It probably didn’t feel like it at the time, but North Carolina coach Roy Williams dodged a bullet on Oct. 29 at ACC Operation Basketball in Charlotte.
While Williams was inundated with questions about the academic scandal at UNC during media day, Duke was the runaway pick to win the ACC.
The Blue Devils, with two fantastic freshmen (forward Jahlil Okafor and guard Tyus Jones) and the game’s best coach, got 41 first-place votes to win the ACC.
The Tar Heels, with a veteran team and the league’s best player (guard Marcus Paige), got only 12 votes.
That’s good for Ol’ Roy, even if he didn’t know it at the time. Start with the obvious: A vote of confidence from the ACC media has been more of a jinx than an accurate premonition.
It’s not that the media was just wrong. The first-place vote has been a whammo the past two seasons.
N.C. State was the pick in 2013. The Wolfpack finished fifth in the ACC and lost its opening-round NCAA tournament game.
Duke was the pick in 2014. The Blue Devils finished third in the ACC and lost their opening-round NCAA tournament game.
Meanwhile, the two teams that actually won, Miami in 2013 and Virginia in 2014, were filled with veteran players. If you go back to UNC’s regular-season title in 2012 – with Tyler Zeller (senior) and John Henson (junior) – it’s pretty clear experience still matters in the ACC race.
This season, Williams will have the best of both worlds. He can start three juniors – Paige, J.P. Tokoto and Brice Johnson – and has three talented freshmen, especially wing Justin Jackson. The beauty of UNC’s young players, compared with Duke’s, is they don’t have to carry the mail.
Duke will be UNC’s top challenger, with Virginia and Big East powers Louisville and Syracuse.
The ACC has a real chance at sending eight or nine teams to the NCAA tournament, too.
But the team at the top in the end will be UNC.
5 games to watch
5 names to watch
Predicted order of finish