TEMPE, Ariz. - The Arizona-Iowa game was midway through the second half yesterday at the University Activity Center when the public address announcer reported a partial score from the NCAA East Regional:
Texas Tech 63, North Carolina 38.
It was the sound of a powerful conference's reputation shattering along with the backboard that was shattered at that game.
What does ACC stand for this year? Average Caliber Conference.
Not that Carolina losing to Texas Tech was a shock. It wasn't TTC even an upset. Tech, with just one loss, was the higher seed.
But 63-38? Leading to a 92-73 loss?
Such embarrassment just isn't visited on Carolina in the NCAA tournament.
In March, you just don't treat the Dean Smith empire, or any other team from the lordly ACC, as though it were Mississippi Valley State.
Until 1996, that is.
Georgia is a football school. Tech is a women's basketball school. Santa Clara is a school school. Eastern Michigan is Eastern Michigan.
Tech was the only one ranked in the last Associated Press Top 25 poll. Yet all four were better than some of the ACC's best.
Say it again: Average Caliber Conference.
It wasn't true until this year, of course. Coming into '96, ACC teams had won three national titles and 74 percent of their tournament games in the '90s. No other conference could come close to matching that.
Since the NCAA field expanded to 64 teams, 36 of the ACC's 59 entrants had survived the tournament's first weekend and advanced to the Sweet 16.
This year, the ACC had to sweat out a hairy comeback win by Wake Forest against Texas to keep from getting reduced to one team in the Sweet 16 for the first time since Nixon's presidency.
That's the kind of year it is: a Sunday split with the Southwest Conference, which is folding, was acceptable to the ACC.
This year, only Wake and Georgia Tech have survived the first weekend.
Not that advancing two teams to the Sweet 16 is shameful. It's better than the Atlantic 10, Big Eight and Pac-10, which only have one Sweet team apiece.
And it's much better than the Big Ten, which magically turned five teams into none.
The only good news for the Big Ten was that UCLA, which lost to Princeton, plays in another conference.
The Big Ten also failed to put a team in the Sweet 16 last year.
"Will that translate into fewer bids [for the conference] next year?" Iowa coach Tom Davis was asked yesterday. "I would certainly think so," Davis said.
So, the ACC's performance wasn't really that bad. Its six teams combined for a 5-4 record in the first two rounds. And considering that this is the fifth time since 1987 that the ACC has had two Sweet 16 teams, this performance doesn't break any new ground.
But it is still quite a comedown for a conference judged the strongest in the nation this year by the NCAA tournament selection committee.
Of course, the committee was basing that judgment on the whims of its computer-driven power ratings. The computer obviously didn't see any ACC ball this year.
The fact is that the ACC was down this year and it wasn't hard to tell. Three of the first four picks in last summer's NBA draft were ACC sophomores who left school early. Losing Joe Smith, Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace was bound to have an effect.
"We would have been a great team with Joe," Maryland's Keith Booth said.
Both the Terps and Carolina would have been contenders for the Final Four. Instead, Carolina had one of its weaker teams and the Terps underachieved.
The Santa Clara team that knocked the Terps out on Friday was hammered here yesterday by Kansas. The score was 46-22 at halftime.
Santa Clara guard Steve Nash was asked to explain the difference between Friday's win and yesterday's loss.
He should have said, "Unfortunately, we didn't get to play Maryland again."
The Terps weren't the only problem spot for the conference, though. Duke suffered injuries, Virginia declined, N.C. State lost a million close games and Florida State was mediocre. Only Georgia Tech took a major step forward. Wake, which had a fine year, accomplished what it should with star center Tim Duncan.
It was clear as the season progressed that better ball was being played in the Big East. The presence of three Big East teams in the Sweet 16 has validated that opinion.
The SEC, which has advanced all four of its NCAA tournament teams to the Sweet 16, also apparently is superior to the ACC this season. Maybe a few other conferences are, too. After Eastern Michigan, and Santa Clara, and Georgia, and Texas Tech, it's hard to argue otherwise.
Pub Date: 3/18/96