© St. Petersburg Times, published November 17, 2002
Whether the Atlantic Coast Conference has been the nation's best league top to bottom can be debated, but its star power has been an undeniable fact.
This season might be different.
Gone are Duke juniors Jay Williams and Mike Dunleavy, early NBA entrants who were selected with the second and third picks overall, and Carlos Boozer. Gone from defending champion Maryland are sophomore Chris Wilcox, a first-round NBA pick, and seniors Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton.
Virginia lost do-everything guard Roger Mason, North Carolina State bid farewell to guard Anthony Grundy, Wake Forest lost forward Darius Songaila and even North Carolina, which suffered through its worst season in ages, is without nationally respected forwards Jason Capel and Kris Lang.
In their place is a cast of lesser-knowns, including undersized Virginia forward/center Travis Watson, Duke point guard Chris Duhon, Maryland point guard Steve Blake and Wake Forest forward Josh Howard.
"I think you have some people who didn't get a lot of attention the past few years," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "But I think you will see people emerge pretty quickly."
Maybe, Virginia coach Pete Gillen said, it will be a freshman such as UNC's Raymond Felton.
Maybe it will be a Duke freshman: Shelden Williams, Shavlik Randolph or J.J. Redick.
Maybe it will be Florida State junior college transfer Tim Pickett.
"I think the league will have star power, you just don't know who all of them are yet," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "To watch them emerge is a different story and one that will be watched closer than in the past."
NAME IS FAMILIAR, BUT ... : First-year Valparaiso coach Scott Drew has a difficult job, keeping the program among the elite. In the past eight years, Valpo has won seven regular-season Mid-Continent Conference titles and has reached the NCAA Tournament six times. If Drew doesn't, he's apt to hear comparisons with the former coach, Homer Drew.
"If it's someone you don't know, there's a little jealousy and competitiveness that does go with it," Scott Drew said of following a highly successful coach. "But when it's someone like your dad, any time anyone says something about how we've done it in the past, I take it as compliment to him and what we've done here."
The Mid-Continent coaches put even more pressure on the younger Drew by picking Valpo to win the league title again.
BAKER'S DOZEN: With 13 wins, Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight will reach 800. Three other Division I coaches have hit that milestone: retired UNC coach Dean Smith (879), late Kentucky icon Adolph Rupp (876) and still-active Jim Phelan of Mount St. Mary's (819).
DO YOU KNOW ME?: Not many folks recognize Virginia Military sophomore guard Jason Conley. But he's the nation's top returning scorer (29.3 ppg) and the Southern Conference player of the year. Where's American Express when you need it?
GIVE HIM TIME: Stan Heath's rookie season as coach at Kent State began rocky enough. The Flashes were 4-4 but then embraced Heath's system and demands (rebound and defend) and finished 30-6 and one step from the Final Four. He's now at Arkansas, taking over for Nolan Richardson, so Razorback fans ought to be a patient if their team doesn't burst from the gate.
FINAL FOUR PREVIEW?: Here are a few nonconference games that might offer a preview of April in the Superdome: Xavier at Alabama on Jan. 4, UConn at Oklahoma on Jan. 7 and Arizona at Kansas on Jan. 25.