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Parity makes tourney interesting

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.

ACC TOURNAMENT

WHEN/WHERE: Today-Sunday; Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum.

TV: ESPN will televise tonight's FSU-Clemson play-in game. ESPN2 has all four quarterfinals on Friday and ESPN will show semifinal games on Saturday and Sunday's finale.

FAVORITE: Maryland. Okay, Wake Forest has won six straight, finished the regular season atop the standings by two games and has the league's top player, Josh Howard. But Maryland is the defending ACC and national champion and has the veteran leadership in the backcourt _ Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas _ needed to win three games in three days.

DARKHORSE: Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets are young but one of the most talented teams in the league. They split with N.C. State and have two narrow losses to Wake Forest. The big question with the Jackets is if they duplicate the way they play at home on this court. They were 1-10 on the road and 1-1 at neutral sites.

NCAA TOURNAMENT LOCKS: Wake Forest, Maryland and Duke. The league's top three are playing only for positioning in the NCAA Tournament. Wake Forest figures to be playing for a No. 2 seed in the East, while Duke needs a big showing to move up from a No. 4 or 5. More important to Maryland than seeding is where it's placed. The Terrapins wouldn't mind going to Boston in the springtime.

ON THE BUBBLE: North Carolina State. Since the NCAA field expanded in 1985, only one ACC team with a winning record failed to make the tournament. The Wolfpack is hoping not to be No. 2. With an RPI of 62, the Wolfpack seemingly must reach the ACC final _ at least.

WHAT FSU MUST DO: The Seminoles are in the play-in game for a fifth time (1996, 1998, 2001-03) and face Clemson for the third straight year in that game. Like so many teams across the nation, the Seminoles have looked like a different team on the road (1-8 overall, 1-1 at neutral sites). That was evident against the Tigers. The Seminoles won by 1 at home and lost by 14 in South Carolina. They must get over that trend. FSU must win twice to assure a .500 finish, the threshold for NIT consideration.

_ Compiled by Brian Landman.

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