displayed anew last year that she is among the best coaches in the women's game, directing a decimated squad to 31 wins, her average output since 1999, when she first took a squad to the Final Four.

Coach G's teams ranked in the Associated Press top 10 in each of those seven seasons, produced the last six ACC players of the year, won five ACC titles, reached the NCAA Final Four on three occasions, and twice went undefeated during the ACC regular season. In seven years, her Dukies lost a total of 13 league games, tournament included. Three of the defeats came last year against North Carolina, the conference champ.

Deep and seasoned, the Duke women started this season top-ranked by AP. A highlight of the season comes on Jan. 23, when perennially powerful Tennessee, No. 1 in the coach's poll, visits Cameron Indoor Stadium.

All Goestenkors' resume lacks is a national title, which she has learned to await patiently. "I do believe it's going to happen," Goestenkors said this past summer. "I don't know when."

Krzyzewski has three titles to his credit, more than all but one active coach. (Texas Tech's Bob Knight also has three.) Coach K's selection last month to spearhead U.S. Olympic basketball's on-court efforts from now through 2008 is testament to the respect he commands. Yet, largely because of Krzyzewski and what he once called a "goody two-shoes" image, Duke is the nation's most hated college basketball program.

One lingering area of bitterness involves the way ACC games are called. Critics--including several coaches--insisted there's been prejudice in Duke's favor, and they eagerly await the effects of having a new officiating supervisor this season.

Of course, such fretting ultimately distracts opponents and works to Duke's benefit, regardless of merit. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils roll merrily along, accumulating talent, attention and victories.

Coach K's tenure in Durham can be divided into two segments--the 14 seasons prior to his enforced 1995 hiatus due to back surgery and exhaustion and the 11 seasons since. It's arguable which has been the golden era.

Krzyzewski directed seven Duke squads to the Final Four in the nine years between 1986 through 1994, an unmatched modern run highlighted by repeat NCAA championships in 1991 and '92. In the process, Duke eclipsed Dean Smith's North Carolina program and became the team everyone aimed to beat.

Since '95, Duke has captured a single NCAA title (2001), yet is perceived as more dominant than ever. The Devils ranked atop four final AP polls between 1999 and 2004 and have had no consistent challenger in the contemporary ACC. They've won six of the last seven ACC Tournaments, most recently last March. They finished first in six of the last nine ACC regular seasons, and between 1998 and 2000 were 54-3 in ACC competition, tournament included.

Duke: Bountiful harvest
This is the third season in the last eight that began with AP voters tabbing Duke the national frontrunner. Usually honest about his squad's prowess, Krzyzewski says, "We'll have a team that'll have a chance to be very good." As for competing for an NCAA championship, he said that is Duke's goal every year.

Last season the Devils were handicapped by injuries and the unexpected loss of two young talents to the National Basketball Association. This year there's plenty of depth, if a bit of an awkward gap between four seniors who played regularly in '05 and five freshmen who comprise the nation's top recruiting class. But older players are often the best teachers, leading by example, and Duke has several with exceptional lessons to impart.

Big man Shelden Williams is a force inside, among the best shot-blockers in modern ACC history and the league leader in rebounding last season with 11.2 per game. Williams has work to do on his offensive game, a reason he returned for his senior year. He neatly complements team star Jonathan Clay Redick, better known as J.J.

Redick, the 2005 ACC player of the year and tournament MVP, is a solid, all-around performer whose shooting touch is as rare and breathtaking as a double rainbow. He is the most accurate free throw shooter ever to play NCAA ball, with a 93.8 percent success rate, and a prolific three-point marksman whose range and chutzpah leave opponents shaking their heads in amazement.

Big man Josh McRoberts and playmaker Greg Paulus are the most likely freshmen to have a significant impact this season. Look for Krzyzewski to extend defensive pressure, a favored tactic abandoned while operating with limited personnel in 2005.

