With conference play set to begin this week, the first-semester returns suggest otherwise. The ACC is fourth in the latest conference RPI rankings, behind the Big 10, the Big 12 and the Pac-10, and the fifth-place SEC looks as if it probably has more tournament-worthy teams than the ACC. Through Sunday the ACC was a combined 6-11 against Top 25 teams, and just three of its teams—Duke (No. 8), Maryland (12) and North Carolina (14)—are ranked in this week's AP poll (thanks to Wake Forest's disastrous trip to Hawaii, where the then No. 19 Demon Deacons lost to Oregon and Villanova).
The decline of college basketball's most storied conference can be attributed to a litany of factors, including a slew of NBA defections, uninspired recruiting by a few schools and higher academic standards than many other leagues. (The ACC will not allow its schools to sign nonqualifiers and will only allow them to bring in four partial qualifiers, and of those no sport may have more than one.)
The result: Top to bottom, the league isn't as strong as it used to be. The weakest teams, Clemson, Florida State and Virginia, have little chance of making the postseason. North Carolina State was 9-1 at week's end, but its easy schedule left doubts about the Wolfpack's strength. And while Georgia Tech has played four quality nonleague opponents ( Kansas, Michigan, Georgia and Stanford), it lost to all of them.
It may sound like heresy, but the conference doesn't even seem that tough at the top. North Carolina, a first-round loser to Weber State in last year's NCAAs, looked mediocre in recent losses to Indiana and Louisville. Maryland was spanked by George Washington and struggled against George Mason. As for Duke, it's telling that an ACC school could lose four NBA first-round draft picks and still enter conference play as the highest-ranked league team.
The sky may not be falling on the league quite yet, but there's a cloudy forecast for the foreseeable future.
Abrosimova vs. Auriemma
From Russia Without Love
Early on in top-ranked Connecticut's 90-63 rout of No. 3 Louisiana Tech on Sunday night, Huskies forward Svetlana Abrosimova was guarding Brooke Lassiter, a heady point guard. Later she switched to Catrina Frierson, a bulky 6'1" forward who planted herself in the paint There were even moments when Abrosimova—once considered as defensively inspired as a blob of mashed potatoes—was matched against high-scoring Betty Lennox, a 5'8" guard with an Iverson-like first step. "You see, I can play defense very well," Abrosimova said after the game, pointing toward Huskies coach Geno Auriemma. "I'm not nearly as bad as he makes me out to be." There was no angst in Abrosimova's voice, just the glee of an All-America (albeit, one from St. Petersburg, Russia) who enjoys showing up her ultracritical coach. For three years Abrosimova, a 6'2" junior, has been Auriemma's No. 1 target—the recipient of more negative reviews than a Robin Williams film festival. If Auriemma isn't nagging her over her defense, it's her shot selection or her weak left hand or lazy passing. "Today, Svet played great," said Auriemma, following Abrosimova's 25-point, six-rebound, four-steal performance. "Tomorrow she'll do something to drive me crazy, just because she knows I'm happy and she doesn't like the status quo. We were made for each other. She's Russian and a woman, I'm Italian and stubborn. I'm always right, she's always right. Luckily, in basketball, the coach is right."
It's a comedy routine that isn't always so comical. Auriemma, an unabashed yeller, has screamed things that have made Abrosimova wonder why she ever traveled thousands of miles to a school she had barely heard of. In return, the gifted Abrosimova, versatile enough to play all five positions, still occasionally goes on mad one-on-five dashes with no intention of passing. "Svet is so good, and the game comes so easily to her, there are times she wants to shoot when she probably shouldn't," says UConn guard Sue Bird, "but that happens less and less."
On Sunday it only happened once, late in the second half, when Abrosimova traveled while charging awkwardly into three Lady Techsters. Auriemma screamed ("I have to be consistent," he said later); Abrosimova shrugged ("I know he's trying to help me improve," she said). Otherwise, Abrosimova spent the evening cutting along the baseline, setting picks, posting up on Lennox and nailing 3 of 5 three-point attempts. Most important, Abrosimova—who was averaging 14.0 points and 7.6 rebounds at week's end—played good defense.
"People think because I am Russian, I must be soft," says Abrosimova. "I'm not soft. I love shutting someone down. Hopefully, Coach saw how I played tonight. Maybe he'll see that I was good." Abrosimova paused, then turned to a reporter. "Tell him I was good—could you?"