ACC rebuilds on solid foundation After Duke, N.C. it's wide open

When six players from the same conference become NBA first-round draft picks in the same year, you would figure that their teams -- and the league -- are in for a little rebuilding the following season.

But that apparently hasn't happened in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which despite having three lottery picks last June among its senior class, seems to be stronger from top to bottom this season.


"I think Duke is potentially as strong, North Carolina is stronger, and Georgia Tech and Maryland are a lot better, too," said Florida State coach Pat Kennedy, who didn't lose anybody from last year's surprise runner-up.

About the only team to miss its star from last year is North Carolina State, which lost Tom Gugliotta. Christian Laettner, Walt Williams, Bryant Stith, Hubert Davis and Jon Barry have all been replaced nicely by their respective teams.


What will make the 40th ACC season more competitive than in recent years is not the improvement of its front-runners, but in the rapid development of its second-division teams -- especially the Terrapins.

"From what I've seen, Gary [Williams] really has them playing well," Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins said yesterday. "In a way, it's good. It makes it tougher in the league."

With third through eighth place in the nine-team league up for grabs, Maryland could make a significant jump in the standings. But the Terps might not be the only surprise team: watch out for Clemson.

"It's too early to tell with a lot of teams," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose 8-1 team will take a seven-game winning streak into tonight's ACC opener against Georgia Tech. "You never know how a team will react until they get into the league."

It's not too early to tell that the top-ranked, two-time defending national champion Blue Devils, as well as the No. 6 Tar Heels, will be battling it out for the distinction as the ACC's best team. But who's next?

At the beginning of the season, many picked the Seminoles to be in the same class as Duke and North Carolina. But Florida State lost senior guard Chuckie Graham to a season-ending knee injury in November, and is just getting back junior point guard Charlie Ward from his duties as quarterback for the country's No. 2 football team.

As a result, the Seminoles have been one of the most befuddling teams in the country. They nearly beat Indiana in the semifinals of the preseason National Invitation Tournament, but have lost to Duquesne and, more recently, to Florida at home. Their ranking, No. 9 to start the season, has plummeted to No. 23.

"A big key for us is the psychological approach that the players bring to the game," said Kennedy, the ACC's Coach of the Year last season. "For us, Indiana was like an NCAA tournament game because they had ended our season the past two years. The next night against UCLA, we couldn't get them up for that."


Ward is expected back this week, but what kind of shape he'll be in after a full season of football is difficult to say. A year ago, he was coming off a season as a backup to Casey Weldon. Now he's coming off a season in which he was the ACC's Player of the Year.

"I think it'll take less time to get in shape for basketball than it did last year," Ward said during the football season.

Said Kennedy: "We need Charlie's leadership out there. We're a different team without him."

The Blue Devils might not be as nasty or arrogant as with Laettner, but they haven't appeared to slip. They took care of Michigan's Fab Five for the third straight time over two years last month in Durham, N.C., and vaulted back to the top of the rankings.

"Until somebody beats them, they're the No. 1 team in the country," said Maryland's Williams, whose Terps nearly did it twice last season.

It is no longer Laettner's team; it is Bobby Hurley's. The senior point guard has emerged as the best floor leader in the country, perfectly complementing Grant Hill, Thomas Hill and quickly rising sophomore center Cherokee Parks.


North Carolina, one of two teams to beat the Blue Devils last year, should provide more of a challenge this season.

Junior center Eric Montross, 7-foot enigma the past two years, is finally starting to assert himself, and sophomore Donald Williams seems to have taken over from Davis as the team's outside threat.

But again, who's next?

Is it Georgia Tech, with its monstrous frontcourt combination of Malcolm Mackey and James Forrest? Is it Wake Forest, with arguably the league's best player in forward Rodney Rogers? Is it Florida State, with wondrously talented but sometimes erratic players such as Douglas Edwards and Sam Cassell?

"I think after Duke and North Carolina, it's wide open," said Florida State's Kennedy.

"Top to bottom, it's going to be an interesting year," said Cremins.


"Maybe what we're seeing is that the lines between the underdogs and favorites are a little more blurred," said Virginia coach Jeff Jones.

The lines start getting drawn tonight.

The picture won't come into focus for a while.

The Sun's picks

Team most likely to finish first: Duke

Team most likely to finish last: North Carolina State


Team most likely to finish higher than predicted: Maryland

Team most likely to finish lower than predicted: Florida State

Most underrated player: Thomas Hill, Duke

Most overrated player: Henrik Rodl, North Carolina

Most improved player: Sharone Wright, Clemson

Least improved player: Migjen Bakalli, North Carolina State


Player of the Year: Bobby Hurley, Duke

Freshman of the Year: Johnny Rhodes, Maryland

Coach of the Year: Gary Williams, Maryland

Predicted order of finish (according to ACC media in November): 1. Duke; 2. North Carolina; 3. Florida State; 4. Georgia Tech; 5. Wake Forest; 6. Virginia; 7. Maryland; 8. North Carolina State; 9. Clemson.

Sun's prediction: 1. Duke; 2. North Carolina; 3. Georgia Tech; 4. Wake Forest; 5. Florida State; 6. Maryland; 7. Virginia; 8. Clemson; 9. North Carolina State