ACC Scrutiny : The Middle of the Pack Is Not to Be Trifled With

Nathan BitnerSenior Analyst IDecember 11, 2008

Forget about North Carolina and Duke.  Just for a minute.  I know you can do it.  I believe in you and, don't worry, those 57 articles will still be waiting for you when you're done with this one.

For the first installment of a column in which I hope to shine some light on the lesser-discussed teams of the UNC Coastal Conference, let's review some interesting moments in the ACC season thus far ...

The exceedingly diaphoretic Gary Williams screamed out the orders to his troops (and ruined yet another day for his overworked and underpaid dry cleaner) as Maryland easily dispatched the highly-touted Michigan State Spartans 80-62 on Nov. 27th.

Though the Terrapins would go on to be overmatched by a solid Gonzaga squad and the Georgetown Hoyas in the rest of the Old Spice Classic, Michigan learned to Fear the Turtle on Dec. 3rd, falling to Williams and the Terps 75-70.  Maryland followed with an impressive 23-point victory against George Washington to stay undefeated in their home arena.

The Clemson Tigers turned the tables on a defensive-minded (and underrated) Illinois with a hard-fought 76-74 victory during the 10th annual ACC/Big 10 Challenge, handing the Fighting Illini their only loss of this young season.

Close final tallies notwithstanding, the Tigers also notched victories over Temple and Charlotte on the road to remain undefeated thus far.

Wake Forest has also handled all comers, though the competition has been about as stiff as a Ricky Martin handshake.  Still, one should not overlook a victory at UTEP over a team that handed media darling St. Mary's their only loss of the 2008-09 campaign. 

The Demon Deacons and heady second-year coach Dino Gaudio have looked impressive in dominating nearly every aspect of their games and winning by large margins against the admittedly weak competition.

Though the winds are blowing a bit inconsistently at Coral Gables, Miami certainly has the talent to compete with nearly any team on a given night.  Though a bit unimpressive in losing 73-68 to Ohio State during the ACC/Big 10 Challenge, we know now that Ohio State is better than originally advertised.

The Hurricanes quickly redeemed themselves with a road win at Kentucky (their only other loss being to No. 2 Connecticut) and will host Clemson in an ACC clash on Dec. 21st that will be the opening salvo in determining who will get to hang the "I Finished third in the ACC and all I got was this lousy T-shirt" banner high in the stadium rafters.

I was about ready to write off Boston College after a humiliating defeat at the hands of the St. Louis Billikens, but the Eagles responded with a solid effort (and a close loss) to then No. 10 Purdue, followed by four straight victories, including home wins over UAB and Iowa, plus a road win at in-state rival UMass.

A Florida State squad that was expected to be having parties with Nelly in the basement of the ACC knocked off a ranked Florida squad.  If the expected cellar-dwellers start springing upsets, it is truly about to get Hot 'n Herre for those that underestimate the rank and file of the Atlantic Coast Conference. 

Their only loss is to the Big 10's Northwestern Wildcats, who have just one loss themselves to an undefeated Butler team.

Georgia Tech was thought to be challenging Florida State for that unfinished basement, but even they looked impressive in a 12-point win over Vanderbilt on Dec. 6th and a nail-biting loss to Penn State 85-83 on Dec. 3rd.  An interesting matchup at USC looms on Dec. 22nd, in which we'll find out if the Yellow Jackets, too, may not be the patsy that so many predicted.

The final contestant for the crawl space was supposed to be N.C. State, who actually looked better than expected in a five point loss to the No. 22 Davidson Currys, but they have also played exactly no one in their non-conference schedule thus far.  The Red Jacket of Sidney Lowe is always good for an upset or two, however, and I will be interested to see how the Wolfpack fare against Big East contender No. 24 Marquette on Dec. 22nd.

Sorry, Virginia and Virginia Tech, but I have nothing nice to say about you.  The Hokies started out slow last year too, but this opening act is about as fast-paced as Plaxico Burress' mind in a New York night club.  Virginia Military Institute has more quality wins than the two teams put together.

So, what exactly is my point?  Well, it comes down to this: I'm not convinced of the argument that the ACC is "top-heavy" in the sense of having only two good teams and a couple of mediocre ones.

Granted, the season is early, but ask some prime-time coaches around the country about how thrilled they'd be to face an ACC team not from the state of Virginia right about now.

North Carolina has the ability to make the rest of the conference look like junior varsity squads at times, but this should not detract from just how good these "mid-pack" teams actually are.  The talent is spread far and wide and while they will spend a good deal of January and February beating up on each other, I expect that the conference will represent itself much more impressively in March than they did last year.

There is more experience both for the coaches and the players, and they will truly be matched with quality competition in conference play night in and night out.  This conference isn't so much top-heavy as it is loaded from top to...uh, well, Virginia.

Yes, the mammoth Big East has the most impressive top eight teams but, then again, they also have pretty much the worst bottom eight teams.  I have to give them their due respect as the No. 1 conference —for the moment.

But to those teams who will face the supposedly "lesser" cogs of the  ACC machinery, underestimate the aforementioned hoopsters at your own peril. 

Unless you are playing a team from Virginia; in that case feel free to underestimate them, if that is indeed possible, to your heart's content.

And don't be surprised if when all is said and done, the ACC emerges as far more than just a group of guys holding Tyler Hansbrough's jock strap.  Many teams in this "mid-pack" will not only be at the grand ball come March, they just might be at the top of the dance card.