- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

When the ACC’s basketball coaches convened for the league’s media day, the dominant topic of discussion was discerning how to promote the conference better and earn more NCAA tournament berths.

The league might have found the easiest answers possible — win more quality nonconference games before embarking on a remarkably even conference season.

With each of the ACC’s 12 teams at least at the midpoint of the league schedule, it appears more schools will earn a spot in the 65-team NCAA field than last year and perhaps even double the total of four from a season ago.

Eight conference teams entered yesterday ranked in the top 50 of the RPI according to collegerpi.com. Two of them — Virginia (15-6, 7-2 ACC) and Maryland (17-6, 3-5) — will meet at Comcast Center tonight, with the winner picking up a victory likely to be viewed as an asset when the tournament selection committee meets next month.

Collectively, the league has 47 victories over teams currently in the top 50 of the RPI, including 18 nonconference games. Although those numbers will fluctuate in the final month of the season as some schools move into the top 50 and others depart, the ACC still likely will trump last year’s totals of 32 top-50 wins and 10 against nonconference opponents.

“We did our work in terms of scheduling, winning some quality nonconference games, so therefore it’s validated our beating each other up,” Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “You would hope that would carry over with the committee.”

Greenberg’s cautious caveat is a reflection of league-wide concern fostered last season. Coaches promised in the preseason to talk up the conference after only four teams earned NCAA berths last season.

That came a year after five teams received invites and two seasons after six programs were selected in the ACC’s final venture as a nine-team league.

Teams — rather than leagues — earn tournament berths, though it is sometimes difficult for coaches to distinguish between the two. In one sense, the decline in bids isn’t too far-fetched; only one ACC team that finished in the top 50 of the RPI the last four seasons (No. 49 Maryland last year) missed the tournament.

However, Florida State became only the second team with a winning league record since 1980 to miss the tournament. Maryland became the first team in that stretch to finish .500 in the league, win an ACC tournament game and still not earn a berth. Those stats and unfavorable comparisons to other leagues have made many coaches bristle.

“It’s keeping up with the Joneses,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “Other teams have gone out of their way and directly talked about the ACC the last couple of years, which never happened before. If the gloves are off, the gloves are off. That’s OK. It’s kind of fun. We have to stand up.”

Williams is one of the conference’s most outspoken advocates and has pointed to the tone of game broadcasts as an opportunity to pump up the league. In fairness, it isn’t hard to stumble upon announcers stumping for a particular conference any weekend.

Coaches, though, are any league’s standard-bearers and have a role in promoting a league, as North Carolina coach Roy Williams remembers from his days at Kansas.

“In the Big 12 we pushed all the time because we were out there in the middle of the country and people thought we still went to school in covered wagons and stuff like that,” Williams said earlier in the season.

“There was a more concerted effort for pushing the envelope, pushing the media and promotion than there is here.”

The best form of promotion, though, is to win games. Nine ACC teams have knocked off a current top-50 team outside the league, a trend that helps limit the damage done when teams inevitably lose conference games.

“I think the promoting part of it can only go so far,” Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. “Production is probably more important than promotion, and I think our teams have produced, certainly in nonconference play. As much as anything, that’s the reason why perhaps there is more buzz about the ACC.”

A balanced league might help as well because one team doesn’t wind up with a disproportionate number of quality victories. Every school has at least two conference losses, and there are six teams within two games of the league lead.

The conference will sort itself out in the next month, as will the postseason prospects of the 10 teams still harboring at least semi-legitimate NCAA dreams. If the apparent leveling of the ACC is maintained, its impact on the postseason could prove curious.

“We won’t know what the impact of that buzz is until Selection Sunday and we see exactly who is in the tournament,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. “We all who are around this league know that this is a league that should consistently get six or seven teams in, but it doesn’t always work out that way. I’m not really sure. Maybe that buzz turns out to be something positive, and maybe it’s much to do about nothing when the bids come out.”

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