The Atlantic Coast Conference has always had a reputation for being a top-heavy basketball league, especially when its top two teams, North Carolina and Duke, were significantly better than their competition.
As ACC play begins this weekend, there is a feeling that the league, perhaps for the first time in memory, is a lot weaker at the bottom than it is strong at the top.
"I think the ACC is perhaps the weakest it's ever been," said longtime college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who played and later coached at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski.
That could be good news for Maryland and other rebuilding teams in the conference.
The Terps, who will open the ACC portion of their schedule Sunday night at North Carolina State, were picked to finish 10th in the 12-team league but are coming in riding a seven-game winning streak and with freshman center Alex Len quickly developing into one of the league's most versatile big men.
"I want our guys to have an attitude like they belong," first-year Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said after the Terps beat Cornell on Tuesday for their seventh straight victory. "If we keep coaching them, everything will take care of itself. The highest I saw us picked was ninth. I saw 11, I saw 12, I saw 10. We're still that team; we've got a chance to prove guys wrong. We'll see if we're capable of doing it."
Told that Turgeon sounded much like his predecessor, longtime Maryland coach Gary Williams, sophomore point guard Terrell Stoglin smiled. He was asked whether Turgeon coaches with the same chip on his shoulder that Williams did.
"The chip is still there in our locker room," Stoglin said.
But so are some of the questions about Maryland's lack of consistency. Except for much of a 12-point win over Samford on Dec. 31, Maryland (10-3) has put together good halves but rarely full 40-minute efforts.
Tuesday's win over Cornell was an example. The Terps took a 16-0 lead at the start, led by as many as 23 in the first half and had to hold on at the end.
Asked after the game how big a step it will be for his young team to play in the ACC, Turgeon said: "You guys watch it on TV, it's another level of intensity. It's a step. We've got a hard ACC schedule. I just want to get better."
The addition of Len, who sat out the first 10 games after being sanctioned by the NCAA for playing for a professional team last season, and the return of sophomore point guard Pe'Shon Howard, who missed two months with a broken foot, have made the Terps look like a different team for most of the past three games.
"I think Len is going to make a difference. I think Len is going to be a better player than people think," Bilas said.
Another factor could be Turgeon. Impressed with the job Turgeon did at Wichita State and Texas A&M, Bilas thought last spring that Turgeon was a great choice to succeed a retiring Williams in College Park.
Bilas also believed that the transition for Turgeon and three other new coaches — Mark Gottfried at North Carolina State, Jim Larranaga at Miami and Brian Gregory at Georgia Tech — would be easier in the ACC this season than in the past.
"I think a lot of people were looking at ACC jobs [opening up] and saying, 'It's a good time to be in the league if we're going to be able to do some things without taking the beatings that historically we would take,' " Bilas said.
It has been for Gottfied, the former Alabama coach whose Wolfpack is off to an 11-4 start and beat Texas on a neutral court. It has also been for Larranaga, whose Hurricanes are 9-4 and recently got back massive center Reggie Johnson. It hasn't been so easy for Gregory, whose 7-7 Yellow Jackets will take a three-game losing streak into their ACC opener against Duke (12-2).
"If you look up and down the ACC and start thinking, 'How long has that coach been there?' " Bilas said, "Tony Bennett [at Virginia] is the fifth-longest-tenured coach in the league [and] what has been there, four years? Everybody else is in a state of change. … You're going to have some recruiting dips. You're going to have a lack of continuity."
Said Larranaga, "We still have a lot of room to grow."
The Hurricanes are not alone. Nearly every team in the league has had the kind of head-scratching losses that were rarely seen a decade ago.
While Maryland has had one of those — a 26-point defeat to Iona in the 5-Hour Energy Puerto Rico Tip-Off in November — other teams have had multiple defeats to mid-major or even low-major conference schools.
Clemson has lost at home to the College of Charleston and Coastal Carolina. Georgia Tech has lost to Saint Joseph's on a neutral court, to Mercer at home and to Fordham on the road. Wake Forest lost earlier this week at home to Wofford. Florida State (9-5) has lost to Harvard and Princeton.
And then there's Boston College, in its second-year under former Cornell coach Steve Donahue. The Eagles have seemingly lost to every Division I team in the state of Massachusetts — and by embarrassingly large margins. Boston College lost by 22 to Holy Cross on the road. The Eagles were drilled at home by 36 by Massachusetts, by 21 by Harvard and by 14 by Boston University.
Bilas said Boston College "is among the 10 weakest teams ever to play in the ACC."
Even the strongest teams have had off-nights. The No. 5 Blue Devils, who lost at Temple on Wednesday night, got blown out at Ohio State by 22 points in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. No. 3 North Carolina (13-2) lost earlier in the season at Kentucky but also got beat at Nevada-Las Vegas. The league's other ranked team, No. 21 Virginia, squeezed by Towson — which has the longest Division I losing streak in the country — by seven points last week during what is now an 11-game winning streak for the 13-1 Cavaliers.
Larranaga, who was an assistant coach at Virginia from 1979 to 1986, was asked whether he even recognized the ACC on his return. If there's a downswing, it's not going to last long, Larranaga said.
"The ACC and Big East absolutely dominated the television networks, every game was on TV and very few leagues got the TV exposure," said Larranaga, who was hired after a successful run at George Mason that included taking the Patriots to the Final Four. "Now there are players everywhere. You see a lot of non-BCS teams being able to compete with BCS programs. But the ACC is in my mind the No. 1 college basketball league in the country. Five of the last 11 national championships — when we bring Syracuse in you'll add one more to that."
Larranaga said the nonconference schedule ACC teams have played this season should help when the league is being considered for NCAA bids.
"I think the league is much improved from last season to this season because we've played a much more demanding nonconference schedule as a whole," Larranaga said. "That's going to make a difference in earning at-large bids to the NCAA tournament."
Bilas is not so sure, thinking this could be another year when the ACC could get as few as three or four bids.
"All these teams are capable of playing well," Bilas said. "But a lot of them are not capable of doing it over time. … Wake Forest is not very good. Georgia Tech and Clemson are average I think Miami and North Carolina State are decent, they're solid, but they're not going to scare anybody. I put Maryland in that category."