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Al Featherston Returns In Mid-Season Form!

Today marks the return of Al Featherston, whose column this year is sponsored
by the Bleu Poupon Society, in honor of the late Mrs. H. DBR and Al would both
like to thank the Bleu Poups for their continued support.
This week's ACC-Big Ten Challenge offers the ACC the opportunity to repair its tattered national reputation and help prevent a repeat of the Selection Sunday nightmare that bedeviled the league last spring.

Or does it?

Keep in mind that a year ago the ACC edged the Big Ten 6-5 in the seventh annual renewal of the Challenge. Although the Big Ten ended the season as the nation's top RPI conference, the ACC's head-to-head triumph didn't appear to have any significant impact on the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Committee. When it came time to pass out at-large bids, the selection committee passed over Florida State - which had routed Purdue by 40 points in the Challenge - and Maryland - a 17-point victor over Challenge opponent Minnesota. The ACC, rated the nation's third-best conference in the RPI, received just four NCAA bids - and at least two of the league's four entries were given unexpectedly unfavorable

"Selection Sunday was sort of a slap in the face of the ACC," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said.

The ACC's basketball coaches discussed the issue at the league meetings last spring and came to a rather interesting conclusion. They decided it was important to do a better job of propagandizing the league.

"We talked during spring meetings about the number of teams we got in the tournament and what we can do to increase that," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "We've got a big-time league. We've got to say that more. The mid-majors play the political game more than we do."

So the ACC coaches - like Democrats reeling from a string of bitter defeats at the hands of the Rovian Republican election machine - will hold their noses and play the same political game as their rival conferences.

"It's unfortunate, but that seems to be a reality," Prosser said. "The huckstering going on - starting now - seems to bear fruit in March. I think it's an abomination that you can have teams that win nine games in this league and don't make the tournament."

But was last spring's mid-major bias of the selection committee really the result of a season-long propaganda barrage by ambitious conferences such as the Missouri Valley or the result of the built-in biases of the 10 committee members?

While Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage was the chairman of the 2006 committee, seven of the 10 members represented mid-major conferences and showed a clear bias towards the schools and conferences they represented
. The new 2007 NCAA Men's Basketball Committee (the proper name for the selection committee) will include four members from the so-called power conferences as Ohio State athletic director Eugene Smith replaces WAC commissioner Kurt Benson. He'll join with Littlepage, UCLA athletic director Dave Guererro and SEC commissioner Mike Slive to give the BCS leagues a slightly larger voice in the selection process. But they'll still be outvoted by Princeton AD Gary Walters; Laing Kennedy, the athletic director at Kent State; Chris Hill, the AD at Utah; Thomas O'Connor, the AD at George Mason; Jon LeCrone, the commissioner of the Horizon League; and newcomer Stanley Robinson, the .AD at Cal-Riverside.

The articulate Walters replaces Littlepage as chairman of the committee and ought to do a better job of explaining the selection process in front of the CBS cameras than the tongue-tied former Penn standout. But can anybody really explain a process that - despite a clearly delineated set of rules and guidelines - is rife with

"That's my problem," FSU's Hamilton said. "One week, I can call a committee member and ask about something and get one explanation. Then I call another member and get another interpretation. It's like a moving target. All the committee members look at criteria differently."

Let me give you one example of what Hamilton means. In the midst of last spring's selection controversy, you frequently heard Littlepage and other committee members bring up the issue of "who did they choose to play?"

Well, try as I might, I can't find that criteria in the midst of the NCAA's printed selection rules and guidelines. There is a provision for strength of schedule, but no differentiation between powerful in-conference teams that a team must play and powerful (or not so powerful) non-conference teams that a team "chooses" to play. By the committee's warped logic, Air Force gets big credit for "choosing" to play Georgia Tech, but Maryland got little or no credit for playing the Yellow Jackets three times.

"We lost to Air Force," Hewitt pointed out. "When Air Force's name comes up on those pre-selection speculation things, it lists their quality wins - Georgia Tech. We lost twice [actually three times] to Maryland last year ... when I saw the same show, and they listed quality wins [for Maryland]? We're nowhere on the board. Nowhere on the board!"

There are other flaws with the NCAA focus on "who you choose to play." Veteran administrators should understand there are limits to a school's ability to schedule who they want. And even if mutually agreeable deals are possible, it's not always possible to know in advance who is going to be good. That problem bit Hamilton last season, when he scheduled Bowling Green, Massachusetts and Nebraska and played Purdue in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge - all four teams turned out to be much weaker than projected. The Seminoles also played Florida, but since nobody expected the Gators to make their title run, FSU got little credit on Selection Sunday for playing the eventual national champs.

