RALEIGH - It wasn't long after North Carolina beat North Carolina State that Deon Thompson uttered a telling comment about the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"We just shook the ACC up a little bit with us winning," the senior said.
Only in a year like this could a win by the defending national champions against a rival they typically defeat rank anywhere close to a jarring victory. The league that touts itself as college basketball's tradition-rich conference has two ranked teams, one among the top 20 in RPI, and a muddled set of league standings as January closes.
It's hardly a down year on the level of what's going on in the Pac-10, but it certainly doesn't have the powerful feel of years past, either.
"I guess murky would be the best word," said Mike Gminski, a former Duke All-American and TV analyst for ACC games. "To look at the 12 teams, you'd say, 'I really don't see a clear picture here at all."'
No conference can match the ACC's level of success over the past 30 years. The league has won nine NCAA championships - four coming in the past decade - while no other league has more than five. The league has made a national-best 28 Final Fours over that span, and at least one team reached No. 1 in 25 of those years. The past six seasons, at least one ACC team has been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
This year's group, however, doesn't stand up to the history.
After three ACC teams held the No. 1 ranking in the same month last year, a good-but-not-great Duke (17-3, 5-2 ACC) checks in at No. 8, while Georgia Tech (15-5, 4-3) is No. 22.
As for the rest of the league, there are the surprises (Maryland, Virginia), the solid (Clemson, Florida State, Wake Forest) and the underachieving (North Carolina).
But no other ranked teams.
"It's really up for grabs," Virginia guard Sammy Zeglinski said. "We're at the point in the season where we could go one of two ways. We could go into the middle of the pack of the ACC or really separate ourselves and keep getting better and dig deep."
While that might make for more close games or dramatic finishes, it's probably not the best thing for how the league is perceived nationally.
Granted, the ACC is third in conference RPI behind the Big East and Big 12, according to collegerpi.com. But there are no teams like last year's Tar Heels - who romped through the NCAA tournament for their second title in five seasons - or the Duke and Maryland squads that also won championships in 2001 and '02.
Instead, 10 of 12 teams already have at least five losses overall.
"The Carolina team last year doesn't happen very often," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "The landscape of college basketball has changed during this decade to produce this, and we see it in our league with good coaches, good commitment from the schools and the talent spread out."
Some drop-off should have been expected considering 10 of 15 all-conference performers - including the entire first team - graduated or left early for the NBA. But the league also lost the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge for the first time, after winning the first 10 editions.
In an illustration of how jumbled things are, the Cavaliers (12-6, 3-2) were picked to finish 11th in the league, but jumped out to a 3-0 start in league play. Maryland (14-5, 4-1) was expected to be in the middle of the pack, but sits atop the standings. Yet both teams lost to the same Wake Forest team that lost to last-place Miami.
That's the Hurricanes' only ACC win after starting 15-1 against a soft schedule.
Momentum has been hard to maintain, too. N.C. State shook off last-second losses to Arizona and Florida and a blown lead in a home loss to Virginia to upset the Blue Devils. The Wolfpack followed with a lopsided road loss to the Terrapins, then went scoreless for 8 minutes in a home loss to a struggling Tar Heels team that had looked lost in recent weeks.
Things will have to change if anyone wants to head into March with momentum.
"It can change like that," Florida State's Chris Singleton said, snapping his fingers. "If you can win and go on a streak, you control your own destiny. That's how it is.
"You can't lose two games in a row. If you lose two games in a row, you're back to the bottom."