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TEAMS ON TOBACCO ROAD KEEP GETTING SMOKED THIS SEASON

It's not the same Atlantic Coast Conference it used to be.

Not when Clemson can lose to Wofford, South Carolina State, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Appalachian State in the same season. Not when only four teams are ranked in the top 60 of the RPIs. And certainly not when North Carolina is losing at halftime at UB, of all places.

The ACC got only three teams -- Duke, Maryland and North Carolina -- into the NCAA Tournament last year and will be hard-pressed to do better this season. Those three schools and North Carolina State are all in the top 30 of the RPIs, but at least one is likely to fall out through losses against the others.

As a league, the ACC was second in the RPIs last year and No. 1 the three previous seasons. This year, it stands fifth -- behind the Big Ten, Pac-10, Big 12 and Conference USA. It has losing records against the Atlantic 10 (1-4), Big 12 (0-1), Conference USA (2-4), SEC (5-7) and Pac-10 (4-5).

And because the numbers are turning against them, ACC coaches are getting openly nervous. Many feel media accounts of the strength or weakness of a league are affecting the NCAA selection committee and they've started pumping their local media to write stories about the league's tough schedules.

Next case. They're only worth something if you can win the games.

"I think our conference is very competitive up and down, and as a result, maybe it's a lower RPI," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said this week on an ACC teleconference. "But I think we probably should have more teams in the NCAA as a result of that competitiveness."

Hardly. Despite common perceptions, the NCAA selection committee picks teams, not leagues. The number of teams chosen from each league is a stat compiled by the media after the selections are over. The big factors troubling the ACC are the poor records against marquee nonconference opponents cited above, the dominance of Duke, and the early departures of players from several teams to the NBA.

"What has really surprised me is how the strength of Duke's program has hurt the rest of the ACC," said Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins. "I thought when you have a team that is so powerful in your conference that it would help your conference rating. I think all of us are a little surprised by everyone saying, 'They had three good teams last year and the rest of the teams are garbage.' If Duke was in any other conference, they would be doing the same thing."

Perhaps. But what does it say about the rest of the ACC when Duke can lose senior Trajan Langdon and underclassmen Elton Brand, William Avery and Corey Maggette to the NBA and still be the conference's top dog? No one can use those early departures to catch up?

North Carolina was brutal for 30 minutes at UB and has gone 5-6 since leaving town with a 6-1 mark. Longtime Tar Heel observers say this is one of Carolina's worst teams of the last 20 years.

Wake Forest is 3-5 after an 8-1 start. From Nov. 26 until last Saturday, Georgia Tech was 4-7 and its wins were against Morehead State, Wofford, UNC-Greensboro and Lafayette. Clemson has lost five in a row and its only win since Christmas was over Furman.

Those are hardly the qualities of the nation's most powerful conference.

Some final cookie crumbs

OK, so it's common knowledge that a segment of St. Bonaventure students needs to clean up its act in the Reilly Center, particularly in the profanity department. And, of course, there's no excuse for anything to be tossed on the floor as was the case last Saturday against Temple when the Owls' bench was the target of some promotional cookies that had been thrown into the crowd.

Nevertheless, it's a little tiring to hear Temple coach John Chaney rail about how the whole incident turned the game around and damaged his team's hopes.

Hey, John, your team was 5 for 27 from the field in the second half. It missed three free throws in the last 76 seconds. Enough about the cookies. Make some shots.

And does the Atlantic 10 office (located in Philadelphia, by the way) have so much time on its hands that it has to censure St. Bonaventure for a mild incident? I've seen a lot worse in many different cities the last 10 years. I wonder if the same words come down on Bona from Philadelphia had the target been any A-10 coach other than the almighty Chaney.

Around the rim

The Mid-American Conference is the early favorite for the NCAA selection committee's biggest headache. Heading into today's play, four teams (Akron, Kent, Bowling Green and Marshall) have at least 13 wins, a feat matched by only the Big 12 and SEC. But the conference's balance has left only one team with an RPI better than 60 (Kent is No. 7). East Division leader Akron (13-4) really needs to win at home today against Kent (14-2) to improve its resume. . . . At 15-1, Auburn looks to be a legitimate Final Four candidate but murmurs continue that star forward Chris Porter's so-so senior season is hurting his NBA draft potential. Porter is averaging only 12.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, down from last year's figures of 16 points and 8.6 boards. He's only shooting 45 percent from the field and 63 percent at the line. . . . The first year of the post-Lamar Odom/Jim Harrick era at Rhode Island has been a colossal struggle for new coach Jerry DeGregorio. Until back-to-back wins this week over La Salle and Duquesne, the Rams were 3-12 and on a 10-game losing streak. URI, which plays St. Bonaventure next Saturday in the Reilly Center, has scored fewer than 50 points three times. It hadn't done that once since 1986.

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