- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

There were murmurs when the ACC coaches congregated for the conference’s media day back in October that the league could be facing its most balanced season in quite a while.

Those observations have proved prescient in a conference where the predictability of two or three teams standing well above the rest is being replaced by an almost nightly scramble for victories.

The parity party could continue until Selection Sunday, when the conference’s tournament ends. Until then, it is uncertain if more than a couple of teams will be able to distance themselves from a tightly bunched pack that has eight teams within a game of second place.

“Possibly — possibly — Duke, and maybe North Carolina State,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said earlier this week of teams that might separate themselves. “I’m not sure that we all aren’t fighting for positioning now. I said before the season started that this would be a year where you could throw predictions out the window. I’m not sure you could make calls. You’ve had a couple of wide margins, but most games could have gone either way. That’s the way it is in the ACC.”

Duke is the only team without two league losses (or even one), but the Blue Devils seemed mortal in tight victories against Virginia Tech and Clemson. Yet even with Duke providing some stability, there is more zaniness than the league is accustomed to seeing.

North Carolina lost to Virginia, a team that stumbled against Florida State. The Seminoles tripped up at Boston College, which lost to Maryland, which in turn fell at Miami. The Hurricanes dropped an early game at N.C. State, which succumbed early this month at North Carolina.

Only two teams haven’t earned their second league win yet, further cementing the overall competitiveness. Wake Forest (12-7, 1-5), highly regarded in the preseason, has been competitive despite a shaky league record. Cellar-dweller Virginia Tech (10-9, 0-6) — a .500 team in ACC play last season — hadn’t lost a league game by more than nine points until last night against Duke.

“There’s no bottom feeding in our league,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “Everybody’s really strong. You don’t have that four or six wins built in like some leagues do. Hopefully, everyone will look into how we did in pre-conference season and the competitiveness of the games now.”

The balance wasn’t hard to forecast. North Carolina didn’t return any of its top seven scorers after winning the national championship, and significant backcourt losses plagued Duke (Daniel Ewing), Georgia Tech (Jarrett Jack), N.C. State (Julius Hodge) and Wake Forest (Chris Paul).

Meanwhile, Miami, Virginia and Clemson brought back the bulk of their respective backcourts, and all began the week in the top half of the league.

“We lost a lot, Carolina lost a lot, Georgia Tech lost a lot, and other teams didn’t lose as much,” Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. “Their players are older. I guess there’s a leveling. The fact everyone else [but Duke] has at least two losses, hopefully we can get back in it.”

That might have to happen on the road. Coaches throughout the league almost mimic each other, professing the importance of defending a home court and picking up a victory or two on the road.

Those victories seem even more valuable than in recent years because there are no decided doormats to trample in the round-robin format the ACC eschewed in favor of adding Miami and Virginia Tech last season and Boston College this one.

“For us, it’s more difficult to win anywhere than in the past,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “By the time the season ends, it’ll be a little closer to being extremely difficult to win on the road. The teams are so evenly matched, so who knows? There’s been a lot of breakthroughs in the league. The history of this league [is when you get] road wins, you feel like you’ve really accomplished something.”

Hamilton believes the balance could be here to stay. It seems unlikely there will be a pair of teams with at least 13 ACC victories, as there was a season ago with North Carolina and Wake Forest, though a collection of teams between 7-9 and 9-7 doesn’t seem farfetched.

However, it will take a season or two to ascertain if he’s right. A couple of teams usually pull away in February, and the second half of league play usually features a few teams succumbing to the injuries and weariness common in a long season. Maryland suffered one of the early personnel losses Monday when leading scorer Chris McCray was declared academically ineligible for the rest of the season.

“Early in the year everyone is fired up and healthy,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. “I think in these next five games, you’ll see the separation.”

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