- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Only one ACC team in the Sweet 16, the fewest since 1979? This calls for drastic action.

Maybe the conference should expand again.

Let’s see … Memphis is still alive in the NCAA tournament — and Conference USA is, at this point, a one-bid irrelevancy. Perhaps the Tigers would be interested in changing alliances (and changing their nickname, too, so Clemson doesn’t sue).

And how about Butler, which KO’d Maryland on Saturday? The Horizon League has already had Marquette, Xavier and Oral Roberts defect — and with good reason, some would say. Why not the Bulldogs (especially since they wouldn’t have to change their nickname)?

That would bring the ACC up to, what, 14 members? Wait, that might not be enough. The Big East, after all, has 16 — and has calls out to McGill, the Sorbonne and the University of Mars.

There are two ways to look at what has happened in the NCAAs so far. The first is to shrug it off as a once-every-28-years event, a Halley’s Comet divided by three. The second is to wonder whether some kind of seismic shift is taking place, whether we’re entering a period when the center of the basketball universe is some conference other than the ACC.

I don’t know about you, but I’m kinda partial to Door No. 2. For one thing, it makes an infinitely better column.

Think about it: Who in the ACC scares anybody anymore? Answer: North Carolina — the conference’s only Sweet 16er — and that’s it. Duke hasn’t played up to its tournament seeding for several years now. Maryland, meanwhile, is still trying to recapture the glory of 2001 and ‘02. When the Blue Devils get eliminated by Virginia Commonwealth and the Terps by Butler, when the Blue Devils can’t hold an 11-point lead and the Terps shoot 7-for-15 from the foul line, it’s hard to draw any other conclusion than: This league has seen much, much, much better days.

Carolina, Duke, Maryland — they’re the iron of the ACC, the programs that have been able to sustain year-in, year-out excellence. So when the Dukies are shown the door by the CAA champs and the Terps, after two NIT seasons, are sent home by the pride of the Horizon League (formerly the Midwestern Collegiate Conference and, before that, the Who Cares? Conference), it’s cause for concern.

Especially since, well, I don’t get the sense Mike Krzyzewski and Gary Williams are on the verge of assembling their next juggernauts. They’re too busy, it would seem, trying to hold their ground against up-and-coming Virginia and Virginia Tech — not to mention Boston College.

Of course, if BC’s Sean Williams hadn’t gotten himself booted off the team midway through the season, we probably wouldn’t even be having this discussion. With the 6-10 Williams at their disposal the last two months, the Eagles may well have won the conference title and likely would have joined North Carolina in the Sweet 16. As their star, Jared Dudley put it after Saturday’s loss to Georgetown, “We just couldn’t keep them off the boards. … They were a lot taller than us, a lot more athletic.”

But that’s one of the points I’m trying to make: The ACC isn’t quite as special — that is, as immune to the stuff that goes on everywhere else — as it used to be. This year it was BC and Williams, last year it was Maryland and wayward seniors Chris McCray and Travis Garrison. (And next year, I’m guessing, a team will be derailed by unpaid parking tickets or overdue library books.)

Actually, if you crunch the numbers, you’ll find the ACC has been much less dominant in the NCAA tournament in the past 12 seasons than in the 12 seasons before that. From 1984 to 1995, the conference produced 40 Sweet 16 teams — and had four in one year eight times. From 1996 to 2007, however, it has produced 26 Sweet 16 teams — and never had more than three in a year. (Yeah, I know. I was surprised the difference was that great, too.)

There might have been a time in recent seasons when Georgia Tech could bring its B game to a first-round matchup against UNLV and still advance, but that time has clearly passed. The ACC remains an outstanding conference, don’t misunderstand, but its teams are more beatable now — and possibly living off the laurels of their predecessors.

How else can you interpret the words of Jeremis Smith following Georgia Tech’s ouster by the Runnin’ Rebels? “Rebounding is all about will,” he said. “They had a lot more than we did under the glass.”

If you show up at the NCAAs without your “will,” you might as well start preparing your last will and testament — even if you play in the ACC.

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