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Miami, Virginia Tech have made ACC stronger

Posted: Monday January 24, 2005 1:23PM; Updated: Monday January 24, 2005 6:00PM
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Deron Washington
Virginia Tech's Deron Washington dunks above Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack on Saturday.

The image still sticks in my mind from the ACC's football media days two summers ago. Sitting on a wooden bench outside the front entrance to the rustic golf resort where the event was taking place, one of the many Tobacco Road old-timers who covers the conference was grumbling to an official about the league's expansion plans.

"It's going to ruin basketball," he said disgustedly.

Such was not an uncommon sentiment around the area that summer in response to the league's explicitly football-driven expansion idea. In their efforts to solidify themselves as a football stronghold, the ACC pooh-bas were soiling their pristine basketball tradition by tacking on two bottom feeders in Miami and Virginia Tech.

The early returns suggest otherwise.

On Saturday, the Hokies went to Atlanta and knocked off last year's national runner-up, Georgia Tech, 70-69, to raise their inaugural ACC record to 3-2. The 'Canes, meanwhile, sit at 12-5 overall and 3-3 in the conference despite suffering losses last week to Duke and North Carolina. Before that Miami had beaten N.C. State and Virginia.

And look who's coming next year: Boston College, currently 16-0 and rapidly ascending the top 10. If anything, the conference is getting stronger.

It's true that in terms of basketball tradition, neither of this year's entrants hold a candle to most of the ACC's existing members. I don't know about you, but if someone were to ask me about Virginia Tech basketball, only two words would come to mind: Ace Custis. Miami has been a little more visible recently with its Sweet 16 appearance in 2000 and the presence of SportsCenter staple Darius Rice, but prior to 1998 the 'Canes had reached the NCAA tournament just once.

But past futility doesn't necessarily preclude future success, and as of today, is there really any difference between Miami and Virginia Tech or Virginia and Clemson? No. If anything, the 'Canes, under impressive first-year coach Frank Haith and the Hokies, who brought in a good one themselves not long ago in Seth Greenberg, are programs on the rise. Al Skinner's Eagles have been competitive for a while now.

This new ACC does take some adjustment. I admit, when I see scores like Miami-Florida State and Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech scroll across the ticker, my first thought is football. The one real downside of the ACC's expansion has been the death of the double round-robin schedule, where every team plays the other home-and-home. It's a shame, for instance, that North Carolina and Wake Forest have already faced each other for the last time this regular season.

In the grand scheme of things, though, that's a small sacrifice. It's not like a whole lot of people are pining for a Duke-Clemson rematch. And since this isn't football, the championship will be settled on the court in March no matter what.

Whether or not you think the new teams are benefiting the ACC, there's no question the ACC is doing wonders for the teams themselves. Just a couple years ago, you could count the number of fans at a Miami home game with your fingers; last Wednesday night, the 'Canes' 2-year-old Convocation Center was standing room only for the Blue Devils' arrival. Similarly, the Hokies are averaging a near-capacity 9,847 for ACC home games. It's not like Miami and Virginia Tech were playing in oblivion in the past. They were regularly hosting Big East powers like Connecticut and Syracuse. But clearly their fans feel more affinity with the schools of the ACC. (Boston College could be a different story.)

Much has been made about what a superpower the Big East will become next year with the addition of Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and DePaul. It's assumed the new 16-team league will be head and shoulders above the rest of the country.

I wouldn't take it to the bank just yet.

Other assorted thoughts

With the snow falling furiously from noon 'til night in New York on Saturday, it was a good day to stay in and watch hoops. Here are my thoughts from the day:

• Why must every college basketball roundup story or TV segment start with an update on the remaining undefeated teams? Didn't we learn from Stanford last year that an undefeated record in January, or even February or early March, doesn't mean diddly poo? Not to take anything away from Boston College, for example, but personally I'm more impressed by Wake Forest's 16-2 record against a schedule that's included Arizona, Illinois, Texas, North Carolina and Cincinnati than I am by the Eagles' 16-0 mark playing UCLA, Connecticut, Villanova, Clemson and UMass.