Then there's the matter of "choice". Does a school get more credit for a straight regular season matchup with a team than it does for a meeting in a holiday tournament? I mean, you can choose to play in the Maui Invitational with
Kentucky, Memphis and Georgia Tech, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to play any of those teams. And what about the ACC-Big Ten Challenge - I once heard a selection committee member dismiss a team's Challenge matchup by saying that the game was assigned by the conference and not a choice by the school!

So based on recent history, it's hard to believe that an ACC victory in this week's Challenge will have a significant impact on the selection process next spring. Even in individual cases - as Florida State and Maryland found out - an impressive Challenge victory is a small thing.

That doesn't mean that these games don't matter. Overall, league success has to help raise all league members. Going into the 11-game series with the Big Ten, the ACC has positioned itself to re-establish itself as the nation's premier conference. After Sunday's games, the ACC owned the nation's best non-conference winning percentage:

  1. ACC 54-10 (84.4)
  2. Big 12 53-11 (82.8)
  3. Pac 10 42-9 (82.4)
  4. Big Ten 49-10 (77.8)
  5. SEC 45-15 (75.0)
  6. Big East 56-19 (74.7)

The ACC's superiority becomes slightly more prominent when only Division 1 games are counted:

  1. ACC 53-10 (84.1)
  2. Pac 10 40-9 (81.6)
  3. Big 12 48-11 (81.4)
  4. Big Ten 49-10 (77.8)
  5. SEC 43-15 (74.1)
  6. Big East 50-19 (72.5)

Going into Monday night's Michigan at N.C. State game, the ACC was 7-4 against other BCS conferences. The Pac 10 was 4-2, followed by the Big 12 (5-3), the Big East (7-7), the Big Ten (5-7) and the SEC (4-9).

It will be interesting to see if ESPN's current lovefest with the SEC continues in the face of mounting evidence that the league is not as strong as its BCS rivals. Of course, the network's football commentators have never let evidence of the SEC's football mediocrity cloud their uncritical admiration for the league ...
but, I guess that's another column.

But the perception of television commentators - including the all-powerful ESPN lineup - isn't something to be easily dismissed. Let me give you an example - when unbeaten Louisville and unbeaten West Virginia played a Thursday night game, it was a wild, high-scoring affair that was marked by some sloppy play on both sides. That was seen by the ESPN "experts" - and apparently by poll voters - as evidence that those two teams were not worthy of inclusion with the real national championship contenders. Yet, when unbeaten Michigan and unbeaten Ohio State played a wild, high-scoring affair that was marked by sloppy plays on both sides (how many times did Heisman shoe-in Troy Smith fumble the snap from center?) it was seen as an instant classic and started a drumbeat for a rematch in the national title game.

Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt believes that the ACC, the beneficiary of the nation's best TV exposure, suffered last season from similar misperceptions by supposedly-informed commentators.

"We have guys still harkening back to 1983 and saying the league's not as good as it was then," Hewitt said. "Well, yeah, it's not as good -- Michael Jordan's not a junior in the ACC. Mike Gminski's not a senior. Those kind of guys are leaving early now. But you can't look at that and say the league is down. Is the league down relative to 1983 and 1985? Absolutely. It's not down to college basketball in 2006.

"You keep hearing that message - everybody on the selection committee gets the dish TV package and they're watching games. You can't tell me the announcers don't have an impact on their thinking when they hear over and over, 'Well, the league is down this year.'"

It would help if the ACC could dominate the Big Ten this week and stop some of that talk. It would help if Wake Forest can go to Air Force Wednesday night and beat the Falcons on their own home floor. It would help if Saturday Duke beats Georgetown in Cameron, North Carolina knocks off Kentucky in Chapel Hill, Wake Forest beats Georgia in Winston-Salem and Clemson beats South Carolina in Columbia. It would help even more if on Sunday Maryland beats Notre Dame, Virginia Tech beats George Washington and Florida State upsets Florida.

Even more than beating up on the Big Ten or dominating the other power conferences, it would help most if the ACC takes care of business against the mid-majors. Make no mistake about it, the political drumbeat for more mid-major inclusion has resumed and is being fed by the success of teams such as Butler - which won the preseason NIT over a field that included UNC and Tennessee - and by Air Force - which may have lost to Duke in Kansas City, but has already beaten Stanford, Colorado and Texas Tech.

