GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Even without Joe Smith, there will be no lessened expectations for Maryland's basketball team this season.
When reporters covering the Atlantic Coast Conference met here yesterday, they picked the Terps as the team to beat -- ahead of Wake Forest with Tim Duncan and Virginia with its flashy backcourt of Harold Deane and Curtis Staples.
Maryland amassed 43 first-place votes and a total of 685 points at the ACC's Operation Basketball to outdistance Wake Forest (28 firsts, 650 points).
"It's cool," said Terps point guard and co-captain Duane Simpkins. "[But] there are two sides to it."
What it means is that when the games begin, Maryland will be the team to shoot for. What it may also mean, in the eyes of skeptics, anyway, is that the ACC is down this year, laid low by the exodus of quality underclassmen like Smith, last year's national player of the year, and North Carolina's Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse.
Maryland coach Gary Williams will have to abide the former, but he doesn't want to hear the latter.
"This is my seventh year, and I've heard that seven times," TC Williams said. "Every year we're not going to be as good. Until somebody proves that, we can be as good as anybody. We could wind up with five, six teams in the NCAA [tournament]."
What looks half empty to one person is half full to another.
"One of the reasons people say the ACC is weak is the loss of Rasheed and Joe Smith," said Clemson guard Merl Code. "I don't think that's necessarily true. It's more balanced. Every team in the league has some questionable area. That makes it a balanced league."
If Georgia Tech guard Drew Barry had a vote, he said he would agreed with the media, albeit reluctantly.
"There's no clear-cut favorite this year," Barry said. "If I had to pick one team, it'd be Maryland. But I'm not sold on them. I'd pick Virginia next. And we can contend with both those teams."
Virginia was third in the balloting with 10 first-place votes and a total of 602. North Carolina (497) and Duke (391) each picked up a first-place vote to rank fourth and fifth.
"I think a sleeper team is Florida State," said Maryland's Mario Lucas, the man who most likely will replace Smith in the lineup. "They've got some of the best talent in the conference."
Sleepers, indeed. The Seminoles came in seventh with 251 points, followed by North Carolina State (197) and Clemson (142).
Before the vote, Williams could only speculate on the impending vote of confidence.
"So many teams lost players," he said, "and because we return four starters, that's why we'd be picked that high. I don't know how much Joe Smith affected the way [the four returnees] played.
"We could be one of the better teams. But I look at Virginia and one of the best backcourts in the country. And I look at Wake. They have another guy [6-foot-10 Ricky Peral] who's as tall as Duncan.
"Florida State lost Bobby Sura, but maybe they'll play better without him. Georgia Tech recruited the best point guard in the country [Stephon Marbury]."
Maryland was last voted the preseason favorite in 1981, a year the Terps finished fourth. Still, in 22 of the previous 26 seasons, the preseason choice has proven accurate.
Simpkins understands the territory that comes with the honor.
"We will take it maturely," he said. "People are expecting good things. We will have to get our ship in order."
NOTES: Clemson coach Rick Barnes said 6-7 sophomore Iker Iturbe may have to miss the season because of a blood clot in his right shoulder that will require blood thinner for three months. "If he's going to miss three months, we'll redshirt him," Barnes said. . . . North Carolina State coach Les Robinson has suspended point guard Ishua Benjamin for an unspecified period -- not believed to be more than a few games -- for disciplinary reasons. Robinson said a decision on Benjamin's reinstatement would be made in December. . . . With practice barely two weeks old, Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins says expectations for Marbury, from Lincoln High in Brooklyn, have already become a joke. "I feel sorry for him," Cremins said.
The predicted order of finish for Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball, as selected by sportswriters attending ACC Operation Basketball (first-place votes in parentheses):
Team .... .... .... .... Pts.
1. Maryland (43) ... ... 685
2. Wake Forest (28) .... 650
3. Virginia (10) ... ... 602
4. North Carolina (1) .. 497
5. Duke (1) ... .... ... 391
6. Georgia Tech .... ... 320
7. Florida State ... ... 251
8. N.C. State .... ..... 197
9. Clemson .... .... ... 142