OPINION: 'Net' gains in ACC
By Gabe Whisnant
Published in Sports on March 8, 2005 2:18 PM
North Carolina coach Roy Williams knew he might take some criticism for allowing his team to cut down the nets after winning its first Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title in 13 years.
After all, the ceremony is usually reserved for conference tournament and national championship winners, or even Final Four qualifiers.
He wasn't too concerned about the critics after his team's thrilling 75-73 win over archrival Duke on Sunday.
"I loved the competitiveness of our team when we were down nine in the last three minutes," Williams said. "I told them if they would make a total commitment on defense and on every offensive possession, we could have a chance to win."
The moment was mostly about the three senior holdovers from the 8-20 team in 2001-2002 as Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott and Jawad Williams got to walk off the court at the Dean Smith Center with a memorable piece of twine.
"Those three seniors who went 8-20, they deserve to have some fun," Williams said. "I asked Coach Smith several questions, and he said, 'you are the boss.' So, I said 'We are going to cut down the dadgum nets.'"
Now, North Carolina and the rest of the ACC will be gunning to break out the ladder and scissors again as tournament champions when the conference tournament heads north to Washington.
First-round play begins Thursday at noon at the MCI Center.
The Tar Heels, Wake Forest and Duke all have the potential to do damage in the postseason, while five of the other eight teams need to make a showing in the ACC tournament to even qualify for the Big Dance.
Even at 8-8, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech are no locks for the NCAA and need to get deep into the tournament to make a stronger case. Maryland, N.C. State and Miami all finished at 7-9 and probably need to win it all to guarantee an automatic bid.
After all the preseason hype, the scenario could even play out that only UNC, Wake and Duke qualify for the NCAA tournament. If that happens, the Big Three's dominance at the top would have a lot to do with it. The three conference leaders posted a whopping, 33-5 record combined against the fourth-11th place teams.
Need even more proof of how good these three were? Take a look at the All-ACC teams. Raymond Felton, Sean May, Chris Paul, J.J. Redick and Sheldan Williams -- all from Carolina, Wake or Duke -- comprised the first team. Ten of the 15 spots on first, second and third teams combined were Heels, Deacons or Devils.
Mix that with unpredictability, inconsistency and injuries among the conference's middle tier and the scenario doesn't seem too far-fetched that only the Big Three advance.
Judging by that, it would be a surprise if someone other than the Big Three wins the ACC crown. The Heels got revenge over Duke on Sunday. I like them to ride that wave to an ACC championship win over Wake Forest, the only other team to beat them during league play.
North Carolina is sitting at an impressive 26-3 after a 14-2 ACC campaign and have won four in a row without the explosive Rashad McCants, who continues to be sidelined with a mysterious, intestinal problem.
In his absence, junior big man Sean May continues to play like an All-American -- recording four-straight double-doubles, including a 26-point, 24-rebound effort against Duke. May now has 13 double-doubles this season.
"May was fantastic. To get 24 rebounds in this day in age is remarkable. That was a magnificent individual performance," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
The Demon Deacons got a huge shot from sophomore guard Chris Paul to beat N.C. State at the buzzer -- possibly crushing the Wolfpack's NCAA tournament dreams. Wake finished at 13-3 in conference play and also seems to be a lock to pick up a number one seed in the Big Dance.
Depth issues aside, the Devils are still dangerous and can make a run -- both in the conference tourney and NCAA. This Duke team, picked to finish in the middle of the pack, has been in every game this season and beat North Carolina and Wake at Cameron.
If the Devils can find a way to win the ACC tournament, it wouldn't be out of the question to see three teams from Tobacco Road get a number one seed.
Maryland, on the NCAA bubble last year, shocked us all by running the table in Greensboro and clinching a berth in the NCAA. The Terps are playing closer to home this year, but have played uninspired basketball for most of the season (except when they played Duke).
Georgia Tech, with a majority of their team back from last year's national champion runner-up, is a viable Dark Horse pick -- if a defending final-four team can be a Dark Horse.
March is usually a month full of surprises and upsets.
The Big Three in the ACC have done their best to ensure November-February was reserved for the big dogs.
(Gabe Whisnant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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