ACC's decline may open up space for Terps

It's popular among pundits this season to note the Atlantic Coast Conference's balance - how the mighty have fallen back to the pack in basketball.

The thinking goes that all this parity has created opportunities for teams other than North Carolina and Duke - Maryland, perhaps? - to make moves.

"It definitely opens it up for the middle-of-the-pack schools to make a real push for a top-three finish, and Maryland can be one of those teams," said Van Coleman, national recruiting analyst for "Led by [Greivis] Vasquez, [Eric] Hayes and [Landon] Milbourne, they have the nucleus to do just that."

But Coleman and other forecasters know there are also potential pitfalls for the ACC in the new balance of power. With the conference perceived as weaker - consider the ACC's loss this season in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge - there might not be as many slots waiting when the NCAA tournament comes around.

For that reason, Coleman and others said it might be more critical this season for teams such as the Terps to finish in the league's top four or five. Seven ACC schools made it to the NCAAs last season.

"I don't think Maryland, or anyone else, is helped by the league being down," said Jerry Palm, owner of the Web site. "It diminishes the value of a conference win and means you might need more of them to make a case for the tournament. That's not just Maryland; that's everyone."

Maryland (9-4) will open its ACC season Sunday against Florida State at Comcast Center.

Heading into their league schedule, the Terps have yet to get a signature win, Palm said. "For Maryland specifically, every team they have played with a sniff of hope for the tournament has beaten them. They have a lot of work to do," he said.

After advancing to the NCAA tournament's second round last season, Maryland has lofty ambitions with three senior starters, including Vasquez, who flirted with entering the NBA a year early. He opted to remain at the school to improve his game and draft position. The Terps gained much-needed size with the addition of freshmen Jordan Williams (6 feet 10) and James Padgett (6-8).

Maryland's most notable game so far has not been a victory, but rather the 83-77 loss to William & Mary at Comcast Center on Dec. 30. It was a game in which the Terps shot poorly - 4-for-25 on 3-point tries - and didn't display the inside-outside balance coaches wanted. "We have to figure out some things with our team," coach Gary Williams said afterward. But Williams cautioned that it was premature to make judgments about his team before the conference schedule has even begun.

Here are summaries of the ACC teams. The Terps play each at least once and face Duke, North Carolina State, Clemson and Florida State twice.

BOSTON COLLEGE: Maryland was not sorry to see the departure of Tyrese Rice, who was occasionally a Terps nemesis during his four years.

Without the speedy guard, Al Skinner's team is still finding its way. The Eagles have nonconference losses to Harvard, Rhode Island and Maine but still have Rakim Sanders, a top scorer.

CLEMSON: A Top 25 team most of the early season, the Tigers upended Butler, then ranked 12th, on Nov. 29.

Senior forward Trevor Booker is a solid scorer and rebounder, and is approaching former Terp Lonny Baxter's career blocked shots record.

The Tigers were hammered by Duke on Sunday in their conference opener.

DUKE: Jan. 24 is a date that will live in Maryland infamy. The Terps went to Cameron Indoor Stadium last season and got blasted, 85-44 - their largest margin of defeat in 65 years.

The Terps lost twice more to the Blue Devils during the season, including in the ACC tournament.

Maryland's matchup problems against Duke come partly from size. The Devils can go 6-8, 6-8, 6-10 across their front line. With guard Jon Scheyer playing particularly well, Duke also possesses inside-outside balance.

"They do have three great perimeter players if you count [Kyle] Singler as a perimeter player," Gary Williams said.

FLORIDA STATE: Maryland's first ACC opponent this season lost leading scorer Toney Douglas, who took the Seminoles to the ACC tournament championship game last season.

The 'Noles have surprised some observers with a strong start, including wins over Georgia Tech, Alabama and Marquette.

GEORGIA TECH: Watch out for Derrick Favors, who leads ACC freshmen in scoring and is a big reason Georgia Tech is improved from last season, when it finished 2-14 in the conference.

Gani Lawal returns as one of the league's best rebounders and shot blockers.

MIAMI: The Hurricanes will find it hard to replace former Calvert Hall standout Jack McClinton, the sweet-shooting guard who was an All-ACC first-team selection.

Guard Malcolm Grant, a transfer from Villanova, is a 3-point threat.

NORTH CAROLINA: After Maryland's 17-point loss at North Carolina last season, Gary Williams put in writing his belief that the Terrapins would beat the Tar Heels in the rematch at Comcast Center. Then he asked his players to do the same. The Terps, indeed, beat the Tar Heels in their second meeting.

Maryland's success this season will depend on its ability to neutralize Ed Davis and others in Carolina's imposing frontcourt.

NORTH CAROLINA STATE: You can bet the Wolfpack will remember losing twice to the Terps last season, including in the ACC tournament.

Last year, Maryland had to overcome a big N.C. State frontcourt with Brandon Costner and Ben McCauley. With those two gone, the 'Pack relies largely on forwards Tracy Smith and Dennis Horner.

VIRGINIA: The Cavaliers were 4-12 in the ACC last season but can hope for improvement under new coach Tony Bennett and sophomore Sylven Landesberg, who is averaging 16.5 points through 12 games.

Virginia is effective from the 3-point line.

VIRGINIA TECH: Terps fans will remember Jeff Allen's rude gesture at them during Maryland's win last season.

This season, the Hokies have lost only once - to Temple - and are 12-1.

The Hokies are led by Malcolm Delaney (Towson Catholic), who might be the ACC's top scorer this season.

WAKE FOREST: The Demon Deacons underperformed last season with Jeff Teague and James Johnson, who both decided to leave early for the NBA.

Wake, a top rebounding team, still has talented forward Al-Farouq Aminu and a victory over Gonzaga to its credit.

Maryland's win over Wake in the ACC tournament was among its most inspired efforts of last season.