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Saturday, November 27, 2004

The traditional strength of the ACC does not come from the teams at the top. Sure, the North Carolinas, the NC States, the Marylands, and the Dukes are the stars, but the league has always been what it is because of the quality of the "second tier." Sometimes that's Ga. Tech or Virginia or Wake Forest, other years it's even a Florida State or a Clemson.

In the past few years, the second-tier teams haven't lived up to their traditional strength, and led to the ACC's slight fall from the top.

This season, however, the second tier is incredible. Here's the evidence: If you skim off the top three teams in the ACC (Wake, UNC, Georgia Tech - as chosen by the media in the preseason) that leaves you with Duke, Maryland, NC State and Virginia as the top four.

Quick, name a conference, any conference, that has a top four better than that? The Big East (UConn, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame) is the only league that comes close. (And, for an early-season comparison, note that the Orange beat Memphis by 15 points, while the Terps trounced them by 23 - and it oculd have been worse.)

The Big Ten (Illinois, Mich. State, Wisconsin, and Michigan), the Big XII (Kansas, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech) are good through the top two, but drop off after. The Pac-10 and Conference USA aren't even close.

In short, the ACC is not just the best conference in the country this season, it isn't even close - with seven teams that could argue right now they should be ranked in the top ten. If the national polls were not constructed as they are, with coaches and media spread out geographically, and if they didn't vote for their own, the top ten could easily look like this right now:
1. Wake Forest
2. Ga. Tech
3. Kansas
4. North Carolina
5. Syracuse
6. Maryland
7. Duke
8. Illinois
9. Michigan State
10. NC State

The shame is that, as the season goes along, the ACC teams will beat up on each other, their losses will mount, and their rankings will suffer. But right now and through December, the gap between the ACC and the second-best conference in the nation could be as large as at any time in the past several decades.