- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

Pep bands play incessantly. Fans are at full yowl an hour before tipoff. An over-the-top TV analyst struts around while the spectators bellow “Dickie V” as if conditioned like Pavlov’s pooches.

This is ACC basketball, possibly the most exciting sporting scene in these parts except for the once, and possibly future, Almighty Redskins.

It really wasn’t the be-all and end-all of college basketball last night as Maryland and Duke tangled at Comcast Center — it just seemed that way as the top-ranked Blue Devils stumbled to a 68-60 victory despite an atrocious second half. As it often does when the Terrapins tangle with such other ancient antagonists as North Carolina and N.C. State.

Enjoy it while you can, folks. Starting next season, Maryland will be participating in such fun and games less frequently because of the ACC’s restructured basketball schedule. The Terps will still meet Duke and Virginia, their so-called “primary partners,” twice each season. But they’ll face the Tar Heels, Wolfpack and all other conference rivals once each regular-season, which of course means such teams will visit College Park every other year.

Where’s Warner Wolf when we need him? That’s a “Boo of the Week” if I ever heard one.

For 51 years, the regular-season round robin schedule has been a staple of ACC hoops. Now the most prominent of conference sports is being sacrificed so that the league can expand to 12 teams, split into two divisions and thus have a big-money championship football game each season.

The incoming trio of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College indeed will push the ACC into the top echelon of football conferences, but for basketball the three schools are nowhere. Who would you rather see invade Comcast next winter, N.C. State or BC? It may not come down immediately to a choice between those two, but any other schedule change would be just as bad.

If you’re a red-hot, wild-eyed, screaming-meemie ACC fan, you probably hate the idea. But to register your displeasure, you’ll have to get in line behind the coaches.

“The thing that made our league is basketball,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told ESPN.com. “The two-division concept in basketball [and the resulting schedule changes] would be really bad. All of a sudden, you’re not playing [most] teams twice. You’re diluting your product at a time when you should be keeping it up.”

And, Coach K claims, the fans are the ones who suffer most. “They used to know in season ticket packages that they’ll get to see Maryland and North Carolina every year. What happens if, say, Clemson didn’t get Maryland and Carolina [at home]? That’s not good for the fans.”

True, the ACC regular season and tournament don’t mean as much as they did in bygone days when only the conference champion went to March Madness. Yet there has been no drop-off in the level of excitement — until next season, that is.

Maryland’s Gary Williams notes that scheduling imbalances make it more difficult to determine a true conference champion because “then it becomes [a question of] who you don’t play, like in the Big East or the Big 12.”

True, even a mediocre team by ACC standards can get hot for a weekend and snatch the tournament title. But is it fair if one contender has to play Duke twice during the season while another faces the Blue Devils once?

Sorry, I forgot: Fair doesn’t matter any more in college sports. It’s all about TV bucks, and the vision of football sugarplums has blinded ACC academic and athletic officials to what is best for basketball.

Don’t get me wrong: I love ACC football, especially since Ralph Friedgen pulled off his masterful job of restoring Maryland to gridiron glory. But basketball has been the conference’s signature sport since Everett Case arrived at N.C. State in the late ‘40s and spread the gospel all along Tobacco Road and environs.

And since the ACC sprang from the loins of the old 17-team Southern Conference in 1953, basketball rivalries have flourished. One reason is the proximity of the four North Carolina schools — UNC, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest — and the desire of the original “outsiders” — Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina and Clemson — to achieve parity, or better. And the schedule always provided ample opportunity.

You come to my place and I’ll come to your place, or vice versa. Beat me the first time around, and I’ll be waiting for you the second time with fangs and jump shots bared. Beat me twice, and maybe I’ll get you in the ACC tournament.

Back in 1975, an underrated Maryland team handed North Carolina its worst beating ever at old Carmichael Auditorium — a result so shocking that at least one sportswriter was near tears along press row — while sweeping all four Carolina schools on the road. That might not have equaled going to the Final Four, a trip that team missed by one game, but the Terps’ players and coaches celebrated like it did.

That sort of excitement has always characterized ACC basketball. Any lessening of it deserves to be regretted and ridiculed.

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