For ACC, this is start of a new season

Duke at head of pack entering Saturday’s start of conference play

acarter@newsobserver.comJanuary 5, 2013 

TIM LEE — Raleigh

Back in October when media members gathered in Charlotte for the ACC’s annual basketball media day, three teams received first-place votes in the conference’s preseason poll: N.C. State, Duke and Florida State.

The Wolfpack entered the season as the league favorite for the first time since the David Thompson era. North Carolina, which didn’t receive a first-place vote, was picked second, while Duke came in third and Florida State fourth.

Since then, the Seminoles have emerged as perhaps the most disappointing team in the nation. North Carolina, with three nonconference losses – including an ugly defeat at Texas – hasn’t exactly met expectations. And N.C. State is still proving itself after a humbling 20-point defeat against Oklahoma State in November.

Which brings us to Duke. The Blue Devils lost their most potent scorer from a year ago. They entered the season surrounded by questions about their defense, about who would lead the offense at point guard and about where their points would come from.

Those questions seem less pressing now, after victories against Kentucky, Minnesota, Louisville and Ohio State. Duke has won its first 13 games, and it enters the start of ACC play, which begins Saturday, as the clear favorite to end the regular season in first place.

Even so, Saturday represents the start of a new season, the start of the most important season. Roy Williams, the North Carolina coach, described it recently as the start of “big-time basketball,” and he’s hoping his team is more ready for the big-time than it was at then-No. 1 Indiana in late November.

The start of conference play represents a new beginning for all teams, but it means different things for each of the 12 members of the ACC. For Duke, conference play offers a chance to prove that the Blue Devils didn’t peak in 2012. For N.C. State, it’s a chance to prove that the Wolfpack were worthy of their preseason accolades. And for UNC, the Tar Heels have a chance at redemption after a mostly-disappointing showing against non-conference opponents.

The race to Greensboro, and to the ACC tournament, begins today. Here’s a school-by-school look in order of revised predicted order of finish at where each team stands entering the start of league play, with a more detailed breakdown of the top four teams:

THE FAVORITE

1. Duke (13-0)

Then and now: Picked third in the preseason, Duke is now the clear favorite to win the ACC.

What’s to like: Just about everything. Mason Plumlee has played like an All-American, Quinn Cook has excelled at point guard and Seth Curry has been the consistent perimeter scorer that Duke has to have.

What’s not to like: Duke hasn’t been a great rebounding team, especially offensively. A lack of second-chance opportunities could prove costly in close games.

Best case: The Blue Devils’ dominance carries over into ACC play and they enter the league tournament as the top seed.

Worst case: Teams figure out a way to limit Plumlee on the inside and Duke goes cold from the outside and loses a few games it shouldn’t. Still, it’s difficult to foresee Duke finishing worse than second.

THE CONTENDERS

2. N.C. State (11-2)

Then and now: The Wolfpack entered the season as the ACC favorite but are now looking up at Duke.

What’s to like: Balance. Six N.C. State players are averaging at least 9.1 points, led by C.J. Leslie’s 15.8. Leslie and point guard Lorenzo Brown have been as good as advertised and barring the unexpected there might not be a more capable starting five in the country by the time the postseason arrives.

What’s not to like: The 20-point loss against Oklahoma State was troubling, and this still seems like a team that turns it on and off when it wants. The Wolfpack is also shooting just 65.9 percent from the free-throw line – a stat that will only grow more uncomfortable late in close games.

Best case: N.C. State’s intensity matches its talent and the Wolfpack beats out Duke to finish first.

Worst case: The Wolfpack sleepwalks through a few more troubling performances to finish third.

3. Maryland (12-1)

Then and now: The Terrapins were picked sixth in the preseason but enter ACC play on a 12-game winning streak.

What’s to like: Alex Len has been a force on the interior, and six others are averaging at least six points per game. The Terrapins played Kentucky tough in defeat to open the season and since have won 12 straight.

