Conference fall

The Baltimore Sun

Think Duke is off its game in recent years? It's not alone. Its entire conference is not feeling the Madness these days, either.

Feeling mad, yes, because for the second time in three years, the NCAA tournament began with the hallowed Atlantic Coast Conference carrying a chip on its shoulder, beefing about being disrespected, griping that it's under-represented in the 65-team field. And, once again, most of its smaller-than-usual contingent are leaving without getting their dance cards punched.

Faces, yes. Cards, no.

Four went in. Three went out on consecutive days in the first weekend. Two went down to lower-seeded teams from a certain rival mega-conference.

Miami, of all teams, came off looking best, with a solid first-round win and a nail-biter of a loss to Texas yesterday. Miami. One of the football schools. More on that later.

Meanwhile, one of the exiled three, aforementioned Duke, went out with its ears burning.

"Duke's a great team. I think they'd fit in well in the Big East," West Virginia's Joe Alexander said after his team skunked the No. 2 seed Blue Devils in the second round Saturday in Washington. "But they definitely wouldn't dominate the Big East. We had a lot of great teams. I think the top six or seven teams are definitely right on par with Duke in the Big East, and the rest of them are right up there, too."

We pause here to remind the readers that this came from the Big East's fifth-place team and the second-lowest seed of the conference's eight entrants.

Oh, and that in the first round, the Big East team lower than it -- bubble team and No. 12 seed Villanova -- booted No. 5 seed Clemson, the third-place finisher in the ACC regular season and conference tournament finalist.

Yikes.

Of course, Alexander spoke prematurely -- almost as soon as his mouth closed, Big East teams started falling. Four bit the dust within the next 24 hours, including Georgetown.

The Hoyas' collapse probably wiped out a good two-thirds of America's brackets. Then again, that does prove his point about Duke and the Big East.

That's a separate issue from the ACC's artificially high impression of itself, though. It's still a painful fact that the ACC has the same number of teams alive as the Southern Conference (welcome, Davidson).

The ACC wasn't as good as advertised. It's not as good as it used to be, even just a few years ago.

Lately, it has been the Colonial Athletic Association with a better television deal. (Oooh, that's cold -- until you remember which league has reached the Final Four most recently.) Just shouting, "We're the ACC!" every March doesn't cut it anymore.

Or, as one West Virginia fan across from the scorer's table sang in the final minutes of the Duke game: "O-ver-ra-ted!"

Figuring out what went wrong would help -- and though it's hard to draw a straight line from one to another, one can say this much: Before it made its money/power grab in 2005 and raided the Big East for its football heavyweights, it was the conference we've always known. Since then, the numbers don't lie.

Before the expanded league went into action in 2005-06, the ACC had won three of the previous five national titles and had earned three other Final Four berths in that span.

Same old dominance, different era. In the last pre-expansion season, six teams got in the field, three made the Sweet 16 and North Carolina won it all.

In the next two seasons? No Final Four teams. Just three reaching the Sweet 16.

Throughout this season, the ACC was ranked the best in the country, and its coaches used that to proclaim that their own mediocre records should be graded on some kind of curve.

If you had listened to them -- and Seth "Certifiably Insane" Greenberg, we're talking to you -- and chosen not to believe your eyes, you wouldn't have noticed that the ACC was top-heavy this season with nothing close to the depth of the Big East, Pacific-10 or even the Big 12.

The selection committee believed its own eyes, although it still had a blind spot for Duke, grandfathering it into a No. 2 seed. But not for Greenberg's Virginia Tech team, the only serious bubble team once Maryland jumped off.

As for the ones who made it? Scoreboard.

So now, who can deny today that the ACC -- in the number of invitations and in the "progress" it made through this field -- got just what it deserved?

david.steele@baltsun.com

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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