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College basketball

Parity makes tourney interesting

With no slight to regular-season champ Wake Forest, the ACC wasn't exactly dominated by one or two teams.

By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2003

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- No offense intended, but folks around the ACC aren't exactly intimidated or awe-struck by regular-season champion Wake Forest.

Even with the player of the year, senior forward Josh Howard, the top-seeded team in this week's league tournament just doesn't seem as overwhelmingly talented or as nearly unbeatable as Duke, Maryland and North Carolina have been in recent years.

"When you look throughout the conference, you don't have the heavyweight teams that you've seen in the past," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. "The bottom line is that any one of these teams, on a neutral floor, is capable of beating each other."

That's not vintage Vitale hyperbole.

That's not cliched coach-speak.

Consider: Ninth-seeded Florida State, which meets No. 8 Clemson in tonight's play-in game, beat Duke and played Wake Forest and Maryland close in Tallahassee.

Consider: Clemson swept No. 6 Virginia, a team that has defeated Wake Forest and Maryland.

Consider: No. 7 North Carolina stunned Duke on Sunday. "In the Atlantic 10 the years I was there, you didn't really see teams from the lower standings beat higher-level teams as consistently as has happened in the ACC (this year)," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. "But I just think that speaks to the (ACC's) strength. Last year, and I'm no ACC historian, everybody saw the league as top heavy -- Maryland and Duke, Duke and Maryland. This year the league has proven to be strong throughout."

"It's pretty accurate this year that on a given night, there's a lot of teams that can beat anybody in the league," Maryland coach Gary Williams said.

No disrespect Wake Forest, but that's why a team like FSU can dare to dream it can stage a remarkable run.

"As a player, I never try to say anyone's better than us, even though some teams are; you never want to say it," said sophomore forward Anthony Richardson, a native of Raleigh, N.C. who vividly recalls N.C. State beating Georgia Tech in the play-in game in 1997, upsetting top-seeded Duke and then beating Maryland before losing to North Carolina in the final. "But this year, it's possible to actually go out and beat anybody if we play up to our potential."

For the Seminoles, that means hitting a few more shots and maintaining the man-to-man defensive tenacity that coach Leonard Hamilton demands. FSU is second in the ACC in field-goal percentage defense (.390) and points allowed (66.7).

"Even with the position we're in now, I'm not sure there's anybody in the league we don't feel that we can compete against," Hamilton said. "Maybe that's the coach in us talking. I'm not a boastful person and I probably would have felt that way anyway, but this thing could be up for grabs."

Phil Ford, a former North Carolina All-American and assistant coach turned commentator, said three or four teams have a legitimate chance to win the tournament.

"Florida State is a dangerous basketball team," he said.

As is virtually every other team. Parity has indeed come to the ACC. But Maryland, which was 15-1 in the regular season last year and won the NCAA championship, lost three fifth-year seniors, including All-America guard Juan Dixon, and sophomore forward Chris Wilcox to the NBA draft.

Duke, which was 13-3 in the league and four games better than third-place Wake Forest and North Carolina State, lost three underclassmen to the NBA: Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer. Players of their ilk have been replaced by promising, but far greener players.

With inexperience comes inconsistency.

Welcome to the ACC in 2003.

"I think we realized that certain teams were going to be better and some of the better teams lost a lot," UNC coach Matt Doherty said. "Even though they might be still on the top of the league, they might not be as dominant as they have been in the last couple of years. I thought the league was definitely condensed, compressed if you will."

While he said that has made for some "gut-wrenching" moments for the coaches, it has provided titillating times for fans. Especially now.

"I think you're going to see some great games," Doherty said, "and there might be some great stories to come out of this for years to come."

No offense intended, Deacs.

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