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Watch Out Duke, North Carolina - Here Comes Maryland

Posted November 9, 1998

— One has dominated the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season in the 1990s. The other has ruled the postseason.

Now, it looks as if Duke and North Carolina have another serious challenger in perhaps the nation's most competitive league - Maryland.

But the sixth-ranked Terrapins, who last won an ACC title in 1984 behind the late Len Bias, still have to get by the mystique and talent of the Blue Devils and Tar Heels in what promises to be another tough race for the ACC title.

Despite losing 14 of the league's top 20 scorers from last season, and the addition of five new coaches in the last two years, the conference still has a lot of young talent.

``When you look around our league there are so many good teams,'' said North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge, who led the Tar Heels to the Final Four in his first season after replacing Dean Smith. ``This is not a very forgiving league.''

Top-ranked Duke, 32-4 a season ago under Mike Krzyzewski, returns a deep and experienced team with 270-pound Elton Brand leading the way inside and 3-point ace Trajan Langdon gunning from the outside.

The Blue Devils have won five ACC regular-season crowns since 1991, including a 27-5 combined league mark the last two years. During that same period, the Tar Heels have won four league tournament titles and been to the Final Four five times.

``I'm very comfortable with high expectations,'' said Krzyzewski, who has 505 career wins. ``I have very high expectations for myself and my team all the time. It is when you can't achieve high expectations that pressure comes in.''

Duke's dominating season ended with a two-point loss in the NCAA tournament to eventual national champion Kentucky. Fans are already pointing to a Dec. 22 rematch against the Wildcats.

Duke's schedule also includes games against Michigan State, Michigan, St. John's and Florida, in addition to a strong field in the Great Alaska Shootout.

``We can get beat a number of times, but we're going to be in a number of big games,'' Krzyzewski said.

The 11th-ranked Tar Heels will be hard-pressed to keep pace with Duke this year, considering the loss of national player of the year Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Shammond Williams and Makhtar Ndiaye. Those four accounted for 73 percent of North Carolina's points and 57 percent of the team's rebounds.

Jamison and Carter joined Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Jeff McInnis as Tar Heels who have left school early for the NBA since 1995.

``We certainly need some people to come through,'' said Guthridge, whose only returning starters are top assist man Ed Cota and utility player Ademola Okulaja.

North Carolina has been to the NCAA tournament a record 24 straight years and finished in the top three in the ACC in 34 consecutive seasons. But Guthridge's unwillingness to use his bench last season may come back to haunt the Tar Heels.

``It's very important for this year's team not to try and put pressure on themselves to try and uphold any of the streaks that are going on,'' Guthridge said. ``Our goal is to go out and work as hard as we can and have as much fun as we can, play as hard as we can and see what happens.''

Maryland, which has never been to the Final Four, has a wealth of talent and experience to compete with the Tar Heels and Blue Devils.

Coach Gary Williams needs seniors Laron Profit, Obinna Ekezie and Terrell Stokes to blend with the team's younger players and junior college transfer Steve Francis, who is expected to make a big splash as a 6-foot-3 shooting guard.

The Terrapins were picked to win the ACC crown in 1996 with four senior starters returning, but stumbled and finished 17-13 and tied for fourth.

``We are a different team this year,'' Williams said. ``We have a group of young players who are really hungry. Playing time is not as guaranteed this year. Returning players know they'll have to play hard as long as they're on the court or we'll get somebody else in there.''

The second tier of the ACC should be filled by Wake Forest, Clemson and N.C. State, while Georgia Tech, Florida State and Virginia are projected to finish in the bottom third.

The Demon Deacons return four sophomore starters from a 16-14 club as Dave Odom begins his 10th season in Winston-Salem.

``The experience factor I don't worry about much,'' Odom said. ``What I do worry about is coming to grips with a rotation and style of play.''

Larry Shyatt takes over at Clemson for Rick Barnes. The Tigers expect to rely on defense and rugged play. Shyatt enters the season with eight players who weigh 220 pounds or more.

The Wolfpack and Herb Sendek should field one of the top front courts in the ACC as Damon Thornton returns after two seasons filled with injuries.

Georgia Tech went to nine straight NCAA tournaments from 1985-93, but has been there only once in the last five seasons. The Yellow Jackets fell in the preseason rankings after losing Dion Glover for the season with a knee injury. The 6-5 sophomore was the ACC's leading returning scorer with 18.4 points a game.

Meanwhile, Florida State inched into the NCAA tournament last season with an 18-14 mark, but Steve Robinson will be piecing together a team that has only one starter back.

Pete Gillen takes over for Jeff Jones in Charlottesville, Va., with a team that includes seven walk-ons.

``We'll try to put the thumbs in the dike as best we can,'' he said.

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