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THE DEBATE over which conference is the strongest in college basketball is old and irresolvable. "How about this?" asks Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg. "Why don't we just say that there are two leagues in the country—the ACC and the Big East—that are really special, and let it go at that? There is no way to measure it. No way."
You can always try. The Big East has six teams ranked in this week's AP Top 25 and eight among the top 38 in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI, a schedule-weighted factor in NCAA tournament selection). The ACC has four in the AP poll and seven in the RPI's top 50. (Four weeks ago the conferences together accounted for 10 of the top 12 teams in the AP poll, but they have since cannibalized themselves.) Each is gunning to get eight (or more) teams into the 65-team NCAA championship field.
The Big East prides itself on playing the most physical basketball in the land. The ACC, the most storied of all college basketball leagues, has bloated to 12 teams from its original seven, but it's still grounded in old Tobacco Road traditions and a purist's brand of play.
"I believe the ACC is stronger now than when I took this job," says Leonard Hamilton, who has been at Florida State since 2002 and also has coached in the Big East, the SEC and what is now the Big 12. "But it has always been a little faster-paced than other conferences, with a lot of great athletes."
The ACC has long been criticized as top-heavy, with North Carolina and Duke battling for supremacy (although Maryland's 2002 national championship is more recent than Duke's last, a year earlier). "The third and fourth spots rotate over the years," says Hamilton, "but now, top to bottom, there's more strength. In this league everybody is good."
Two games in particular underscore that thinking: On Jan. 4 in Chapel Hill, Boston College handed North Carolina its first defeat of the year, 85--78, and a month later Clemson drilled Duke 74--47 for the Blue Devils' worst defeat since they were trounced by UNLV in the 1990 NCAA title game. But BC followed the North Carolina win with a loss to Harvard and four consecutive ACC defeats. "Any night you don't come properly prepared, you're going to come up short," says coach Al Skinner, whose Eagles beat Duke 80--74 on Sunday, BC's first win over the Blue Devils since joining the ACC in 2005.
The strength of the league has forced coaches into an unspoken view that some losses are acceptable. Virginia Tech (16--8, 6--4 in conference), for instance, finishes the regular season with a brutal gantlet: Florida State (19--6, 6--4) twice, at Clemson (20--4, 6--4), and home to Duke (20--5, 7--4) and North Carolina (23--2, 9--2). "The NCAA [tournament selection committee] is going to look at our last eight games, our last five games," says Greenberg. "Not many tournament teams are going to be better than .500 in those last five games."
Yet there is no escaping it. When Clemson players arrive for practice at Littlejohn Coliseum, they find updated ACC standings written in grease pencil on a whiteboard in the locker room. Every small movement in the standings is reflected daily. "You see where the top is, you see where the bottom is," says senior center Raymond Sykes. "And it's changing all the time. But you know exactly where you stand—and you can see that every game is going to be tough."