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October 29, 2010

League preview: Atlantic Coast

We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we'll work backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.

4. ACC

By Steve Megargee

Perhaps it's a bit foolish to say a conference that has produced the past two national champions is on the downswing, but the ACC clearly doesn't have as much depth as usual.

Defending national champion Duke opens the season as the nation's top-ranked team, but who's going to challenge the Blue Devils for ACC supremacy?

Maryland? The Terps shared the ACC regular-season title with Duke last season, but they figure to take a step back as they replace ACC player of the year Greivis Vasquez, Landon Milbourne and Eric Hayes.

North Carolina? The arrivals of highly touted freshmen Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock should help the Tar Heels bounce back from a disappointing season, but it seems presumptuous to assume North Carolina can re-emerge as a national contender one year after settling for the NIT.

Virginia Tech? ACC scoring leader Malcolm Delaney leads a team that returns all five starters, but this is another contender that couldn't reach the NCAA tournament last season.

N.C. State? Tracy Smith and freshman C.J. Leslie should form a talented frontcourt tandem, but this is one more team that failed to make the NCAA tournament last year. In fact, the Wolfpack haven't earned an NCAA bid since Sidney Lowe took over the program in 2006-07.

That means the Blue Devils are the most prohibitive preseason favorite in any of the six major conferences.

In fact, Duke earned 61 of the 62 first-place votes in the ACC media's preseason poll. The one media member who prevented the vote from being unanimous reportedly said afterward that he inadvertently voted North Carolina ahead of Duke and didn't notice his mistake until after the poll results were announced.

There's much to like about Duke.

The Blue Devils boast perhaps the nation's top returning player in senior forward Kyle Singler. The addition of Liberty transfer Seth Curry and highly regarded freshman Kyrie Irving to a backcourt that already included Nolan Smith gives Duke perhaps the nation's best collection of guards. And, as always, the Blue Devils have one of the game's best coaches in Mike Krzyzewski.

Duke's status as the overwhelming front-runner in the ACC race bodes well for the conferences chances of producing a third consecutive national champion. But it doesn't necessarily say much for the rest of the conference.

1. Duke
2. North Carolina
3. Virginia Tech
4. N.C. State
5. Florida State
6. Maryland
7. Clemson
8. Miami
9. Boston College
10. Georgia Tech
11. Virginia
12. Wake Forest

F Harrison Barnes, North Carolina (6-8/210, Fr.)
F Kyle Singler, Duke (6-8/230, Sr.)
F Tracy Smith, N.C. State (6-8/255, Sr.)
G Malcolm Delaney, Virginia Tech (6-3/190, Sr.)
G Nolan Smith, Duke (6-2/185, Sr.)

F C.J. Leslie, North Carolina State (6-8/206, Fr.)
F Chris Singleton, Florida State (6-9/220, Jr.)
F Jordan Williams, Maryland (6-10/260, Soph.)
G Kyrie Irving, Duke (6-2/180, Fr.)
G Durand Scott, Miami (6-3/200, Soph.)

Duke F Kyle Singler

North Carolina F Harrison Barnes

Best frontcourt: North Carolina. Our assumption here is based on the notion that sophomore John Henson finally lives up to his five-star potential and true freshman Harrison Barnes immediately lives up to his own five-star ranking. Henson endured a disappointing freshman year, but his late-season surge suggested he could take a huge step forward as a sophomore. Barnes, the No. 2 player in the 2010 recruiting class, is expected to immediately establish himself as one of the nation's top overall players.
Best backcourt: Duke. The Blue Devils may have the best backcourt in the nation. Nolan Smith returns after an outstanding NCAA tournament performance and should challenge for All-America honors. Liberty transfer Seth Curry led all freshmen nationally in scoring at 20.2 points per game in 2008-09. Kyrie Irving was the No. 4 overall prospect in the 2010 recruiting class. All three guys have the ability to play either guard position.
Program on the rise: N.C. State. The Wolfpack haven't made the NCAA tournament since coach Sidney Lowe's arrival before the 2006-07 season, but that drought should end this season. A freshman class that features three top-40 prospects in C.J. Leslie (No. 14), Ryan Harrow (No. 19) and Lorenzo Brown (No. 37) joins a nucleus that features Tracy Smith, who averaged 16.5 points and 7.3 rebounds last season. NC State returns the top three scorers from a team that reached the NIT last season.
Program on the decline: Wake Forest. After reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament last season, the Demon Deacons must replace four starters, including NBA lottery pick Al-Farouq Aminu and point guard Ish Smith. Wake Forest also must adjust to a new system now that new coach Jeff Bzdelik has replaced Dino Gaudio, who was fired after the season. The Deacons should fall toward the bottom of the ACC standings, at least in the short term.
Coach on the rise: Clemson's Brad Brownell. Brownell already has led Wright State and UNC Wilmington to the NCAA tournament. Now he gets his first shot to run a program in one of the six major conferences. The loss of F Trevor Booker could keep Clemson out of the NCAA tournament this season, but it's only a matter of time before Brownell is dancing again at a third school.
Coach on the hot seat: N.C. State's Sidney Lowe. The Wolfpack still haven't reached the NCAA tournament under Lowe after getting there in each of the last five seasons of predecessor Herb Sendek's tenure. NCSU's roster is talented enough to end the drought this season. If the Wolfpack don't earn an NCAA bid, Lowe likely pays the price.
Most underrated player: Virginia Tech F Jeff Allen (6-7/230, Sr.). G Malcolm Delaney justifiably garners most of the attention for Virginia Tech, but Allen quietly ranks as the ACC's active career leader in rebounds, steals and blocks.

New coach: Brad Brownell, Clemson (had been coach at Wright State), Steve Donahue, Boston College (had been coach at Cornell).
Regular-season winner last season: Duke and Maryland tied
Tourney winner last season: Duke
League RPI rank in each of past three seasons: 3rd in 2009-10, 1st in 2008-09, 1st in 2007-08
2011 conference tournament: March 10-13, Greensboro, N.C.



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