It's Time for the ACC to Show Its Heels

Associated Press

Tune-up time is over.

If top-ranked North Carolina hasn't found out what it's made of yet, opponents along Tobacco Road and points north and south in the Atlantic Coast Conference will gladly do the job.

The ACC campaign is about to enter its second full week, and though the unbeaten Tar Heels have an air of invincibility about them, it doesn't mean much to the other seven teams in the conference.

Knocking off the mighty is commonplace in the ACC, which includes No. 3 Duke and No. 5 Georgia Tech.

"There's only one way you can go and that's down," said Brad Daugherty, UNC's 6-foot-11 senior center and third leading scorer in the league.

"Being No. 1 gives everyone something to shoot at. I'd just as soon be ranked 10th or not at all to give us a chance to improve a great deal and a chance to play that much harder.

"We just have to be ready to play all the time," he said.

Coach Dean Smith's troops already have had a few close calls, but they countered with major blowouts over relatively minor teams.

There was a 65-60 victory over Nevada Las Vegas in the finals of the Great Alaska Shootout and a 69-65 triumph over Jacksonville. But then the Heels scored 244 points and surrendered 108 in victories over Manhattan and Brown, and topped the 100-point mark seven times this season.

"I think it will come down to a last-game situation. I don't think any of us can blow out the other," Duke senior forward Mark Alarie said of the impending ACC title battle. "It will probably be a matter of who wants to win more.

"I don't feel like Carolina or Georgia Tech or us for that matter should be favored to win the conference, but I guess someone has to be favored and you would have to favor Carolina now because they are playing well together," he said.

That's pretty much how Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Cremins feels about UNC.

"As good as they're going, they are definitely the best team in the country," he said. "They have lots of talent, a great coach, they've jelled playing together and they've got a great basketball tradition.

"If I had to pick a Final Four today, four out of six would be North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Syracuse . . . maybe Memphis State, Georgia Tech," he said.

Only six times in the 32 years of the ACC has a team gone from start to finish with an unbeaten record in the regular season. Just four times in 32 tournaments has a team gone unbeaten in regular-season play and completed the trip by surviving three days of hoop madness known as the ACC tournament.

North Carolina owns two of the six unbeaten regular-season records -- 1957, when it won the national championship, and 1984, when it failed to reach the finals of the league tournament.

The Tar Heels survived their first ACC test of 1986 last weekend with a 90-79 defeat of North Carolina State. They had to rally from a 10-point deficit in the first half and hold off a Wolfpack threat midway through the second half.

It was North Carolina's 14th victory, but not enough to convince N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano that the Heels have the ACC race sewn up.

"I think the jury is out as to who the best team in the conference is now," said Valvano, who thinks the fight for the league crown will be between North Carolina, Duke and Georgia Tech.

"It'll be interesting, those six games," he said, referring to ACC meetings among the three schools.

Valvano also issued his own prediction, based on what's happened so far.

"Until someone beats them," he said, "I think Georgia Tech is No. 1 in the conference."

Wake Forest, under new head coach Bob Staak, is already 0-3 in league action, having lost to N.C. State, Clemson and Georgia Tech. With a young team getting on-the-job experience, Staak hinted that he wasn't looking forward to the meeting with the Tar Heels.

"I had lunch with (Atlanta Hawks coach) Mike Fratello," Staak said. "They're playing Philadelphia and Milwaukee this week. I asked him if he wanted to trade schedules with us, and he wisely declined."

Maryland, 0-1 in the ACC, plays North Carolina at College Park on Tuesday.

Virginia and Coach Terry Holland knows what's in store for UNC.

Starting in 1980, the Cavaliers were expected to charge through the league with 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson. But between 1980 and 1983, the Cavaliers never got through an ACC schedule unbeaten, managed one regular-season title and did not win an ACC tournament. However, Sampson's freshman year did bring a National Invitation Tournament crown.

"There are a lot of good teams in the conference," Holland said. "And the fact that there are two other ACC teams highly ranked gives an indication of the competition in the league."

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