As heart of ACC season arrives, best-league debate is already pumping

As the coach of Wake Forest, Skip Prosser admits that he has a pretty myopic viewpoint of college basketball. He knows his team and whoever the fourth-ranked Demon Deacons happen to play next.

Earlier this week, Prosser would have comfortably discussed the challenge of trying to slow Clemson's Sharrod Ford, who the Demon Deacons will have to deal with tomorrow, but any conversation about what his team will need to do to beat Maryland on Tuesday was essentially off limits.


"Haven't seen [the Terps] for a single possession," Prosser acknowledged.

Prosser, however, has seen and read enough over the last month and a half as teams navigated through the heart of non-league schedules, to dismiss any whispers that the Atlantic Coast Conference - a league that has drawn comparisons to the Big East of 1985, which placed three teams in the Final Four - might not be as dominant as originally thought.


"I compare the records of ACC teams and whom they have played and I think there is no doubt about it," said Prosser when asked if the ACC is the most powerful of the power conferences. "I think it would be irresponsible to think that the league would be undefeated at this point. We're not going to win every out-of-conference game, but I venture to say ... that we have a whole lot to be proud of."

Few people - and probably no coaches from the Big Ten, whose teams lost seven of nine games to its ACC counterparts for the second consecutive year in the annual challenge - would argue.

With conference play beginning in earnest this week, ACC teams are 98-24 in non-league games. The Big East sports a 92-24 nonconference record, while Big Ten and Pac-10 teams have compiled 96-39 and 78-24 non-league marks, respectively. The Big 12 is 105-28 in non-league play and the Southeastern Conference is 106-37.

According to one replica of the Rating Percentage Index, the formula that is used in seeding and selecting teams for the NCAA tournament, the ACC ranks second behind the Pac-10 in overall RPI. In another replica, the ACC is ranked No. 1.

"When you look at the ACC as a whole, it's not as far ahead of other leagues - and the RPI would say it's not ahead at all - than some think," said Jerry Palm, a analyst. "But I think when fans talk about the strongest conference, they always look at the better teams and I think the ACC has more depth at the top of the league. ... Every conference has probably two teams that can win the tournament. The ACC probably has more."

Just last week, the ACC had a league-record seven teams in the Associated Press Top 25, before N.C. State and Virginia dropped out. This week's poll includes three top five teams - No. 3 North Carolina, No. 4 Wake Forest and No. 5 Duke - and another (No. 9 Georgia Tech) in the top 10. No other conference can match that.

"The ACC has the most really good teams at the top, but some of the teams haven't performed as well as you would have thought initially," said Jay Bilas, a former Duke player who is now an ESPN analyst. "N.C. State is one of them. They are a good team, but not a great team.

"I think the ACC has seven very good teams and I don't think any other league has that, but there is not one team in the league that is unbeatable and they all are an injury away from being in a little bit of trouble."


Without reigning ACC Player of the Year Julius Hodge (ankle) and with an ailing Tony Bethel (colitis) on Sunday, N.C. State was beaten by 19 at home by West Virginia. That came just three nights after an embarrassing 18-point loss to St. John's.

Georgia Tech could be without B.J. Elder (strained hamstring) for three weeks and Duke's depth is even more troubling now without Shavlik Randolph (mono) and Reggie Love (broken foot).

However, North Carolina, which plays the Terps tomorrow, has won 12 straight since a season-opening loss to Santa Clara.

Bilas said he feels that the Tar Heels, who have showed few signs of the disjointed team they were a season ago, are the best team in the country, just ahead of top-ranked Illinois.

"I am pleased with what we've done so far," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said yesterday. "But I think our players understand the level of competition we're about to play. It's a completely different level. The competition right now [in the ACC] is the best it could possibly be."

In three marquee non-league, top 10 matchups, the ACC is 1-2. Second-ranked and the Big 12's Kansas, sans star forward Wayne Simien, upended Georgia Tech, who played most of the game without Elder, in overtime on the Jayhawks' home court.


Illinois, of the Big Ten, pounded visiting Wake Forest in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but the Tar Heels boast of a 13-point win over No. 8 Kentucky, the class of the SEC.

