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Strange Days, Indeed

These are strange days in the ACC. In this third year of an expanded conference, things are not as they once were, at least in places. Bad has become good and vice versa. The meek might not have yet inherited the earth, but they did bring home a league football championship. In basketball, about the only thing that can be said about the current state of affairs is: How about that?

It was said for years that the best way to determine the ACC basketball standings was to simply flip the football ones. Florida State and Clemson could generally be found at the top of the football pile and almost always propping up the rest of the league in basketball. In basketball, Duke and North Carolina set the standard, while their football programs were lagging, to put it mildly.

There were exceptions, of course. Duke football actually won not only a game, but quite a few of them for three years in the late Eighties when Visor Boy wore a true blue one. Carolina basketball experienced problems when Matt held court in Dean’s Dome, otherwise known in Blue Heaven as the Bad Times. But, for the most part, the natural order of things was that the schools with the best football had the lousiest basketball and vice versa. Not anymore.

There are residues of the old order to be found, both at the top and the bottom of both standings. Wake Forest actually won the ACC title in football, about as improbable a feat as, say, the Tech basketball team sitting atop the basketball standings at the mid-point of their season. The concept of either would have seemed laughable last August.

While the Deacs did pull off the football trick, their basketball team is keeping the old ways alive, holding the spot of rock bottom in the standings, where they have resided since Chris Paul punched both Julius Hodge and an NBA ticket. It could be considered a sign of the End Times when the crowds at Groves actually outnumber those at Joel.

The old good football-bad basketball correlation starts to unravel as one ponders the next step from the bottom in the basketball standings. There one finds NC State. This year the Wolfpack has managed to be bad at both. Chuckie finally lost to Carolina and eight other teams on his schedule one too many times and was sent back to Daddy Bowden. The Loonpack tired of a good solid basketball program and did something about it, that ‘something’ involving a free-fall down the ACC standings broken only by a basketball game against Wake. El Sid might turn into a big winner for State, but for now it appears it will take a while to merely get back to the win totals accumulated annually by Herb.

The next three spots up in the basketball standings are an amalgamation of Terps, Jackets and Canes. Maryland and Georgia Tech, traditionally a couple of pretty good basketball programs, are experiencing some problems. They did have pretty good football this year, especially GT, although Chan Gailey was unsuccessful in his attempts to follow Calvin Johnson to the NFL, even though he sure gave it his best effort.

The Canes continue to demonstrate why they were the crown jewel of ACC expansion. That .500 record that earned Larry Coker something other than a bonus and a job well done from his masters is being augmented by the 9-12 [as of this writing] proudly sported by Frank Haith. This sort of overall excellence was certainly worth the rigors of collegiate athletics upheaval.

Who knows what will happen in the future, but from the looks of things it appears that the Canes are preparing to become the Italian Navy of the ACC for a while longer. The hiring of Haith and the promotion of Randy Shannon, both having possessed no head-coaching experience whatsoever but willing to work for salaries ranking at the bottom of their respective sports, looks very much to the casual observer like significant cost-cutting being done on Coral Gables. With ACC membership safely in hand, it sure looks like somebody has decided to end those annual athletic deficits of $2 million-plus. One does wonder if the Dwarf Dyke of Miami pointed out to Little Johnny Swofford during expansion talks any plans to conduct a de facto de-emphasis of athletics.

Next up the basketball standings are traditional football powers and basketball laggards Florida State and Clemson. For the Noles, the 3-4 conference mark in basketball closely resembles the 3-5 football ledger. FSU has managed to achieve an enviable mediocrity in both sports, although Bobby Bowden, having run out of sons to hire, looks to be taking serious steps to make staff hires based on competence rather than dinner table proximity to the Old Man.

At the top of the basketball standings, there are five teams currently jockeying within a game of one another for the four first-round ACC tournament byes. Naturlly, two of them are Duke and Carolina . Naturally, they are among the lead basketball sheep and imps following their usual less-than-stellar football seasons.

