Tipoff nears for No. 6 N.C. State, No. 8 Duke, No. 11 UNC

N.C. State, Duke, UNC open with top rankings, questions

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 9, 2012 

Without playing a game, the basketball teams at N.C. State, Duke and North Carolina already have combined to make history. They are for the first time all beginning a season ranked among the top 15 teams in the nation.

Now the No. 6 Wolfpack, No. 8 Blue Devils and No. 11 Tar Heels will hope to begin to prove themselves. All three begin the season Friday night with home games against opponents who, at least on paper, appear overmatched.

And while it will be awhile before we discover these teams’ true character – as well as their strengths and weaknesses – these opening games could provide plenty of early clues about where each could be headed, and what questions that surround them might linger awhile.

Here are storylines worth watching:

No. 6 N.C. State vs. Miami (Ohio), 7 p.m.

•  How does a heralded group of freshmen – especially Rodney Purvis and T.J. Warren – integrate with veterans?

The Wolfpack had its faults a season ago, but chemistry never seemed to be one of them. The team clicked, especially during its run to the Sweet 16. But greater things are expected this season.

Both Lorenzo Brown, the returning point guard, and C.J. Leslie, the junior forward, enter the season as ACC player of the year candidates. The freshmen class includes three McDonald’s All-Americans – Purvis, Warren and Tyler Lewis – and expectations have soared for them, too. But it’s likely to take time for this group to mesh.

•  Can Richard Howell stay on the court and out of foul trouble?

Howell played an important role last season, but he’s even more valuable this season. With the departure of DeShawn Painter, Howell represents the Wolfpack’s only real post presence. This means he’ll have to manage to stay out of foul trouble.

That will be a challenge. Howell fouled out of five games last season, and finished 14 more with four fouls. He had at least three fouls in 29 games.

•  How much will coach Mark Gottfried experiment with the rotation in the first game, game one, and early in the season?

Gottfried said Thursday that he’s “still debating” on the fifth starter to join Leslie, Brown, Howell and Scott Wood.

With the likes of Leslie, Warren, Purvis and Wood, the Wolfpack doesn’t lack for talented, versatile wing players who can score and play a variety of roles. That said, there are only two players who will set in their positions: Brown at point guard and Howell in the post.

No. 8 Duke vs. Ga. State, 7 p.m.

•  Who emerges as a consistent, go-to scorer after the loss of Austin Rivers?

Duke was rarely an explosive offensive team a season ago; it failed to score more than 70 points in its final four games and didn’t crack 80 after an early-February victory at North Carolina. But their best scorer, clearly, was Rivers, the freshman guard who departed for the NBA.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski has said he wants this team playing through Mason Plumlee. Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils were too balanced last season and would be better if Plumlee dominates.

“I’d like Mason to score 25 a game,” Krzyzewski said.

Seth Curry, second last season with an average of 13.2 points, will have a chance to become Duke’s top perimeter threat. But he’ll have to become more consistent and improve his shooting. He made just 10 of his 41 attempts from the field in Duke’s final four games last season.

•  Does this team set an early tone and get back to typical Duke defense?

Curry said it best last month at the ACC’s annual basketball media day: “I knew we weren’t as good of a defensive team as we needed to be (last season). We’re coming into this year with a key focal point.”

As it should be.

Under Krzyzewski, Duke has rarely been a mediocre defensive team. But the Blue Devils were last season, when they ranked 10th in the ACC in field goal percentage defense. If things have changed defensively, those changes should be evident from the first game.

•  What can we begin to expect from freshmen Amile Jefferson and Rasheed Sulaimon?

Given the loss of Rivers and the questions about scoring, Duke needs contributions from Sulaimon, a McDonald’s All-American, and Jefferson, who chose Duke over Kentucky, N.C. State and others.

No. 11 North Carolina vs. Gardner-Webb, 7 p.m.

•  With an abundance of perimeter players and shooters, can North Carolina (finally) become a good shooting team?

North Carolina coach Roy Williams thought he had a capable shooting team last season and, he said after the Tar Heels’ exhibition victory against Shaw, “I think this is a team that’s going to be even better than that.”

Problem was, North Carolina rarely proved it last season. The Tar Heels made 33.4 percent of their 3-point attempts, which ranked eighth in the ACC. In conference games, North Carolina was second-to-last in the league in 3-point shooting. Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston, Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland all believe they are good shooters, and now is the time to prove it.

•  How prepared is freshman point guard Marcus Paige to run the offense?

Williams has been in this position plenty of times, starting a freshman point guard. He did it at Kansas, with Jacque Vaughn and others. He’s done it at North Carolina, with Bobby Frasor, Ty Lawson and Kendall Marshall. And now, Williams is confident Paige is ready to run his offense.

•  How does North Carolina go about generating offense in the post?

Williams’ best offenses have benefited from productive post players. Sean May. Tyler Hansbrough. Tyler Zeller. Outside of sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina enters the season without a proven interior presence. And McAdoo isn’t a traditional back-to-the-basket player.

Williams said Thursday he hasn’t settled on a starting lineup, outside of McAdoo, Paige, Strickland and Bullock. If the 6-foot-10, 260-pound freshman Joel James doesn’t start in the opener, it’s likely only a matter of time before he does.

Raleigh News & Observer staff writers Joe Giglio and Laura Keeley contributed.

Carter: 919-829-8944.

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