• With Connecticut still leading Pittsburgh by double digits early in the second half Saturday night, Dick Vitale said, "I just don't think Pittsburgh is the same team as they were last year when they had Julius Page and Jarron Brown." By the time the Panthers had completed their stunning comeback from 17 down to win 76-66, a more appropriate observation might have been, "I just don't think UConn is the same team as they were last year when they had two NBA lottery picks and a four-year point guard."

• I love watching J.J. Redick shoot as much as the next guy, but neither Redick nor any other noted sharpshooter can compare to Salim Stoudamire. The Arizona senior is shooting 56.9 percent from 3-point range (58-of-102), and is averaging 26.3 points over his past four games, all of them Wildcats victories. He even seems to be on his best behavior for once, which is good. In the past, his well-chronicled transgressions have probably obscured his skills in the eyes of All-America and other awards voters.

• A year after sending two teams, Saint Joe's and Xavier, to the Elite Eight and enjoying unprecedented national attention, the Atlantic 10 is just plain awful. The most promising team may be Temple, 4-0 after winning 69-54 at Xavier. The Owls feature dynamic point guard Mardy Collins, but, after going 4-7 against a brutal nonconference schedule, the Owls will need to be nearly perfect the rest of the way to reach the NCAAs.

• Poor Gene Keady -- he should have gotten out when he could. The 25-year Purdue coach, who turned down an offer from San Francisco last year to return for a final season with the Boilermakers before handing over the reins to Matt Painter, is off to a 4-12 start, including 0-6 in the Big Ten. His worst previous record was 13-18 in 2001-02.

Player of the Week

Andrew Bogut, Utah. Utah (16-3) has quietly won 11 games in a row. Bogut has not-so-quietly turned into one of the most dominant players in the country. Last week, the 7-foot Australian torched Colorado State for 25 points and 18 rebounds, followed by a 24-point, 20-rebound effort against New Mexico. It's been that way all year for the sophomore center, who's averaging 19.7 points and 12.3 rebounds (including 20 and 10 against Arizona, 23 and 12 against Washington) and generating talk of an NBA lottery selection come spring. Bogut was the Mountain West freshman of the year last season but clearly has taken his game to another level. In a Salt Lake Tribune feature on Bogut, he credited the confidence he gained playing for Australia in last summer's Olympic Games as well as new head coach Ray Giacoletti's guidance.

Team of the Week

Villanova. In the span of a week, the Wildcats ended one opponent's undefeated run and nearly did another. Last Wednesday, 'Nova went to No. 9 Boston College and held a 66-60 lead with two minutes remaining but couldn't finish off the Eagles. Any concern of a letdown, however, was quickly obliterated Saturday against second-ranked Kansas. Behind the hot hands of Allan Ray and Curtis Sumpter, the Wildcats went up by as much as 32 and handed the Jayhawks their first loss in humiliating fashion, 83-62. It was a landmark win for coach Jay Wright's program, which has been building around the nucleus of juniors Ray, Sumpter, Randy Foye and the injured Jason Fraser for three years now but always seems to come up just short against upper-level competition. Now, at 10-4, the Wildcats can begin setting their sights on a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999.

Games to watch

Oklahoma State at Oklahoma, Monday. Who doesn't love Bedlam? This edition should be particularly interesting because while the Cowboys (14-2) have garnered far more attention, while the Sooners (15-2) have been just as good if not better.

Illinois at Wisconsin, Tuesday. The Badgers have won 38 straight at home. The Illini have won 19 straight to start the season. Which streak will come to an end? Will you watch another Big Ten game all season?

Syracuse at Pittsburgh, Saturday. I don't know how many people are aware of this, but the Orangemen are 19-1. But they've also barely been skating by lately and have yet to play a road game nearly as tough as this one.