ACC gains parity in losing some luster

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Back in the undisturbed air of October -- when North Carolina looked ripe, Virginia looked small and Wake Forest looked thin in the backcourt -- Maryland was the writers' choice to win the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Then the Terps lost a tough opener to then-No. 1 Kentucky, threw away a 13-point second-half lead against No. 5 UMass and shot 25 percent in an ugly loss to UCLA.

They dropped, posthaste, out of the AP Top 25 poll, and almost out of sight. The Terps are learning to play a new game without Joe Smith -- a recurring theme in the ACC this season.

Wake is learning to play without Randolph Childress, Virginia without Junior Burrough, Carolina without Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace.

So far, the new games aren't as good as the old games.

Going into last night's action, ACC teams were 56-16 (.778) in the nonconference season. Much of it was achieved against soft opposition, though. Against AP-ranked teams, the ACC is 5-10 -- not counting the Rainbow Classic matchup of North Carolina State and No. 1 UMass. Against teams that have been ranked in either the AP or the coaches' poll at one point or another, the ACC is 6-13.

What to make of the first two months?

There is no dominant team in the ACC. But Carolina could be pretty good if it avoids major injury. Wake could be pretty good if it gets consistent guard play. Maryland could be pretty good if it shoots a reasonable percentage. Virginia could be pretty good if it finds an inside game. They are the four ACC teams that made the NCAA tournament last season.

There appear to be only mild surprises in the league so far. Playing seven freshmen, Clemson parlayed an 8-0 start into a No. 24 AP ranking this week. But the Tigers' big wins have come against Minnesota (Big Ten) and Miami (Big East), two teams expected to finish down in their conferences.

N.C. State took a 6-0 mark against UMass last night, but until then hadn't played anyone tougher than Davidson. Georgia Tech played the ACC's toughest nonconference schedule -- facing five ranked teams -- and lost to unranked Mount St. Mary's.

Duke is undoubtedly better with Mike Krzyzewski back, as evidenced by early wins over Indiana and Iowa. Florida State was atrocious in its only game against a ranked team, a blowout loss to UConn.

Two months into the season, the ACC has many more questions than answers.

Panning for pollsters

Already this year, Maryland coach Gary Williams has referred to the early polls as "fool's gold -- because they don't mean anything." But after watching the Terps plummet out of the Top 25, he is a bit perplexed.

"I always thought it was better to lose to UMass by three than to beat Guilford by 30," Williams said. "But in the pollsters' mind, that's not true.

"If we schedule differently, we could be 10th in the country."

Instead, the Terps are 37th this week, down from 33 last week, despite easy wins over Rider and American. The payoff will come at tournament time. That's when Williams will know whether he gets burned by his upgraded schedule.

"Strength of schedule is supposed to be very important at the TTC end of the year," he said. "So if we're in position where it counts, we'll see."

Storm warnings

Brian Mahoney's reign as St. John's coach got a little more tenuous when the Red Storm (4-4) lost to Iona, 70-57, in the ECAC Holiday Festival on Wednesday. Mahoney's record in three-plus years at St. John's is 49-46.

Iona, from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, hadn't beaten St. John's since 1979.

Signing off for now

Chris McGuthrie, the sharpshooting guard from Mount St. Mary's, has found a new way to get his opponents' attention. He e-mails them.

Before the Mount played Wake Forest, McGuthrie went on the Internet and sent messages to Tim Duncan and Tony Rutland.

"I asked Duncan if he wanted to hang around or anything after the game and if I could be his agent," McGuthrie told the Associated Press. "I told him I could get him a good deal and I don't want a big percentage."

Duncan didn't answer, but Rutland did. "He said he and Tim had something for us and he didn't appreciate me talking trash on the computer," McGuthrie said. "Then he said it was kind of funny."

McGuthrie scored 36 points against Wake, but said he was too upset by the 75-62 loss to talk to Duncan or Rutland afterward.

They said it

UMass coach John Calipari, after a 75-67 win over Georgia Tech: "Watching the game was like going to the dentist. We had 10 days off and finals and we had a lot of guys missing practice, and it showed."

Rider coach Kevin Bannon, who lost to Kentucky, 96-52, in the 1993 NCAA tourney and again this week, 90-65: "It's comparing one nightmare to another. The biggest similarity is that both [Kentucky teams] are very legitimate contenders for a national championship."

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