Zach Smith of Old Gold & Blog and DeaconsIllustrated is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).
Predicted Order of Finish:
- North Carolina (28-2, 14-2)
- Duke (27-5, 13-3)
- Wake Forest (21-8, 11-5)
- Miami (20-9, 10-6)
- Clemson (20-10, 8-8)
- Virginia Tech (18-12, 8-8)
- Georgia Tech (17-12, 7-9)
- Maryland (17-13, 7-9)
- NC State (15-14, 5-11)
- Boston College (15-15, 4-12)
- Florida State (13-16, 4-12)
- Virginia (11-16, 4-12)
WYN2K. The ACC is still the ACC. I know many still long for the return of the days of nine teams (or even eight), but for better or worse a 12-team ACC is here to say, and it’s still plenty enjoyable. It may not be the absolute best conference in 2008-2009, but it’s dang good, and I have a feeling the majority of college basketball fans would still rather watch Duke play North Carolina play than Louisville play UConn. Everyone agrees UNC is the best team in the country (assuming they’ll have Tyler Hansbrough back sooner rather than later) and Duke is right there in the top five with them. With high expectations and lots of potential, Wake Forest is also making appearances in preseason top 25 rankings, and Miami also came in at #17 in the preseason AP poll. Clemson doesn’t appear to be far behind. I expect all five of those teams to make the NCAA Tournament this season, and I will not be surprised if Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Maryland compete for berths as well. If he comes back healthy, Hansbrough (22.8 ppg, 10.2 rpg) is likely to once again be the national player of the year, while Boston College’s Tyrese Rice (21 ppg, 4.9 apg), Miami’s Jack McClinton (17.7 pgg), North Carolina’s Ty Lawson (12.7 ppg, 5.16 apg), and Duke’s Gerald Henderson (12.7 ppg, 31 blocks) are all players to keep an eye on this season. Wake Forest boasts this year’s best recruiting class, led by forward Al-Farouq Aminu, and people will definitely want to keep an eye on Georgia Tech guard Iman Shumpert as well.
Predicted Champion. This isn’t a difficult choice to make this season. There’s little doubt the North Carolina Tar Heels (NCAA #1) are the best team in the ACC this season, and I think just about everyone will be surprised if they don’t win both the regular season and the tournament. Roy Williams has done an excellent job in his time at Carolina, and with both Tyler Hansborough and Ty Lawson deciding to return for another season, the Tar Heels have all five starters from last season back on the floor. No team in the ACC can match the talent, depth, and experience on this Carolina roster. They play fast and score quickly (88.6 ppg, .488 from the field last season) beat teams by the widest margins in the ACC (+16.1), and have an absurdly high rebounding margin (+11 – the closest team was +5). They also led the ACC in assists per game (16.8) and assist/turnover ratio (1.17). They don’t always play the best defense in the conference, but with their offense they don’t need to. It’s going to take an excellent performance for anyone in the ACC to beat them this season.
Others Considered. I’d be lying if I said I seriously considered anyone else. North Carolina is just that good. I’m not saying Duke (NCAA #3) isn’t a great team—they are—but I don’t think they’re quite there with Carolina this season. Duke is a pretty clear favorite to be runner-up this season, and for good reason. They return a talented base, including point guard Greg Paulus (11.4 ppg, 3.2 apg), shooting guard Jon Scheyer (11.7 ppg), forward Gerald Henderson, and center Kyle Singler (13.3 pgg, 5.8 rpg). They will also count on strong performances from new starter Lance Thomas, as well as bench contributions from Nolan Smith and freshman Miles Plumlee. They score almost as much as UNC (83.2 ppg), play even better defense (allowing only 69.4 ppg) and lead the conference in turnover margin (+4.8). The Wake Forest (NCAA #5) Demon Deacons get in this discussion based primarily on potential. They didn’t graduate a single impact player, return two of last season’s most talented freshmen in forward James Johnson (14.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and guard Jeff Teague (13.9 ppg, 1.83 steals), and bring in the ACC’s best recruiting class of forward Al-Farouq Aminu and centers Tony Woods and Ty Walker. If Coach Dino Gaudio can maximize the potential in this team then they could really make some noise this season.
Other Likely NCAA Bids. Miami (NCAA #6) and Clemson (NCAA #12) should both be good enough to make the tournament this year. Jack McClinton (17.7 ppg) is the clear leader of the Miami team – a great shooter who has improved his entire game. Miami relies on a strong defense (second in scoring defense last season at 67.9 ppg) and will do so again this season, hoping to ride that into the NCAA Tournament. Clemson hopes to join them, led by Trevor Brooker who is both a great scorer and rebounder. In the past the Tigers have relied on a speedy trapping defense that creates lots of turnovers, but much of the talent that made that style of play work in the past is gone this season. They’ll need Brooker and KC Rivers to step up and put points on the board this season. Virginia Tech (NIT) and Georgia Tech (NIT) are likely bubble teams this season. VT only lost one starter from last year’s squad and returns lots of young talent, including AD Vasallo and Jeff Allen. Georgia Tech lost a lot from last year’s team but brings back some young talent in a good recruiting class. Maryland (NIT) lost a great frontcourt and will rely on Greivis Vasquez to lead them to a potential NIT birth.
