Wednesday, February 28, 2007

What has caused balance in ACC?

There still is a week remaining in the regular season, but it’s already certain that 2007 will be the first time since 1997 that no ACC team had fewer than four conference losses.

North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech are tied atop the standings with 10-4 ACC records. And nobody has an ACC record worse than 4-10.
It would be easy to blame the gravitation toward the middle of the standings on early departures for the NBA from traditional powers Duke and North Carolina. If Marvin Williams and JR Smith were juniors now, Virginia Tech forward Deron Washington wouldn’t have so easily dominated the Tar Heels on the boards.

If Duke had Luol Deng and Shaun Livingston, the Blue Devils also could be running away from the rest of the ACC. But that explanation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Duke has been losing players early to the NBA draft since 1999 – when four guys left early – but still has won seven of the past eight ACC tournaments. North Carolina also has a long history of early departures that includes James Worthy and Michael Jordan.

North Carolina and Duke also benefit from the new NBA collective bargaining agreement rule that requires players to be at least 19 years old by draft night and one year beyond the graduation of their high school class to enter the draft.

That gets top high school players to college, usually to the tradition-rich programs – at least for their freshmen year – whereas Livingston and Smith went straight to the pros in the recent past.

More likely, the greater balance in the ACC is due to increased opportunities for high-level competition before college. High school showcase events and AAU tournaments during the summer are the norm now for young players.

"Kids today, they’re playing on national TV (in high school) a lot of them," said All-Star Sports recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons. "They’re playing more games outside their high school season. They play almost an NBA schedule with their travel teams."

Gibbons said that makes freshmen better prepared to contribute immediately. It also increases the depth of the college basketball talent pool.

Virginia and Virginia Tech are tied for first place in the ACC standings for the same reason that George Mason reached last season’s Final Four. Because so many young players meet great competition early and often, the players at North Carolina and Duke are no longer so much better that the opponents don’t have a chance.

That creates a more interesting conference race and could indicate that the ACC and NCAA tournaments will be full of upsets. There has never been an upset of a No. 1 regional seed by a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament, but Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said that’s coming.

"I thought that was going to happen last year," Hewitt said. "I felt like last year was a year that. . .a team like George Mason could make the Final Four, and they did. It’s eventually going to happen."

– Ken Tysiac