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Despite expansion, ACC on top

When the presidents voted to expand the ACC from nine to 11 schools in the summer of 2003, many traditionalists feared that expansion would dilute and hurt basketball, the sport that gave the league its reputation. A glance at the conference this season proves that, at least in the short run, those skeptics were wrong.

The ACC is the best conference in the nation once again, boasting three of the top four teams in the preseason coaches’ poll and six of the top 19 overall.

“I think it’s the best the league has ever been, I believe ever in my lifetime anyway. I can never remember, as you said, the team that wins the ACC Tournament loses one player and people are saying their fifth or sixth [the following year],” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said of defending ACC Tournament champion Maryland.

Although expansion should not result in a competitive drop-off, the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech forced the league to abandon its double round-robin schedule format. The shift makes it difficult for the league to crown a true regular season champion as schools’ strength of schedule will vary.

A league that was tremendously young a year ago returns much of its firepower. Eleven members of the ACC’s first, second and third teams have come back, including ACC Player of the Year Julius Hodge from N.C. State, Freshman of the Year Chris Paul from Wake Forest and the league’s leading scorer Rashad McCants from North Carolina.

The Demon Deacons and the Tar Heels, who were selected as the No. 1 and 2 teams in the ACC, respectively, are each returning all of major contributors from last season.

Duke, which had been selected to finish first in the conference’s preseason poll for the past four years, is ranked fourth. The Blue Devils may have lost the most talent of any team in the league, but even without two starters from their Final Four squad they will have a veteran rotation that includes five juniors and two seniors.

“I don’t know if they are saying that Duke is going to be down, I just think they’re saying that there are people that they are picking ahead of us,” Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I don’t think anyone is saying we’re going to have a bad year. They may be saying that other people look like they’re going to have better years.... We’ll have a good team. We have good players, we just don’t have the depth we’ve had in the past.”

The ACC sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament a year ago, tying a record, but as many as seven or eight could qualify in 2005.

“Before the year is out you could have as many as eight teams make an appearance in the top 25,” said Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt, who guided his team to the national title game in 2004 before losing to Connecticut. “What can happen in this league is you’re going to play a good basketball game one night, even at home, and lose to a very good team. You need to keep that in perspective.”

The ACC has always been known for its point guards, but this year’s class is as deep as any. Preseason ACC Player of the Year Paul headlines the group, and last season’s ACC Tournament MVP John Gilchrist, Raymond Felton and Jarrett Jack will all provide experienced leadership as teams attempt to navigate the treacherous conference schedule.

“I don’t remember, and I might be wrong because I haven’t seen every year, but a year with as many good point guards,” Maryland head coach Gary Williams said. “There’s always been really good point guard play in this league, but there are four or five guys in this league that aren’t just solid but are great point guards.”

Even the teams out of the top 25 will challenge for victories, especially on their home courts, as they did a year ago. Virginia senior Elton Brown, whose team failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, pointed out that the Cavaliers beat Wake Forest, North Carolina and Georgia Tech last season.

“We know we have to come with our ‘A’ game every time we tee the ball up,” said Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton, whose team just missed the NCAA Tournament in 2004. “You have no room for error. You have to be ready to play each and every night.”

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