The last time North Carolina had this much NBA talent returning, the season was 2004-05, and there was little doubt that the ACC was the best conference in the land. UNC and Duke were both No. 1 seeds that year, as they could very well end up this March. But the ACC of seven years ago had depth. Its third powerhouse, Wake Forest, had Chris Paul at point guard and was ranked No. 1 in the nation that November. Its fourth power, Georgia Tech, had the core group back from a trip to the '04 national title game. In N.C. State it had a sleeper Sweet 16 team, led by Julius Hodge, and even on the roster of the last-place team, Florida State, there were two future NBA players, Von Wafer and Al Thornton.
The Tar Heels and Blue Devils are as healthy as ever in '10-11; the problem is that no one in their storied conference seems to want to challenge them. In this offseason's coaching carousel, the ACC had job openings in its two richest recruiting hotbeds, the D.C.-Baltimore area and Atlanta. The league had another opening at a tradition-rich program on Tobacco Road, and another within a short drive of South Beach, where it recently became en vogue to take one's basketball talents.
At least some of those gigs would be coveted, right? The athletic directors in charge aimed high, assuming they'd lure either the best mid-major candidates or major-conference stars from schools with less basketball tradition. What the ADs got, mostly, was a reality check. From the following events, the non-Duke-and-Carolina portion of the league learned its place in the sport's new hierarchy:
• A coach signed an extension at Richmond instead of jumping to Georgia Tech.
• A coach renegotiated his deal at VCU rather than interview at N.C. State.
• A coach decided to stay at Harvard instead of heading to Miami.
• A coach that could have had any of the four jobs preferred to stay at Butler.
• Coaches from Arizona, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Villanova opted not to jump to the league's clear third-best gig, at Maryland.
After the humbling, came the settling: Georgia Tech, which aimed for Richmond's Chris Mooney, had to settle on Brian Gregory, who took Dayton to two NCAA tournaments in eight seasons. N.C. State wanted Arizona's Sean Miller or VCU's Shaka Smart, but instead got Mark Gottfried, who'd been out of coaching for two years after being fired at Alabama. Miami made a nice hire with George Mason's Jim Larranaga, but it courted Harvard's Tommy Amaker first, and its fan base preferred Kansas State's Frank Martin. And on Monday night -- after being turned down by Miller, Mike Brey, Jamie Dixon, Jay Wright and Brad Stevens -- Maryland went with Texas A&M's Mark Turgeon, whom the Terps said was on their original short list of candidates.
Despite being the Terps' sixth choice, Turgeon is the best of the four ACC hires. The former Kansas point guard and Larry Brown protégé has produced winners at each of his coaching stops, and deserved a shot to run one of the country's former powerhouses. Turgeon is a class act who insisted on flying back to College Station on Monday to inform his old players of his decision before making it public -- something Billy Gillispie never did before leaving A&M for Kentucky in 2007. The question surrounding the Terrapins' new coach is whether he "fits" at Maryland.
When Turgeon took over Wichita State in 2000, he seemed perfect for that job, having been born in Topeka, Kan., and played for the Jayhawks. When he took over Texas A&M in 2007, he seemed perfect for that job, too, with his Big 12 pedigree and track record of loading the Shockers' roster with Lone Star State talent. But whereas Miller was an East Coaster and Brey grew up in Maryland, Turgeon has no ties to the region. That's a glaring issue, because the key to success in College Park will be tapping into the loaded, local AAU programs that former coach Gary Williams alienated over the past five years.
Turgeon and his associate head coach at A&M, Scott Spinelli, did recruit one Maryland player, DeMatha's Naji Hibbert, to the Aggies, and are in good standing with that storied high school program. But it's a long way from Naji Hibbert to the kind of talent that will be needed to beat Duke or UNC -- something that Terps fans will expect to happen on occasion.
The gap between the Blue Devils, Tar Heels and the rest of the conference has become immense. Only one other ACC team, Florida State, has a marginal chance of being ranked in preseason polls.
After accepting the offer on Monday, Turgeon said that Maryland "was too good of an opportunity to pass up." For him, maybe: His alma mater, Kansas, isn't likely to have a job opening in the near future, and this could be his best chance to chase a national title. But for so many other coaches this offseason, the lure of the ACC was just not that strong, and the task of closing the Duke-UNC gap was not that appealing.