Sizing up ACC race a challenge for a change

The Atlantic Coast Conference long has been known as a league dominated by point guards, as well as by two pre-eminent teams -- North Carolina and Duke.

But that could change this winter. The ACC suddenly is filled with some of the best big men in the country and possibly has more parity among its nine teams than at any other time in its history.


There is no better example than at Maryland, where the Terrapins have gone from near the bottom to near the top of the league with the rise of sophomore All-American Joe Smith.

Along with Smith, there are two other sophomore big men, North Carolina's Rasheed Wallace and Wake Forest's Tim Duncan, as well as Duke senior Cherokee Parks. There's also Florida State freshman Corey Louis and North Carolina State junior Todd Fuller.


"There are some outstanding centers," said Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, whose Yellow Jackets will open tonight against Smith and Maryland. "We've been having some problems with big centers. Inside play could be very critical."

Said Smith: "There are a lot of different kinds of centers, more physical players like Parks or guys like myself who want to get out and run the floor. I think it's going to be a battle inside every night."

The same can be said about the league itself. There doesn't appear to be a dominant team going into the conference season.

Though North Carolina is unbeaten and No. 1 in the country, the Tar Heels are down to six healthy scholarship players and don't have the depth they've been used to. And, with the exception of Clemson, the teams that finished in the second division last season appear to have improved.

"It doesn't have the two or three tiers that it did in the past few years," said Florida State coach Pat Kennedy, whose Seminoles, along with North Carolina State, might have made the most improvement.

There have been as many as six ACC teams ranked so far in the Top 25, and currently there are five, with three among the top 11. Given the ACC's recent history, it wouldn't be a stretch for seven teams to get into the NCAA tournament and eight to make postseason play.

"The league is very, very talented," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "This is a great year. I think everyone will be knocking each other off."

It's the kind of season when 11 conference victories could win the regular-season title, the kind of year when more than one team could wind up sharing the top spot.


"I remember my sophomore year at Maryland, where there was almost a four-way tie for first," coach Gary Williams said of the 1964-65 season. "I think three teams ended up being tied. That's the kind of year it could be."

When told that North Carolina's Dean Smith has called it "potentially the most balanced year in ACC history," Williams said, "I'll defer to Dean on that one."

But on the court, few teams will defer to the Tar Heels. Especially if they have a quality big man.

Here's how the ACC has looked so far this season:

* Surprise team: North Carolina State. The Wolfpack has lost twice going into tonight's ACC opener at home against North Carolina, with defeats to UCLA and Kansas going down to the wire. Les Robinson said that it has been just as important for his team to win some games that it lost last season to smaller schools.

* Surprise player: Steve Wojciechowski, Duke. The freshman point guard from Cardinal Gibbons was expected to come off the bench this year, but he has pushed last season's starter, sophomore Jeff Capel, over to shooting guard. Assistant coach Mike Brey has said that Wojciechowski is more advanced than Bobby Hurley was as a freshman in certain areas, such as shooting and staying in control.


* Disappointing team: Virginia. The Cavaliers came into the season being picked by some as a Top 10 team, but already have lost to Ohio, Vanderbilt and Stanford. This is the most depth and talent Jeff Jones has had in his five seasons as coach, but potentially the most headaches.

* Disappointing player: Cory Alexander, Virginia. Once considered among the premier guards in the league, Alexander missed all but 11 minutes of last season with a broken foot. So far this season, the junior has struggled with his own game, as well as fitting in with backcourt mate Harold Deane.

* Team that could make the biggest jump from last year: Florida State. After falling to seventh with the departures of Sam Cassell, Douglas Edwards and Rodney Dobard, the Seminoles could be back in the top half of the conference. Freshmen Louis and LaMarr Greer have given all-league player Bob Sura some of the support he lacked last year.

* Best individual performance: Maryland's Smith and Duke's Parks. Despite having defenses geared to stopping him, Smith has put up numbers similar to last season's. His best performances have come against the toughest teams on the Terps' pre-conference schedule: Massachusetts, Utah and Arizona State. There was some question whether the Duke senior would become the kind of leader the Blue Devils have had for the past decade. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year of sorts in Durham, but Parks could take this young team pretty far if he keeps up his play.

* Best coaching job: Kennedy, Florida State. After Kennedy's best recruiting year since going to Tallahassee, many figured the Seminoles would be the kind of team that matured late in the season. But after victories over Tulane and Florida, the Seminoles might be ready to pull off some early upsets.



Predictions by The Sun's Don Markus for the ACC season:

Order of finish: 1. North Carolina, 2. Maryland, 3. Duke, 4. Florida State, 5. Wake Forest, 6. Georgia Tech, 7. Virginia, 8. North Carolina State, 9. Clemson.

Player of the Year: Jerry Stackhouse, North Carolina.

Coach of the Year: Gary Williams, Maryland.

Freshman of the Year: Ishua Benjamin, N.C. State.