"Guys have to do what they're asked. That's about as blunt as I can be about that," Maryland basketball coach Mark Turgeon said. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)

Considering the pedigree of their respective programs, it is no surprise that No. 2 Syracuse and No. 20 Pittsburgh have made nearly flawless transitions from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Orange won a national championship with freshman Baltimore product Carmelo Anthony in 2003 and have played in four Final Fours under Hall-of-Fame coach Jim Boeheim, most recently last season.

The Panthers, with one of the toughest homecourts in the country, were the Big East's winningest team over the past 10 years with Jamie Dixon as their coach.

But has the move of the two programs to the top of the ACC standings been eased by a lack of consistency — and in some cases talent — from the rest of a league that has gone from perennial national powerhouse to middle-of-the pack?

"We were good teams last year in a good league. Theoretically we should be good teams in this league this year," Boeheim said on an ACC teleconference this week. "It's not easy. We've struggled to get to where we are, and I'm sure we're going to have struggles the rest of the way."

Said Dixon, whose Panthers play at Maryland (11-8, 3-3) on Saturday, "Obviously when the ACC picked new teams, they didn't pick from the bottom, they picked from the top."

While Boeheim, Dixon and their colleagues won't publicly demean the ACC's collective performance, others believe that Syracuse (18-0, 5-0 ACC), Pittsburgh (17-2, 5-1) and even Notre Dame (11-8, 2-4) picked a good year to join the conference.

"Whether it's dominant or not, I think they came in at the right time to get a foothold in the league," said ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who played for and coached under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.

Former Maryland coach Gary Williams, who coached in the Big East at Boston College in the mid-1980s, said that both Syracuse and Pittsburgh "are kind of battle-tested so they could handle the move into another league."

But Williams agrees with the notion that the transition has been eased by the ACC's overall mediocrity.

"Without naming teams or anything, if you're a national observer, you would say this is a down year for the ACC," he said.

Bilas said the additon of three Big East teams to a 12-team league that had already included several former Big East members has changed the face of the conference.

"I think the ACC is the Big East now," he said, "not only in size, but now you've got tiers in the league."

Those tiers make Saturday's game particularly important for the Terps, who lost by 20 in Pittsburgh on Jan. 6.

"We have to look at it as an opportunity, where we are in our season," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said after Friday's practice. "In the end it's who you beat. We've got to start beating some ranked teams."

Part of what has helped Syracuse and Pittsburgh move right to the top of the standings is the way the ACC's most dominant programs, Duke (15-4, 4-2) and North Carolina (11-7, 1-4), have stumbled this season.

"You always had Duke and Carolina as the top programs, and if you finished third, you might be the fourth or fifth best team in the country," Bilas said. "Now, that's not the case. Duke is not as powerful as I expected, and North Carolina is not even a shadow of what you'd expect out of a North Carolina team."

Said Williams, "People always judge the ACC first by looking at those two teams."

After starting out ranked fourth in the country, non-conference losses to No. 5 Kansas and No. 4 Arizona as well as conference defeats at Notre Dame and Clemson have sent the Blue Devils to 18th in the current rankings.

Despite wins over No. 1 Michigan State, No. 3 Louisville and No. 11 Kentucky in December, the Tar Heels lost non-conference games at home to Belmont and Texas, on the road at Alabama-Birmingham and then started the ACC with three straight losses.

Asked if Syracuse and Pitt have benefitted by the inconsistency demonstrated by most teams in the league, Krzyzewski said, "I don't look at our league as — you use the word inconsistency — I think our league is really competitive. I'm probably not looking at it the same way."

There's also a question of style. The Big East was long a physical league with a rugged style that one former player decribed as "no autopsy, no foul" compared to the ACC. Except for Duke's man-to-man defense and Maryland's relentless press played under Williams, the ACC largely made its reputation on finesse.

With the emphasis this year nationally on officials calling more hand-checking fouls on the perimeter and allowing less physical play in the post, there is less differentiation between conferences.

"It negates maybe how league teams have a style — a Big East style, an ACC style, a Big Ten style," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "I think that's been the great equalizer in whatever style you play, especially [against] an overly physical group [of teams].

"It's almost like being in your non-league schedule again because everybody's new. ... You don't have a history with them. We had a Georgetown drill, I had a Pittsburgh drill. We really don't have them for these people. Conversely, we're new to them and they're trying to learn us. I think it's been intriguing to watch all these leagues in their new setting and how they adjust."

Krzyzewski said that it's not a matter of ACC adjusting to Syracuse's confusing 2-3 zone or Pittsburgh's suffocating man-to-man defense as much as it's playing against two very good teams.

"I don't know if it's style as much as it's experience. They're experienced in how they play," Krzyzewski said. "What was brought in to the league was three high-level programs. They already know how to win. Their programs are accustomed to winning and battling."

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