The Duke women likewise enjoyed a bountiful recruiting harvest to augment a plentitude of veterans. The top seven scorers return, including Alison Bales, a junior who set a league record with 134 blocks, and senior Monique Currie, who nearly jumped to the pros after earning ACC player of the year honors. Bales and Mistie Williams lead a superior inside corps that can test defenses and punish rivals' forays to the basket.

Best of Duke's newcomers may be the Waner sisters--5-foot-10 Abby, a freshman guard voted Gatorade's prep player of the year in 2005, and 5-foot-8 playmaker Emily, a sophomore transfer from Colorado. Perhaps they'll be nicknamed "Big Poison" and "Little Poison" in emulation of the Waner brothers, Lloyd and Paul, Major League baseball Hall of Famers who played from the mid-1920s through World War II.

Add holdover point guard Wanisha Smith, and '04 starting point Lindsay Harding, suspended last season, and the surfeit of guards gives Duke the wherewithal to dictate the pace.

UNC: Lose one McCants, gain another
Forcing tempo was a staple last season at North Carolina, but only the women figure to readily sustain the style in 2006.

The driving force for coach Sylvia Hatchell, in her 20th season at Chapel Hill, is diminutive playmaker Ivory Latta. The fleet junior pushes the ball at every opportunity, her numerous unforced turnovers outweighed by plenty of compensatory virtues. Last year, Latta, a first team All-ACC pick, paced the Heels in scoring, assists and three-pointers made. She led the league in free-throw accuracy at 86.3 percent. An incessantly nettlesome presence for opponents, she helped UNC lead the nation with 14 steals per game in 2005.

North Carolina returns three other starters--sophomore forward Erlana Larkins, the ACC leader in field goal percentage (.609); senior La'Tangela Atkinson, the squad's top rebounder; and versatile junior Camille Little. There's good depth, and a touted group of newcomers that includes Rashanda McCants, the sister of former Tar Heel Rashad McCants, and Martina Wood, the daughter of Al Wood, Class of 1981.

The older McCants was among four members of Roy Williams' championship squad who left school early to pursue a pro career. (The others were Sean May and Raymond Felton, members of the Charlotte Bobcats, and Atlanta's Marvin Williams.) In fact, UNC lost last year's top seven scorers, a housecleaning virtually unparalleled in ACC history.

Yet, despite a breakneck style that paced the nation with a heady 88 points per game, it's on defense that Williams fears the sting of inexperience and thin numbers could be felt most acutely. He noted the high-scoring '05 squad held opponents to 40.1 percent accuracy from the floor, and said, "That's the stat I'm most proud of, because the solid foundation of our program is what we do on the defensive end."

The most UNC notable returnee is Durham native David Noel, a career role player who readily admits flaunting his championship ring on visits home. Reyshawn Terry, Quentin Thomas, Wes Miller and Byron Sanders also return, a prospect that daunts no one. The heart of the squad is apt to be an acclaimed and variegated freshman class led by relentless, 6-foot-9 Tyler Hansbrough.

This team would do well to finish in the ACC's top half, and is very much a work in progress. Fortunately for Williams, he earned a grace period with last season's unexpected NCAA title.

N.C. State: More surprises?
N.C. State's Herb Sendek, now third in ACC seniority after Krzyzewski (26 years) and Maryland's Gary Williams (17), likewise bought peace with a strong finish last season.

The 2005 Wolfpack slumped to a losing league record for the first time in four years after binging, as usual, on weak nonconference opponents. Coupled with an unexciting style and enduring also-ran status compared to its Triangle neighbors (seven Final Four berths for Duke and UNC since Sendek's arrival in 1997), the showing left many N.C. State fans restive.

But the Pack rallied to 21 wins and a Sweet 16 berth, the program's farthest NCAA advance since 1989.

Most prognosticators misguidedly downplay the Wolfpack's chances in 2005-06. Yes, N.C. State replaces emotional leader Julius Hodge, the 2004 ACC player of the year and a first-round NBA draft choice, new territory under Sendek. Yes, sophomore wing Gavin Grant has immigration problems and senior point guard Tony Bethel, sidelined much of last season, still is not healthy.

