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No question ACC leagues ahead everyone

WashPost: Conference aims to send eight teams to NCAA Tournament.
Georgia Tech and guard Jarrett Jack could be one of eight teams teams from the ACC to make the NCAA Tournament this season.
Georgia Tech and guard Jarrett Jack could be one of eight teams teams from the ACC to make the NCAA Tournament this season.John Amis / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Larry Shyatt, a Florida assistant, had examined Miami's game against Xavier on Nov. 27, so he knew the Hurricanes were quick and could shoot well. What he didn't anticipate when the Gators hosted Miami a week later was this: Miami 72, Florida 65.

The two most noteworthy nonconference games involving ACC teams occurred in Gainesville, Fla., and Charlottesville. Miami, expected to be a bottom-rung ACC team, beat one of the Southeastern Conference's top-tier teams. And Virginia, a supposed middle-of-the-pack ACC team, beat Arizona, the Pacific-10 favorite, by 18 points.

Before the season, ACC coaches likened the league, which returned 20 of last season's top 25 scorers, to the 1985 Big East, from which three teams reached the Final Four. Judging from the aforementioned upsets, ACC play, which will begin tomorrow with two games, could be even more competitive than originally thought.

"It's here," said Coach Gary Williams, whose Maryland team will host Florida State tomorrow. "And there's no easy way out in this conference."

Even with a sprinkling of upsets — Santa Clara beating North Carolina, then-unranked George Washington beating Maryland, and Florida State losing to Florida International and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi — ACC teams have won more than 83 percent of their nonconference games, the best mark of any league.

Not only are five teams ranked among the top nine in the coaches' poll, eight ACC teams are ranked in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index, which accounts for strength of schedule and is weighed as part of the NCAA tournament selection process.

Duke and Georgia Tech reached last season's Final Four after Maryland won the league tournament. Those teams returned a combined 11 of 15 starters, yet none is even considered the league favorite. The strength of the league is unquestioned, but the determination of the regular season champion will no longer be a cut-and-dried, completely equitable process.

When the conference expanded, adding Miami and Virginia Tech this season, the ACC eliminated the double round robin schedule in which every school played every other twice. Instead, schools will retain a 16-game schedule but will play four teams only once, giving some distinct advantages.

"I'd prefer to play everyone twice, but college basketball is changing," Virginia Coach Pete Gillen said. "I think [expansion] is the right way to go. Some years you might get a bad break; some years you might get a good break."

Some coaches, such as Wake Forest's Skip Prosser, said they believe there will always be a question mark regarding the regular season champion. Others, such as Duke' s Mike Krzyzewski, say that fans will suffer because they won't get a visit from every conference opponent (i.e., Duke doesn't play at Virginia this season).

"Virginia fans are great," Krzyzewski said. "We had great games."

Where the scheduling change could most affect schools is in seeding for the NCAA tournament. The strength of a school's conference schedule could prove as important as a school's nonconference schedule, according to some.

"You could have a team finish 12-4 and another finish 11-5 in the ACC," RPI analyst Jerry Palm said. "And the 11-5 team could wind up with the better seed because of its conference schedule."

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a former Duke player, said the changes due to expansion have introduced subjectivity into the evaluation of ACC teams. "You can't tell anything just by looking at the conference record," said Bilas, adding that expansion largely has "taken something completely pure and contaminated it. I'm not saying ACC basketball won't be great, because it will, but it will never be as great."

One way to examine the strength of league schedules is to consider a top-tier group of six: Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Maryland, Duke and North Carolina State. Wake Forest will play three of those teams twice and will only host Maryland and North Carolina. Comparatively, Virginia will play four teams from that group twice and will play Georgia Tech and Duke only once, both on the road.

"It's going to be a new era," said Shyatt, Clemson's head coach from 1998 to 2003. "A team that plays Virginia Tech, Miami and Clemson twice, that might not happen for another decade. The year it happens, it will be a marvelous advantage not to have to play Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest, etcetera, all twice."

Another change caused by expansion affects the conference tournament, which this season will be played March 10-13 at MCI Center. The Terrapins finished sixth in the conference last season and had to beat the top three seeds en route to their first tournament title in 20 years. The difference this season: The sixth-place team, likely an NCAA tournament team, will need to beat the 11th-place school in the opening round — previously reserved for only the eighth- and ninth-place teams — and win on four consecutive days to earn the title.

"I'm so sick and tired of people complaining about the changes," Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton said. "Change doesn't always have to be bad. Some people are just resistant to change because [they think] it's been great, and there is nothing that can make it better. When you look around to see the positives that have come from changes in another conferences, you can predict the same will happen with the ACC."

It remains to be seen how the league's strength and scheduling changes affect the number of teams invited to the NCAA tournament. Six schools earned bids last season and seven are ranked in the top 25.

"Can they take eight?" Williams said. "They've taken seven out of the Big Ten, when the Big Ten hasn't been as strong as our league is this year. There might be eight teams that deserve to go."

Hamilton would not be surprised if eight teams earned bids, which would be a record number for any conference. That appears unlikely even though the NCAA selection committee does not cap the number of bids it awards to teams from one conference.

It is difficult, though not impossible, for a team to garner one of the 34 at-large berths with an RPI outside the top 50. Palm said it would not be unprecedented if eight teams from one conference remained in the RPI top 50 at season's end.

"But you're not going to be in the top 50 if you're 4-12 in the conference," Palm said.

Last season, Virginia had an RPI of 52 and did not earn an invitation; Air Force received one despite an RPI of 70.

Bilas believes the ACC is the nation's best conference but said the gap between it and the second-best league, either the Big 12 or Big East, isn't as wide as others think. "Already Florida State has lost some games, and Maryland lost to George Washington," Bilas said. "We've seen some vulnerabilities people didn't expect."

Even with an unbalanced schedule, though, teams will be awarded for playing nationally ranked conference opponents. Florida State will play seven consecutive games against teams that are currently ranked.

"Whoever makes it out of the league," Williams said, "you're not going to play anyone better than what you've played in the league. That's true in the ACC this year."