- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

You might be able to take the ACC tournament out of Tobacco Road, but you can’t take North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest out of the league’s forefront.

The Tar Heels, Blue Devils and Demon Deacons swagger into Washington as top-five teams expected to go deep in the NCAA tournament. Chances are one of the trio will win the ACC tournament at MCI Center after turning the other eight schools into also-rans during the regular season. None finished with better than an 8-8 conference record.

“The difference between those schools and everybody else is maturity,” Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “Georgia Tech would have had that if [B.J.] Elder was healthy all year. Look at the experience of those teams. Carolina returned [players who scored] 85 points a game. Duke returned three of the best players in the conference. Wake Forest returned basically their whole starting team.”

Second-ranked North Carolina is one of the most talented teams in the country with at least four expected NBA first-round picks, although leading scorer Rashad McCants has missed the last four games with an intestinal disorder.

McCants practiced for the first time yesterday, but his status this weekend is uncertain. The Tar Heels won their first ACC regular-season title since 1993 with a 14-2 ACC record, and will likely be a No.1 seed when the NCAA tournament pairings come out Sunday.

Third-ranked Wake Forest also is a likely No. 1 seed after finishing second in the conference with a 13-3 record, but the Demon Deacons will be without Chris Paul for tomorrow’s quarterfinal. The All-ACC point guard is serving a one-game suspension for punching N.C. State’s Julius Hodge in the groin Sunday.

No. 5 Duke, which had a streak of five ACC tournament titles snapped by Maryland in last season’s final, overcame early departures and injuries to post an 11-5 league mark. The depleted Blue Devils have relied most heavily on point guard Daniel Ewing and All-ACC performers J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams.

“We just seem to have a lot of things happen to our team that they have no control over,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “What they have done is really shown up every game.”

While the ACC’s Big Three tune up for next week, Georgia Tech, Miami, N.C. State and Maryland will try to reinforce or earn bids to the Big Dance. And embattled coach Pete Gillen probably will be on the sideline for the final time at Virginia. The Cavaliers finished tied for last in the league, and Gillen is expected to be fired next week.

Fifth-seeded Georgia Tech, last season’s national runner-up, is probably just playing for NCAA seedings following a strong finish after Elder’s return from a hamstring injury.

Eighth-seed Maryland has been the ACC’s biggest disappointment. After winning the tournament last season and returning four starters, including tournament MVP John Gilchrist, the Terrapins have lost three straight and need a win over Clemson — a team they lost to twice — to retain any hope of a 12th straight NCAA berth.

“We’re good enough at times to play really well,” said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose erratic Terps swept two games from Duke. “N.C. State’s playing well right now. There are a lot of teams with a lot at stake. Carolina and Wake want to play well to get No. 1 seeds. Schools in the middle want to win a couple if you can to help your chances.”

Along with Maryland, sixth-seeded Miami and seventh-seeded N.C. State are trying to make one final positive statement for the NCAA’s Selection Committee. Each went 7-9 in the league.

Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech finished 8-8, but the Hokies are a long shot for their first NCAA bid since 1996. Seven of the nine ACC teams with 8-8 league records since 1992 received at-large bids, but the Hokies have a pathetic RPI of 120 and an overall 15-12 record, including bad losses to VMI, St. John’s and Western Michigan.

“You can spin it any way you want,” said Greenberg, whose Hokies went 5-2 against the four other “bubble” teams. “Georgia Tech, everybody tells me, is in at 8-8. If that is the case and that is what this league is able to do for a program, than I would say we are [in]. We played without [leading rebounder] Coleman Collins basically for the first nine games of the season.”

But while much of the intrigue will be in the fates of mid-pack teams, North Carolina, Wake Forest and Duke are squarely focused on the ACC trophy.

The Tar Heels’ last tournament championship came in 1998. The ACC’s most-storied program suffered through an 8-20 record in 2001-02, and coach Matt Doherty was fired the next season after the Tar Heels again failed to reach the NCAAs. Roy Williams, who led Kansas to four Final Fours in 15 season, since has restored the program.

North Carolina is loaded with four All-ACC members: point guard Raymond Felton, center Sean May, McCants and freshman sensation Marvin Williams, who many experts feel will could the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft if he leaves. Carolina is now in sync with May doing much of the damage. The 6-foot-9, 275-pound junior torched Duke for 26 points and 24 rebounds in the Tar Heels’ championship-clinching win Sunday.

“We witnessed one of the great performances of an individual, not just this season but in any season,” Krzyzewski said.

Each of the top three boasts an impact big man. Wake Forest has Eric Williams and Duke has Shelden Williams. But the key to their ACC title and national title chances could depend on stellar backcourts.

“In each case of the Big Three, the point guard sort of stirs the drink,” said Maryland basketball radio analyst and former American University coach Chris Knoche. “Ewing is an interesting story. He came in as more of a two-guard and sort of evolved into the point guard he is. Most point guards have always been point guards — it is hard to make one. He is really a good player. He is skilled. He has good size. He is rangy. He hits big shots. He’s a real quiet hero in this league.”

Duke is counting on Ewing and sharpshooter Redick to make up for an extremely short bench. Meanwhile, North Carolina and Wake Forest seem to have the depth and experience to win not only this weekend but also in the Final Four in three weeks in St. Louis.

The Demon Deacons, whose last ACC tournament title came with Tim Duncan in 1996, have perhaps the best chemistry and a slew of scorers like Justin Gray and Jamaal Levy.

“They really are an explosive offensive basketball team — they score in every conceivable way,” N.C. State coach Herb Sendek said. “They have great experience, quality depth. They can score inside and out. They really have the whole package.”

North Carolina, Wake Forest and Duke already have separated themselves from the pack. And when the ACC tournament ends Sunday, each of the Tobacco Road titans believes it will be cutting down the nets.

“They all exude an expectation and a confidence,” Greenberg said. “Those guys expect to win.”

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