Nevertheless, Sendek's 10th squad is apt to challenge BC, Maryland and Wake Forest for second in the ACC.

Forward Ilian Evtimov and guard Engin Atsur are among the ACC's best three-point shooters and passers. Atsur is also an exceptional defender. The squad has four good players 6-feet-9 or taller, a rare characteristic: sophomores Cedric Simmons and Andrew Brackman, who flashed impressive talents in reserve roles last season, and freshmen Ben McCauley and Brandon Costner, the latter an adept outside shooter. Add erratic senior Cameron Bennerman; Bethel, a quick playmaker; and Grant, a slashing wing presence, and the ingredients are present to bake a surprise.

The surprise for women's coach Kay Yow would be a season devoid of debilitating player injuries.

Yow, the ACC's senior coach with 31 years at Raleigh, returns four starters and plenty of reserves from a 21-8 team. Yet, much like Sendek's squad, her Wolfpack barely registers on the national radar.

The team is rife with juniors and seniors, but that does not translate into years of experience under Yow's tutelage. Four upperclassmen are junior college transfers, on board for two years. A pair started last season. Tiffany Stansbury led N.C. State in scoring and field goal percentage in 2005 and was voted second team All-ACC. Fellow juco Billie McDowell was second on the team in scoring. Among this year's JC additions is McDowell's towering teammate from Arkansas-Fort Smith, 6-foot-7 Gillian Goring.

The rest
Other competitors for the upper echelon among ACC women are Maryland (22-10 in 2005, led by junior Shay Doron), Florida State (24-8 under '05 ACC coach of the year Sue Semrau), Boston College (20-10 in the Big East), Virginia (21-11, but with its top three scorers gone), and Virginia Tech (17-12).

Georgia Tech figures to flounder, along with Clemson, which ousted Jim Davis after 18 years as head coach. Miami also has a new coach, Katie Meier, a former Duke player under Debbie Leonard, Goestenkors' underappreciated predecessor.

Last season Mike Petersen drove Wake Forest to its first winning record since 1991, the last time the Demon Deacons had a male head coach. Confidence bolstered, a veteran Wake women's squad is poised to improve on last year's 10th-place finish.

Wake's men might not win as much as they did last year and still feel better about it.

The Deacs won 27 games, were top-ranked in the polls for two weeks in November, a first for the program, and made their fifth consecutive trip to the NCAAs. (Only Duke has a longer ongoing NCAA streak with 10 straight visits.) That's an odd profile for a disappointing season, but the presence of wunderkind Chris Paul had the Deacons talking of a trip to the Final Four, accomplished previously in 1962 when TV's Billy Packer was a crewcut senior. Instead, bad defense and fallout from a coy Paul punch to Hodges' genitals led to painful flameouts in postseason.

Wake's returning starters, tough guard Justin Gray and hulking center Eric Williams, are the heart of the '06 squad. The seniors were second team All-ACC in 2005 and possess star potential. Williams has shown steady improvement. Gray is a superior shooter who either will step in at point guard or force the team to adopt a more diffuse ballhandling scheme. "That's going to make one of the great intrigues of our team--how he makes that transition, if he makes that transition," says coach Skip Prosser.

Speaking of intrigues, let's see if Maryland is better without vocally discontented guard John Gilchrist, who left early for the pros; if Miami and Virginia Tech can build on last season's achievements with many of the same players; if Georgia Tech can survive the departure of its top five scorers; if long-languishing Clemson can convert intensity and improved athleticism into wins; and if Leitao's no-nonsense approach motivates Virginia.

Jacobs' ladder

MEN WOMEN
1. Duke Duke
2. N.C. State North Carolina
3. Wake Forest Maryland
4. Boston College Florida State
5. Maryland N.C. State
6. Miami Boston College
7. North Carolina Virginia
8. Virginia Tech Wake Forest
9. Georgia Tech Virginia Tech
10. Virginia Miami
11. Clemson Georgia Tech
12. Florida State Clemson
  • That’s still the name of the game in the far-flung ACC

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