From about the thirty-six minute mark of the Tech game, Ol’ Roy’s crew looks very much like the best team in the ACC as well as the rest of the country. This comes after Big John finished the job of overseeing a pell mell drive to the bottom of the football standings, although he did find his way to the absolute bottom blocked, as it usually is, by Duke.

Coach K, as was expected, rebounded from the 0-2 start and his collection of talent recruited from the top shelf is getting better and better. As for Duke football, well, at the recent ‘What Can We Do About This Crap’ football summit, Ted Roof did promise that one day he would actually score again against Virginia Tech, or maybe cross midfield.

The Hoos also are among the ACC’s fine basketball wine at close to the halfway point of the conference season. This is a heady time for the Jeffersons , following the years in which Petey took Wally Wahoo’s sword to the program. It follows the football season in which algroh showed that he could win almost as much as George before him, at least some of the time. I’m guessing it won’t be long now before Craig ‘Who Needs Tubby?’ Littlepage awards Fallback Dave a fat contract extension along the lines of those given to first Petey and then the Great NFL Legend, thus doing something about all that winning.

The other two teams at the top of the basketball standings are where the whole football-basketball thing falls apart. There is Fredo, which has mostly been winning in both sports since grabbing that Number Twelve spot like a drowning man clutching a life buoy. Continued success in football has suddenly become a bit iffy, but Al Skinner has a solid program running, provided not too many more of his players are suspended.

Then there is Virginia Tech. Chuckle. Anybody heard from Bill Brill lately? Snicker. The guy who used to use the pages of the Roanoke Times to regularly claim that Tech fans were second-class citizens because they were not members of his exalted conference and taunt them with what seemed a negligible chance to ever get in must certainly, these days, be proud of what the basketball team has accomplished. Keeping up with the exploits of the basketball Hokies sure beats the heck out of those days roaming the tailgating fields of Lane Stadium laughing at what he considered Tech’s second-rate status, eh, Bill?

As expected, the Tech football team has spent its ACC days residing at or near the top of the football standings. What was quite unexpected is that the Tech basketball team, long the red-headed stepchild of its own athletic department, is a home win over NC State away from holding the top spot of the basketball standings at the mid-point of the season. I daresay this didn’t come up when the ACC presidents were holding that final conference call. Or maybe it did, which would explain the ‘No’ votes cast by Meesie and Nan . There were probably stranger comments made during the expansion process than the head Heel and Devil exclaiming in unison, “You know, they just might beat us in basketball, so we had better vote No.”

Tech’s basketball team is not only winning a lot, it is ranked, both for the first time since the 1995-96 season, the last time Tech graced the NCAA field of sixty-five. That year was also the last time Tech had as many senior starters as it does at present. Experienced senior starters are a very good thing to have, especially three four-year ones like Coleman Collins, Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon. In a league that this year is teeming with inexperience, being the most veteran team has resulted in some good wins.

There remain questions about how long Tech’s run at the top will last. The schedule is about to run short of teams with at least one freshman starting guard for Dowdell and Gordon to dominate. There are two games against the Hoos, hoo can claim a guard tandem of their own at least as good as Tech’s. There remains a trip to Dean’s Dome to face what is likely to be a fairly irked group of Tar Heels not altogether thrilled about what happened in Cassell. As strange as it may sound about a program that has already notched victories over Duke and Carolina , considering how this Tech team is constructed, the tougher games probably still lie ahead. It is also scary to contemplate next year, when Tech goes from being the ACC’s most experienced team to its least.

That, however, is down the road and next year. Right now, Tech is enjoying the heady days of being in first place in the ACC basketball standings. As he chauffeurs Frank to Merryman, Seth now has some success to talk about too, throwing in comments such as, “What, you didn’t beat Georgia Tech? Geez, who doesn’t? And you had them at home.” This is a special time for the long-downtrodden Tech basketball program. They are winning in ACC basketball and doing a lot of it on the road, always tough in the home court-centric ACC. They have also joined with the football program to give the ACC a rarity, good football and basketball teams in the same year. Strange days, indeed.

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