WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Four springs ago Skip Prosser was a very comfortable basketball coach. He was in charge at Xavier, a perennial 20-win, NCAA tournament team with a ton of young talent. He loved the city of Cincinnati, the Jesuit priests he worked for and the values of the school.
He could have stayed forever and won forever.
But he gave it all up to move south to this old tobacco town with no good Irish bars and risk his career with a basketball program that most figured could never consistently compete with the big hitters of the ACC.
"I figured, I'm 50 [at the time], I love where I am but why not go for broke and try to win a national championship?" says the Wake Forest coach. "There are times before games when I sit on the bench, look around the arena and take a moment to appreciate I am coaching in this league."
The Atlantic Coast Conference is in the middle of perhaps the most competitive season by any conference ever for the simple reason that the challenge of winning here vs. elsewhere has lured some of the best and the brightest coaches to the league.
It is one thing for North Carolina and Duke to be good. It is another for just about every other team to be also.
"[This season] compares favorably to any of the great years of depth the conference has had in my 25 years," Duke's Mike Krzyzewski said Monday.
If you have followed the national rankings in college basketball this year, one thing is evident: The ACC is everywhere. Currently four teams – UNC (No. 3), Wake (4), Duke (5) and Georgia Tech (8) – are near the top of the polls. Three other league teams – Maryland, N.C. State and Virginia – have been ranked at some point of the year and Miami is banging on the door.
With this in mind, Yahoo! Sports is spending the week on Tobacco Road. Over the next 72 hours we will take in three games featuring powerhouse teams: Maryland at Wake, Tech at UNC and Duke at N.C. State. All three games are within a 110-mile stretch of real estate (Winston-Salem to Raleigh).
We don't even need to stick around for Saturday's mega matchup between Wake and UNC to make our point.
Other conferences have numerous good teams, but the ACC is something special right now.
This isn't to say the ACC has never been better. With many early defections to the NBA, the talent level today can't compare with, say, 1983 when Ralph Sampson, Michael Jordan, Len Bias and others were in the league.
"There is no way Ralph Sampson would have ever gone to college now," Krzyzewski points out.
But if you compare the league's strength to that of the rest of the country, this is about as good as it gets.
An influx of excellent coaches have elevated the ACC's "mid-pack" programs. Prosser turned Wake Forest into a national contender almost immediately upon his arrival. Ditto for Paul Hewitt and Georgia Tech. Other newcomers such as Florida State's Leonard Hamilton and Miami's Frank Haith have shown quick improvement.
Meanwhile the best of the best – Krzyzewski, UNC's Roy Williams, Maryland's Gary Williams – are still around.
What makes this year the perfect storm for excellence are the many great players from a year ago who returned for another season.
"We have an interesting phenomenon in the fact we have a lot of experience," Krzyzewski says. "That hasn't been a word used a lot in college basketball in recent years."
The challenge for up-and-coming teams is to remain confident in the face of their daunting schedules. Florida State faces a stretch of eight league games in which six opponents are currently ranked in the top eight nationally. Which means the Seminoles' record may not show how good they are.
"It wouldn't surprise me if someone not in the top four to six in the league emerges as a factor in the NCAA tournament," Hamilton says.
Prosser doesn't think the logjam at the top of the polls will last, because the competition is too tough. Where the nation's No. 1 and 2 teams, Illinois and Kansas, will enjoy stretches of easy games in the Big Ten and Big 12 respectively, no one will go unscathed in the ACC.
Then again, that's the fun part. That's why he is here.
"If you can survive the gauntlet in the ACC, I think your mettle will certainly have been tested when March comes around," Prosser says.
This week we'll see for ourselves.
- Skip Prosser
- Mike Krzyzewski