- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

GREENSBORO, N.C. Maryland needs to awaken in a tournament filled with sleepers.
Six teams have a realistic chance to win the ACC tournament that begins today, and No.12 Duke and North Carolina aren't among the first two choices. No.9 Wake Forest is the top seed, and No.14Maryland is second. Fourth-seeded N.C. State is the most desperate team, needing at last one victory to ensure an NCAA bid, and sixth-seeded Virginia looms as a dangerous long shot after beating No.14 Maryland twice.
North Carolina has the most tournament victories (74) and titles (15), but Duke has won the last four championships after losing two straight finals to the Tar Heels. However, Duke is only the third seed and North Carolina the seventh. If Wake Forest could finish alone in first place in the regular season after 41 years, maybe someone outside the Durham-Chapel Hill corridor can cut down the nets Sunday for the first time since 1996.
"It's OK for someone else to win once in a while," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said.
The regular season showed the league's balance. Clemson swept Virginia, which twice upset Maryland. The Terps won by 15 and 40 points over a North Carolina team that ended the season by beating Duke.
"It's the most balanced ACC I've been involved with as a player or coach," North Carolina's Matt Doherty said. "There's not as big a gap in talent from the marquee programs to mid-level programs."
Seven of the nine seeds were decided on the final weekend. Wake Forest clinched No.1 by beating N.C. State in the final 1.7 seconds of its last game. Maryland didn't get No.2 until hours before its final tipoff, when Duke lost.
"I don't think there's any team that, if they got hot, couldn't play with anybody in the conference," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "That hasn't always been true."
Said Terrapins forward Tahj Holden: "There's no top tier. Everybody is jumbled together, so it doesn't matter where you play."
The neutral tournament site also could scramble scores. ACC home teams were 53-19 with none posting a losing mark. Wake Forest and Duke were undefeated, and Maryland was 7-1. Greensboro isn't far from Wake Forest and just an hour from three other schools, so North Carolina teams always get the crowd behind them when playing outsiders.
"This tournament is such a spectacle and part of the culture," Prosser said, "it prepared us well for the NCAA tournament last year."
Maryland hasn't won the tournament since 1984. Despite later taking the national championship, the Terps didn't even make the ACC final last year after being upset by N.C. State on the second day. Several Terps even admitted earlier this week the NCAA tournament overshadows the conference affair.
Williams wants the missing trophy in his career but admitted he wouldn't "slit my wrists" if the Terps lose. Williams conceded conference tournaments can drain a team.
"They can be good for a lot of teams because you might need a win or two to ensure your position or have a chance [to make the NCAA]," he said. "[But] it can tire you out. It can be emotional, especially in our league, but overall it's a very positive thing. The players look forward to the challenge of getting a third shot at a team.
"The regular-season winner should be the champion of the ACC. [The tournament is] three days. What's that got to do with three months? … But I'll take it."
Despite ending the season with the 80-78 overtime loss at Virginia on Sunday, Maryland remains among the top ACC choices by opposing coaches because of its five seniors. Williams just hopes the Terps finally become consistent in an erratic season.
"We're good enough when we're playing well to play with anybody," he said, "but you have to put your best game out there, and you don't get any take-overs in a single-elimination tournament."
Said center Ryan Randle: "Life can be lovely if you do what you're supposed to do."

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