It helped the ACC when Wake Forest went to Bucknell and beat one of the mid-major standard bearers on its home floor. It hurt when Vermont beat Boston College and when last weekend when Virginia Tech lost to Western Michigan and Southern Illinois in Orlando - two teams they could end up battling for an at-large bid next March.


The overall success of the ACC is nice, but when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, it's every team for itself.

That's the lesson Leonard Hamilton learned last season, when he tried to lean on the strength of the league to make up for a disappointing non-conference schedule. But he found that outsiders didn't share his understanding of how tough it is to compete in a league such as the ACC.

"What's happened is that Duke and North Carolina are so ungodly good, it's overshadowed everybody else," Hamilton complained. "I turn the TV on and I watch Miami play North Carolina, then Miami plays Duke and those games are going right down to the wire. But at the end of the day, if Miami loses its third straight game by five points or less, it's not newsworthy."

Hamilton's response to the problem was to upgrade his non-conference schedule. He's already lost at Big East preseason favorite Pittsburgh and will be a big underdog at No. 12 Wisconsin tonight. His 'Noles also face defending national champ Florida, Providence, SMU, Illinois State and will play mid-major opponents Stetson and Georgia State on the road. That's in addition to ACC games at North Carolina and Duke - without a return trip from either.

Let's see if 19 overall wins and a 9-7 ACC record against that schedule is enough to get Florida State into the field this season.

And let's see if the ACC can regain its accustomed place as the nation's premier basketball conference. It won't happen this week - no matter what happens in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. It's going to take an entire season of excellence, plus postseason success, to restore the ACC's national luster ... and to earn the league its fair share of NCAA at-large bids.


I've never been much of a prognosticator, so I won't try to project the outcome of the 2006 ACC-Big Ten Challenge. But I will note that young teams usually need the homecourt more than veterans. It's to the ACC's fortune that it's three most talented young teams - UNC, Duke and Georgia Tech - all play at home and should be favored.

That's why, in my mind, the three most significant games in the Challenge will test three of the league's most impressive early season pretenders on the road:

-- Maryland at Illinois (tonight at 7, ESPN). All hype aside, the Terps have been the ACC's most impressive team on the court this month. Gary Williams' rebuilt team - a core of veterans aided by freshman guards Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez (I'm going to have to learn how to spell that first name without looking it up), plus juco big man Bambale Osby (now there's a first name I can remember) - have routed the Vermont team that upset BC and the Winthrop team that took UNC to the wire. They went to New York and ripped St. John's by 32 and beat Michigan State by 18. Illinois doesn't have the talent it had two years ago, but remains a solid, well-coached team with a terrific homecourt edge. If the Terrapins manage to win in Champaign, look out, ACC!

-- Virginia at Purdue (Wednesday, 7:30, ESPN2). The Cavs have been relatively quiet, beating three patsies at the new John Paul Jones Arena, since opening the season with a homecourt victory over No. 10 Arizona. It's easy to forget that this is a veteran Cavalier team with all five starters back from last season, including the junior/senior backcourt of Sean Singletary/J.R. Reynolds. Purdue has been down since Gene Keady went into retirement a couple of years before he actually stepped down and Purdue remains a second-division Big Ten club. There's no shame in losing on the road, but if Virginia wants to be more than a second-division ACC team, this is the kind of game they must start winning with regularity.

-- Clemson at Minnesota (Wednesday, 9:30, ESPN2). The Tigers are notorious for starting fast against a weak schedule, then flopping once conference play begins. It happened last year when Clemson opened 11-0 and finished 8-13. On the other hand, Oliver Purnell's teams have slowly gotten better from 10-18 to 16-16 to 19-13 last season. This season's 7-0 start includes a victory on the road at Old Dominion and at home against Mississippi State. Add a win at Minnesota - a lower echelon Big Ten team coming off four straight losses -- and we can start wondering if just maybe the Tigers are for real this team.

I could almost add Wake Forest at Air Force (Wednesday, 9:30, Fox South) as a fourth game-to-watch, even though it's not part of the Challenge. But the unbeaten Deacons are trying to claw their way back into NCAA consideration by playing at Air Force - after a trip to Bucknell - is part of that strategy.

"If we're in position in March, I hope somebody in that room will say, 'Wake showed the chutzpah to go to Bucknell and play a final 32 team that returns three starters at their place.'" Prosser said. "We're hoping there will be some credit given. And we're going to Air Force and DePaul. We're hopeful those guys in the room will say, 'You know what, it took something for those guys to go play them there.'

"That's why we're doing it.'"

And that's why the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, while interesting, is just one small part of rebuilding the ACC's resume.