League coaches, like the Terps' Gary Williams, refer to other results to illustrate the ACC's depth that they say other leagues can't match. Williams noted how Florida State and Miami already have wins over Florida, one of the SEC's best.

Virginia, predicted to finish eighth, beat Pac-10 favorite Arizona by 18 in November. Clemson won at South Carolina's home court and Virginia Tech, probably the least feared ACC team, gave 18th-ranked Mississippi State problems last week.

"Look at the Pac-10, they have Arizona ... Washington," said the Terps' Williams, speaking to a group of reporters recently. "Anybody want to add another school? That's two. In the Big Ten, Iowa looks pretty good, Illinois is obviously very good and Michigan State is like us.

"But when you look at the ACC, you can name six or seven teams right off the top of your head that at the end of the year, given they make the tournament, they could be a factor."

Added Prosser: "There are no layups in our league."


Last season, the ACC got six teams in the NCAA tournament and two in the Final Four, but for the second straight year, it was the Big East that crowned the national champion.

Speculation has already begun on how many teams will represent the ACC in the tournament this year with several analysts predicting that the league will place seven.

"I think our league is the best in the country and we'll continue to show that," said the Tar Heels' Williams. "But what difference does it make what I think? Tournament time is when you get to show it."

ESPN analyst Andy Katz said he is reserving judgment on how wide the gap is between the league and other conferences.

"If the [ACC] gets three teams in the Final Four, which could happen, people are going to say this is the best league by far," Katz said. "We have to see what happens."

ACC's ups, downs


Five marquee wins

Nov. 21: Virginia 78, Arizona 60 - Drilling of Pac-10 favorite proved that the talent is there in Charlottesville.

Nov. 30: Duke 81, Michigan State 74 - Duke's guards too much for Michigan State, but depth questions remain.

Dec. 4: Miami 72, Florida 65 - Florida State also beat Gators, though Miami is league's biggest surprise.

Dec. 4: North Carolina 91, Kentucky 78 - Since season-opening loss, Tar Heels have looked unstoppable.

Dec. 15: Wake Forest 89, Texas 88 - Wake passes another test on one of nation's toughest schedules.


Five notable losses

Nov. 19: Santa Clara 77, North Carolina 66 - Tar Heels were without Raymond Felton, but it shouldn't have mattered.

Nov. 22: Texas A&M--Corpus; Christi 70, Florida State 67 - Other Seminoles losses: Kent State, TCU and Florida International.

Dec. 1: Illinois 91, Wake Forest 73 - Matchup between two of nation's best was no contest.

Dec. 5: George Washington 101, Maryland 92 - No shame in losing to GW, but giving up 101 points was alarming.

Dec. 30: St. John's 63, N.C. State 45 - Rebuilding Red Storm held Wolfpack to 10 first-half points.


Comments by Jeff Zrebiec : Sun Staff


*not ranked


Preseason - Current

1. 4 - 3 North Carolina (12-1): The Tar Heels started the season with a loss to Santa Clara. Since, they have rolled to 12 straight wins while convincing many that they are the nation's best team and the chemistry problems are behind them.


2. 19 - NR* N.C. State (10-3): After winning its first eight, the Wolfpack is reeling and suddenly doesn't look like a legitimate league title contender. Julius Hodge's supporting cast isn't doing its part.

3. 1 - 3 Georgia Tech (10-2): In two statement games against Gonzaga and Kansas, last year's NCAA finalist has fallen short. And now sharpshooter B.J. Elder might miss the next three weeks.

4. 15 - 22 Maryland (9-2): The jury is still out on the Terps, who insist that they are very close to the form they showed late last season. The Terps' marquee win right now is over struggling Memphis.

5. 2 - 4 Wake Forest (12-1): The Demon Deacons have taken on all comers and have been impressive aside from 40 brutal minutes against Illinois in a 91-73 loss. Chris Paul (above left), an early Player of the Year favorite, and Wake look as good as advertised.

6. 11 - 5 Duke (10-0): Thanks to J.J. Redick (left) and Daniel Ewing, the Blue Devils have taken care of business, though they have played only one ranked team. With no depth or inside presence aside from Shelden Williams, they might struggle in league play.