The Rest. NC State, Boston College, Florida State and Virginia are all likely to be staying home in March, although it is certainly possible for one or two to surprise and make some kind of noise this season and maybe grab an NIT birth. NC State lost its top three players from a season ago and will need lots of guys to step up this year. Boston College boasts a great player in Tyrese Rice, but lacks anyone to support him and I don’t see who could step up and really fill that role. Florida State loses as much as NC State did, if not more, and probably has even less talent that could step up. Virginia, like these other teams, lost its top three players from last season and another to injury. For now, everything is on Mamadi Diane’s shoulders and the prospects for this season are grim.
- Kentucky @ North Carolina – ESPN 9:00 (11.18.09)
- Ohio State @ Miami – ESPN 7:00 ACC/B10 Challenge (12.02.08)
- Duke @ Purdue – ESPN 9:15 ACC/B10 Challenge (12.02.08)
- Indiana @ Wake Forest – ESPN 7:00 ACC/B10 Challenge (12.03.08)
- North Carolina @ Michigan State – ESPN 9:15 ACC/B10 Challenge (12.03.08)
- NC State @ Davidson – FSN 12:00 (12.06.08)
- Miami @ Kentucky – ESPN 5:30 (12.06.08)
- Duke @ Xavier – CBS 2:00 (12.20.08)
- Davidson @ Duke – ESPN 7:00 (01.07.09)
- Georgetown @ Duke – CBS 1:30 (01.16.09)
- North Carolina – Maui Invitational
- Duke – Coaches Versus Cancer
- Boston College – Preseason NIT
- Virginia Tech – Puerto Rico Tip Off
- Miami – Paradise Jam
- Wake Forest – 76 Classic
- Maryland – Old Spice Classic
- Florida State – Las Vegas Invitational
The preseason/Thanksgiving tournaments should provide some good early challenges for these ACC teams, and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge usually provides some entertainment as well. Just about everyone has a couple of significant OOC games, and for some of the bubble teams these could be the RPI boosters they need to make a push into the NCAA Tournament.
Key Games. I’ve heard it said that every game is a big game in the ACC, and in many ways this is true. Obviously, though, some are bigger than others so let’s take a look:
- Clemson @ Miami – FSN 7:45 (12.21.08)
- North Carolina @ Wake Forest – FSN 8:00 (01.11.09)
- Duke @ Georgia Tech – ESPN 7:00 (01.14.09)
- Miami @ North Carolina – ESPN 9:00 (01.17.09)
- Virginia Tech @ Wake Forest – ESPN2 7:00 (01.21.09)
- Duke @ Clemson – ESPN 9:00 (02.03.09)
- North Carolina @ Virginia Tech – ESPN 7:00 (03.04.09)
- Duke @ North Carolina – CBS 4:00 (03.11.09)
As I’m sure you can imagine, it’s really difficult to just pick a handful of important ACC games, but these represent a smattering of some of the best teams and contenders playing each other. I promise, there will plenty of important and exciting games in the ACC all season long.
Did You Know. Tyler Hansbrough is the first AP National Player of the Year to return for another season since Shaquille O’Neal did it at LSU after winning the award in 1991. Pretty impressive, but maybe more surprising is that O’Neal returned – I’d be curious to know why he did. Also interesting, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski actually led a team to a gold medal for the second time over the summer. He had also been an assistant coach on the 1992 Dream Team. Unfortunately for him, coaches aren’t actually awarded medals, only players.
65 Team Era. By nearly every objective measure, the ACC has been the best league of the last quarter-century: the best overall NCAA record (234-116, .669), the most #1 seeds (21), the most titles (6), the most F4s (22) and the most S16s (63). These numbers are all driven by the fact that UNC and Duke have arguably been two of the top several programs in the nation during this time period. What if we removed these two from consideration – how would the ACC compare? After removing 130 wins, 19 #1 seeds, 5 titles, 18 F4s and 33 S16s, you’re left with a conference that would look a lot like the Atlantic 10 or CUSA in its best years. It’s pretty amazing just how dominant those two programs have been over the years, and will continue to be.
Final Thoughts. It’s going to be another fun year in the ACC this season. I grew up outside ACC country, but having been here for several years now I can honestly say there’s nothing quite like it. I was skeptical at first, but I’ve been convinced. I’m looking forward to another great season. The top tier of teams is excellent, and the conference has enough depth to be exciting from nearly top to bottom. Despite North Carolina’s unanimity at the top, I don’t believe it is impossible for someone else to knock them off. Duke could certainly do it, as could anyone else in that next tier of teams. It will also be interesting to see how Tyler Hansbrough’s injury affects the Tar Heels and the ACC as a whole.