Tar Heels stubbing their toes this season

Jan 29, 2002 5:33 AM

The ACC has always been one of the top basketball conferences in the country, and this season is certainly no exception.

Duke had solidified its stance as one of the top two or three teams in the nation, while Maryland isn’t far behind. Virginia is also a Top 10 squad, and one of the most explosive teams in the country, while solid units like North Carolina State and Wake Forest can still play a big part in the chase for the conference crown.

In spite of all those talented teams, the biggest story in the ACC this season may be the collapse of the North Carolina Tar Heels, who will probably miss their first NCAA Tournament in 27 seasons.

Coming into the season, most people expected Duke and Maryland to be among the nation’s elite, and neither team has disappointed to this point. Entering this weekend’s play, Duke had lost just once this season, on the road at Florida State, and were beating teams by an average of almost 20 points per game.

The Blue Devils have had some problems against the number, going just 8-9, but each of the failures dealt with a huge spread. Duke is a backdoor cover waiting to happen for its opponent, because of large early leads and reserves finishing the game.

For example, Duke opened up a huge lead on Boston College last Thursday and wound up cruising to an 88-78 win. Unfortunately for Duke backers, the result was below the 13-point spread, as the Eagles made a late run to make the score look respectable.

With Jason Williams and Mike Dunleavy Jr., Duke may have the two best players in the nation, and they have more depth than they did last season. The only team in the ACC that can compete with Duke is Maryland, although its one meeting so far this season was one-sided down the stretch.

In that game, a 99-78 win at Duke, Maryland actually held the lead at the half. Things could be very different when they meet Feb. 17 in College Park. The Terrapins have an outstanding, veteran backcourt, in shooting guard Juan Dixon and point guard Steve Blake, as well as a deep and athletic frontcourt.

Maryland has had problems on the defensive end of the floor recently, but is undefeated at home and has six of its last 10 regular season games at Cole Fieldhouse.

Tied with two losses in the league entering the weekend are Virginia and North Carolina State. Virginia was expected to be a Top 15 team entering the season and has exceeded expectations. Their only losses of the season came in ACC play, to North Carolina State and at Clemson, and faced Duke on Sunday.

The Cavaliers aren’t very big, but have as much perimeter talent as any team in the country, with Roger Mason Jr. and multi-talented forward Chris Williams. Undersized center Travis Watson is the team’s top post player, who makes up for his lack of size with tenacity. However, the Cavaliers are a miserable 4-8 ATS.

North Carolina State has been one of the pleasant surprises in the ACC. The Wolfpack are young, and could be in the process of ascending the conference ladder once again, after years as an also-ran. Guard Anthony Grundy, a senior, has been the Wolfpack leader, and contributes in all phases of the game.

Freshmen like Julius Hodge and Josh Powell bode well for the present as well as the future. The Wolfpack are also one of the few ACC teams with a winning ATS record, going 10-7 overall and 8-4 at home.

Wake Forest was considered a dark-horse to make a run at the title, but a stretch of games against Virginia, Duke and Maryland ended any of those thoughts. The Demon Deacons lost all three games and weren’t very competitive in any of the contests.

Wake has a roster full of solid players, especially up front, with Darius Songalia and Josh Howard. Unfortunately, the backcourt hasn’t played nearly as well, limiting the Deacons ability to compete with the upper echelon of the league.

On the other end of the spectrum, near the basement of the ACC, is North Carolina. The Heels have just one win in the league, over an equally bad Georgia Tech team, and have been an easy win for nearly every team on their schedule. This is an amazing development in the world of college basketball, where the ’Heels have been among the best in the nation for as long as anyone can remember.

UNC was ranked first for quite some time last year and finished ACC co-champs with Duke. North Carolina doesn’t have the luxury of adding Julius Peppers and Ronald Curry this season. Jeff Capel and Kris Lang are nice players, not difference makers.

The ’Heels are young and lack a true point guard, as well as a go-to guy when they need a basket. North Carolina is a dreadful 2-10 ATS, including 1-7 as an underdog.

The ACC race figures to come down to the next meeting between Duke and Maryland.