Numbers add up to an off season for ACC women

The nine folks who coach Atlantic Coast Conference women's basketball are in a state of denial.

As the conference opens its 17th tournament in Rock Hill, S.C., tonight with a play-in game between eighth-seeded Wake Forest and ninth-seeded Florida State, the cold, hard numbers suggest that the ACC isn't what it used to be.


But the coaches, who gathered electronically yesterday in a teleconference, remain convinced that the league hasn't lost any ground to the rest of women's basketball.

"The national perception of the ACC is that it's not as strong, but our conference is strong, top to bottom," said Maryland coach Chris Weller.


That may be true, but the ACC, which has been thought of as the nation's second-best women's league, behind the Southeastern Conference, has shown visible signs of decline.

One telling sign is the league's .682 winning percentage against nonconference teams, down from .806 a year ago.

Only fifth-ranked North Carolina was undefeated against nonleague opponents, but the Tar Heels played a weak nTC nonconference schedule that could cost them a high seed in the NCAA tournament.

This season, ACC teams were a combined 9-15 against teams from the Atlantic 10, the Big Ten, the Pac-10 and the SEC, the other leading women's leagues, a marked drop-off from the 14-13 record in 1992-93.

As a result, the ACC, which got a league-record five teams into the NCAA tournament last season when the field was 48 teams, might get only four teams into this year's expanded 64-team field.

"I think our conference should get five teams into the national tournament, given the expanded bracket, but we may not," said Weller.

The numbers within the conference bear witness to the ACC's off-year. Only four teams, Virginia, North Carolina, Clemson and Maryland finished at .500 or better, down from six teams last season.

And, for the first time in 15 years, no league player averaged 20 points per game this year, just one season after three players posted at least 20 per game.


Virginia's Wendy Palmer shot 57.4 percent from the floor to win the ACC field-goal percentage championship, but that is the lowest mark by a winner in nine years and would have been only fourth-best last season, when three players shot 61 percent or better.

There are, of course, logical excuses for the league's performance this season, according to the coaches. For instance, unlike the SEC, where each team plays 11 league games, facing each other only once, ACC members play 16 league games, meeting each other twice.

"We just keep beating up on each other," said Georgia Tech coach Agnus Berenato.

And then, the coaches advance the theory that many of the nonconference losses came early in the season when lineups were being adjusted and younger players were being blended in.

"We have to hope that when the NCAA throws the teams in and looks at the strength of schedule that they'll see that we did play some tough games early on and we did have some losses, but you have to look at the youth on those teams and what has happened from January on," said Virginia coach Debbie Ryan.



Who's hot: Top-seeded Virginia (23-3, 15-1) has won 16 of its past 17 to claim its fourth straight regular-season title. Second-seeded North Carolina (24-2, 14-2) has taken 13 of its past 14, but dropped both games to the Cavaliers. No. 8 Wake Forest (7-18, 3-13) won three of its last four, including a 69-64 upset of Maryland after losing 13 straight.

Who's not: Fifth-seeded Duke (16-10, 7-9) dropped four of its last five, the only win coming over Maryland when the Blue Devils made up a 16-point second-half deficit. After winning seven straight, including handing Virginia its only league loss, Clemson (18-8, 11-5) lost its last two, including a 38-point thumping at Maryland on Tuesday night. The Terps (14-12, 8-8), seeded fourth, have dropped four of their past five.

Players to watch: Virginia F Wendy Palmer, third-leading scorer and top rebounder, is probably the best low-post player in the conference. North Carolina G Tonya Sampson, a three-time All-ACC performer, has shot just 24-for-70 in five tournament games, including 1-for-19 against Maryland last year. Maryland F Bonnie Rimkus, who was in the top 10 in five different categories, was one of two players -- Palmer was the other -- in the league to average in double figures in points and rebounds.

NCAA implications: Virginia, North Carolina and Clemson are all safely in, though the Cavaliers and Tar Heels have outside chances at a top seed. Barring upsets, the Maryland-Duke winner should get the fourth bid; the loser will need help for a fifth slot.

Maryland outlook: If history is any indication, the Terps, who have won the tournament eight times, but not since 1989, can't be discounted. And they've played every team except North Carolina well this season. But their inconsistent play of late (a five-game win streak, followed by a four-game losing skid, followed by Tuesday's blowout of Clemson) indicates that the Terps might be good for a win over Duke before bowing out.