ACC campaign looks wide open for now

Staff WriterJanuary 12, 2010 

When the buzzers sounded in two of the South's most venerable cities last week, they signaled a new order in the ever-changing ACC.

At the College of Charleston on Jan. 4, fans rushed the court as Bobby Cremins' Cougars celebrated an overtime defeat of the stunned defending national champions from North Carolina.

In Atlanta, Gani Lawal and a physical Georgia Tech team outmuscled Duke on Saturday to earn a 71-67 win.

And with 10 ACC games played thus far, an outlook for the season is emerging.

North Carolina, which has won or shared the ACC title in each of the past three seasons, no longer is the favorite after losing Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green to the NBA.

Duke is more experienced than the Tar Heels and might have a slight edge as the best team in the ACC. But the conference race is much more wide open than it has been in the past two seasons, when North Carolina was the preseason national No. 1 in The Associated Press poll on the way to two straight Final Fours, with an NCAA title in 2009.

"I think it's a little more wide open because there isn't that one team that has a lot of returning veteran players," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said Monday. "Duke has some veteran players, but obviously from a depth standpoint, they have their issues there. But everybody's got an issue or a flaw."

The ACC is shaping up to be a conference with a lot of NCAA Tournament contenders but no team that appears ready to leave the rest in the dust. Duke (13-2, 1-1 ACC) leads the conference through Sunday's games with a No. 2 ranking in the Ratings Percentage Index, a mathematical formula that considers a team's winning percentage and strength of schedule.

But the Blue Devils have yet to win a true road game on an opponent's home floor and have just three true backcourt players on scholarship.

"I think this year, there's no one that you're going to look at and say, 'Wow,' " Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio said. "... I think Mike [Krzyzewski]'s kids at Duke, after what's been done in the preseason, they might be the favorites, looking at what they did in the preseason and up through. I know they were beaten at Georgia Tech, but I think other than that it's really wide open."

According to Realtimerpi.com's calculations, no other ACC team woke up Monday morning with a rating better than 31. Seven ACC teams in addition to Duke and North Carolina (12-4, 1-0) have a legitimate claim to being on track for an NCAA Tournament bid:

Florida State (13-3, 1-1) won the Old Spice Classic Tournament in Orlando, Fla., and owns a road win at Georgia Tech.

Miami (15-1, 1-1) won the Charleston Classic in South Carolina and won a huge game Saturday over Wake Forest.

Virginia Tech (12-2, 0-1) has defeated Iowa, Georgia, Penn State and Seton Hall.

Clemson (13-3, 1-1) owns wins over Butler and South Carolina.

Georgia Tech (12-3, 1-1) just knocked off then-No. 5 Duke.

Maryland (10-4, 1-0) opened ACC play with a defeat of Florida State.

Wake Forest (11-3, 1-1) won at Gonzaga and took a thriller over Xavier.

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said the ACC has had excellent depth for the past few seasons.

"Everyone's so well prepared, the teams are so well coached," Hamilton said. "We're so competitive. The atmosphere in each arena and that sixth man in the stands factor is alive and doing well."

Hamilton said the entire conference race was tight over the last few seasons, citing some North Carolina wins in tight games. But Gaudio and Hewitt said there was a clear, overwhelming favorite the past two seasons with North Carolina.

That's not the case this season, and it became even more obvious last week.

"You look at Carolina the last few years, they were talented, they were experienced, and they were deep," Hewitt said. "So they were clearly the team. But I think it's wide open. There are some teams out there that as the year goes on will get better, and somebody's going to pull away from it. Somebody's going to emerge."

ktysiac@charlotteobserver.com or 919-829-8942

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