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Business as usual in ACC

The sky is falling! The Carolina-blue sky is falling!"

So squeal the Gothic Wonderland's cheerful Crazie Chicken Littles basking in the glow of the Tar Heels' 0-2 start in conference play.

But with exactly four weeks between today and the day North Carolina comes to Cameron Indoor Stadium, conditions are perfect to examine the state of the ACC, its faltering title favorites and, of course, the Blue Devils and how they fit into this chaotic conference tableau. That's right, baby, it's business time.

And I'm sorry to say that just because Carolina hasn't gotten the job done lately doesn't mean the team has lost its position as the favorite to win it all come March.

I wish this weren't the case-that I was the only one completely unmoved by these last two UNC losses-but when I turned on ESPN's afternoon debate shows Monday expecting to hear empty chatter on the Tar Heels' 92-89 loss to Wake Forest Sunday, I was startled by the lack of coverage.

The loss was a mere mailbag item on the network's "Pardon The Interruption." For the record, I'm by no means insinuating that ESPN is the be-all-end-all voice on sports-and I concede it was a big NFL weekend. But when Michael Wilbon cursorily asked co-host Tony Kornheiser if he thought UNC was a flawed team and what that meant, Kornheiser gave some simple insight into why Carolina's stumbling out of the gate isn't resonating as a national story.

"Of course they're a flawed team," Kornheiser retorted. "You know what? All teams in college are flawed teams, because most of their starters are 19 years old."

My first response to this commentary was, Thank you, Captain Obvious. But my second response was to look back at North Carolina's 33-4 record en route to the 2005 National Championship and see what sort of similarities I could draw from the mistakes the Tar Heels made then.

That year, UNC lost to Santa Clara-a 15-16 team-by 11 in November, at Wake Forest in January, at Duke in February and to Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament semifinal.

This year, Boston College seems to be the Santa Clara loss (you know, the cupcake win gone wrong), Wake is Wake and hopefully the outcome against Duke in Cameron will repeat itself in February, too.

And while these two losses to date might not mean that much in terms of North Carolina's chances at the NCAA title, they have exposed several key weaknesses: chiefly, the hole on defense left by an unhealthy Marcus Ginyard and whatever is up with Ty Lawson, who got burned by Tyrese Rice and Jeff Teague.

Perhaps more important for Duke and its fans, though, the Tar Heels also have opened the door to the ACC regular-season crown. What once seemed like a probable second-place finish for the Blue Devils is now a three-team battle for the top spot with UNC and the Demon Deacons. My guess is that this year's champ likely will have at least three conference losses, meaning that Duke has to split the four games it plays between each of these opponents (a calculation that accounts for the usual loss to someone unexpected).

And though Tobacco Road will be rough this year, the Blue Devils have as good, if not better, chance than any team to overcome the roadblocks in Winston-Salem and Chapel Hill if they play their cards right.

It might be early, but with all the buzz, I can't help but think about the big games looming against these in-state rivals.

Of the two opponents, No. 2 Wake Forest might be a tougher matchup for Duke, as the starting frontcourt of Al-Farouq Aminu, James Johnson and Chas McFarland (who are 6-foot-9, 6-foot-9 and 7 feet, respectively) combined for 38 points and 20 rebounds against the Tar Heels. Combine that with the stellar play of Teague, who dropped 34 points Sunday, and the Demon Deacons have the talent to be deadly.

Think about Duke's effort against Davidson, for example. The Blue Devils threw the kitchen sink at Stephen Curry, who was guarded by a combination of Kyle Singler, Lance Thomas, Nolan Smith and Dave McClure. Duke could afford to send bigger guys to the perimeter then because the Wildcats had next to nothing in terms of interior talent. If Teague is on his game, and the young core of Demon Deacon post players continues to develop, Wake Forest could emerge victorious against Duke and at the head of the most top-heavy conference in the nation.

Although I can't tell you whether the Demon Deacons will hold up (after what happened to the Eagles upsetting North Carolina in the Dean Dome and then losing to Harvard at home, how could I?), I'd be crazy to say North Carolina won't bounce back or that Duke won't make it interesting.

The sky isn't falling down on anyone anytime soon.

But in exactly four weeks, North Carolina comes to Cameron. And in a stroke of four-year-old history, Duke could put its archrival's once-inevitable ACC title out of reach.


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