What’s not to like: The Terrapins are young and inexperienced. Three of their top five scorers are sophomores and another is a freshman. It’s difficult to project how they’ll handle the rigors of conference play.

Best case: Maryland, led by Len on the inside and Dezmine Wells and Nick Faust on the outside, continues to surprise and finishes the regular season in second place.

Worst case: The ongoing 12-game winning streak proves to be a mirage and the Terps don’t finish among the top three. It’s difficult to envision them sliding too far down the standings.

4. North Carolina (10-3)

Then and now: UNC was picked to finish third but an underwhelming nonconference performance has cast doubt about the Tar Heels.

What’s to like: The recent victory against UNLV was a positive sign for a team that had been in desperate need of something positive. James Michael McAdoo and Reggie Bullock have provided glimpses of becoming consistent go-to players.

What’s not to like: The Tar Heels have been inconsistent and sloppy at times. Cohesion has been an issue, too, according to McAdoo and Bullock. The 18-point loss on the road against struggling Texas was a low point.

Best case: UNC puts it all together and finishes in second place.

Worst case: Familiar problems – lack of energy, free throw woes, defensive lapses – continue to plague UNC, which struggles to finish .500 and finds itself on the NCAA tournament bubble.

THE COULD-BE CONTENDERS

5. Virginia (10-3)

Then and now: Picked to finish seventh, the Cavaliers haven’t struggled as many thought they would without the departed All-ACC forward Mike Scott.

Best case: Led by Joe Harris on the perimeter and Akil Mitchell on the inside, Virginia plays its way into a top-four finish.

Worst case: The Cavaliers’ deliberate, slow pace of play – the kind few teams want to play against – can’t compensate for some talent deficiencies, sending Virginia to the bottom half of the standings.

6. Miami (9-3)

Then and now: Picked to finish fifth, Miami is trending downward given the loss of Reggie Johnson to a thumb injury.

Best case: Durand Scott, Shane Larkin and Kenny Kadji collectively fill Johnson’s void offensively, the team gets by defensively and Miami is in the hunt for a top-four finish when Johnson returns in about six weeks.

Worst case: The team fails to overcome the extended loss of Johnson and the Hurricanes are out of the NCAA tournament picture in early February.

7. Georgia Tech (10-2)

Then and now: Picked to finish ninth, Georgia Tech enters conference play on a six-game winning streak.

Best case: Freshman Marcus Georges-Hunt and Robert Carter, the Jackets’ leading scorers, carry over their success into ACC play and the Jackets compete for an NCAA tournament berth.

Worst case: The fast start against weak competition proves to be fool’s gold.

8. Virginia Tech (8-4)

Then and now: Picked to finish 10th, the Hokies won their first seven games before losing four of their past six.

Best case: Senior Erick Green, the ACC’s leading scorer with an average of 24.4 points per game, carries the Hokies to a fifth-place finish and a potential NCAA tournament bid.

Worst case: Two recent blowout losses against Colorado State and BYU prove to be the norm instead of aberrations, and Virginia Tech struggles to escape the bottom third of the standings.

THE OTHERS

9. Florida State (8-5)

Then and now: Picked to finish fourth, the Seminoles have been by far the most disappointing team in the ACC. The team’s latest debacle came in a 78-72 loss at Auburn. Florida State has the pieces to be competitive but has shown few signs that it will be.

10. Clemson (8-4)

Then and now: Clemson was picked to finish eighth in the ACC, and that seemed reasonable until a 23-point loss on Dec. 19 at Coastal Carolina, which has a losing record. Now, finishing in eighth place might be an accomplishment for the beleaguered Tigers.

11/12. Boston College/Wake Forest

Then and now: Boston College and Wake Forest entered the season in a class of their own at the bottom of the ACC and both teams have done little to change that perception. Combined, they’ve lost three games against sub-100 teams in the RPI – the same number Florida State has lost on its own. The Eagles and Deacons have shown small signs of progress – like Wake’s surprise victory against Xavier and the Eagles’ five-game winning streak – but it’d be a surprise if either team finished higher than 11th.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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