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
1. Duke at Wisconsin, Dec. 3: The Badgers return the main parts of Bo Ryan’s first Final Four team. They are also only one of two teams to beat Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
2. UNC at Kentucky, Dec. 13: John Calipari’s high school all-stars got schooled by the Tar Heels last year in Chapel Hill. Many of them returned for a sophomore year, though, and Cal has added some impressive reinforcements to the country’s preseason No. 1 team.
3. UNC at N.C. State, Jan. 14: It will be almost impossible to top last year’s overtime classic in Raleigh, but it will still be entertaining to watch these two teams give it a try.
4. UNC at Duke, Feb. 18: The first Duke-Carolina game is always the more interesting one, especially when it’s at Cameron.
5. Syracuse at Duke, Feb. 28: Jacket-peeling Jim Boeheim instantly entered ACC lore during the Orange’s loss in Durham last year. Both games between the hall-of-fame coaches last season were fantastic.
5 names to watch
1. Marcus Paige, UNC: Paige’s transformation to an elite player last season was dramatic and timely for the Tar Heels. He won’t have to do as much this season but he remains an incredible competitor and a clutch performer.
2. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: What was in the water in Tarboro? The Cards hope Harrell can dominate the ACC the way Tarboro’s Todd Gurley dominated the SEC in football this season.
3. Tyus Jones, Duke: Big man Jahlil Okafor is the headliner but Jones is cut from the Jay Williams mold. Plus, you can trust Duke’s track record with point guards.
4. Trevor Lacey, N.C. State: The Alabama transfer has already established himself the Wolfpack’s leader in practice. Now Mark Gottfried is counting on Lacey to lead the team to a fourth straight NCAA bid.
5. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: An academic suspension cost the senior guard the second half of the 2013-14 season. Notre Dame’s season torpedoed without him.
1. Louisville: The Cardinals have three national titles, including one in 2013, a hall-of-famer in Rick Pitino and one of the best home arenas in college basketball.
2. Jahlil Okafor, Duke: The Blue Devils need “Jah” to be live up to the hype when the calendar turns March. That’s something recent prep wunderkinds Harrison Barnes, Andrew Wiggins and Duke’s Jabari Parker couldn’t do last year.
3. Danny Manning, Wake Forest: The new Deacs’ coach finally comes home to N.C. Too bad he couldn’t bring the 1988 national title with him.
4. Sheldon McClellan, Miami: Of all the new transfers in the league, the junior guard from Texas brings the best numbers (13.5 points per game with the Longhorns in 2012-13.)
5. Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech: The Hokies made the move of the offseason in the ACC by hiring Williams from Marquette.
1. T.J. Warren, N.C. State: Last year’s ACC player of the year made scoring look so easy.
2. College Park: Cole Field House. Lenny Bias. Gary Williams. The Mike Krzyzewski-Photoshopped-as-Lee-Harvey-Oswald on the Terp Town message board thread. There was only one Maryland.
3. Joe Harris, Virginia: Joe “Cool” delivered Virginia’s first ACC title since 1976.
4. K.J. McDaniels, Clemson: Talent on top of talent on top of talent, McDaniels somehow carried a pedestrian Clemson team to a 10-8 ACC finish.
5. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse: Syracuse has a new hot-shot point guard in Kaleb Joseph, but the wispy Ennis was merciless in the clutch.
Predicted order of finish
1. UNC (15-3): Freshman wing Justin Jackson just might be what everyone wanted Harrison Barnes to be at UNC. And he has the luxury of playing with an established star in Marcus Paige. Throw in slimmed-down sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks, who has the potential to be consistently outstanding this season, and the Heels have all the right parts.
2. Duke (14-4): The main parts (freshmen Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor) have the potential to be awesome. Will the ancillary parts (Rasheed Suliamon, Quinn Cook) fall in line and do their jobs?
3. Virginia (13-5): If junior wing Justin Anderson and senior forward Darion Atkins can fill the leadership void left by Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, the Cavaliers will push the Blues for another ACC title.
4. Louisville (12-6): Sophomore guard Terry Rozier will be counted on to step in for Russ Smith, star of the 2013 national title game. But the Cards will need to find help for junior Montrezl Harrell on the inside.
5. Syracuse (11-7): The Orange are expected to churn along but C.J. Fair (16.5 ppg) and Tyler Ennis (12.9 ppg) were a potent combo. Veteran coach Jim Boeheim needs a big leap from senior forward Rakeem Christmas to contend in the ACC.
6. N.C. State (9-9): The Wolfpack will attempt to replace T.J. Warren’s ACC-best 24.9 points per game by committee. There’s enough new talent, namely Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey and freshman forward Abdul-Malik Abu, that a step up by sophomores Cat Barber and Kyle Washington will get the Wolfpack into the NCAA tournament for a fourth straight year under Mark Gottfried.
7. Miami (9-9): Jim Larranaga strung together an overhauled roster with chicken wire and produced a respectable 17-16 record. With improved talent, Big 12 transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas), Larranaga will have the Canes back in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.
8. Pittsburgh (9-9): Jamie Dixon can grind out NCAA tournament bids with the best of them. He will have to without utility knife Lamar Patterson, who meant as much to the Panthers as Warren did to the Wolfpack.
9. Florida State (8-10): The Noles are a trendy NCAA pick behind leading scorer Aaron Thomas (14.5 points), but guard Ian Miller (13.7 ppg) and forward Okaro White (13.6 ppg) will be missed.
10. Boston College (7-11): The Eagles bit off more than they could chew, scheduling-wise last year, and it cost Steve Donahue his job. If Jim Christian can get graduate transfers Dimitri Batten and Aaron Brown to hit the ground running, the Eagles could surprise.
11. Notre Dame (7-11): The ACC media at large must know something about Notre Dame that I don’t. Jerian Grant is excellent, but Mike Brey just doesn’t have enough talent on the roster to finish in the predicted seventh place.
12. Wake Forest (6-12): The Deacs might have been a tournament team with point guard recruit Shelton Mitchell (committed, but eventually chose Vanderbilt) and forward Bill Moto (transferred), but Danny Manning has started quickly on the recruiting trail and has given the fan base hope for better tomorrows.
13. Clemson (6-12): Brad Brownell can really coach, last year’s 10-8 ACC finish with K.J. McDaniels and a box of candle sticks proved that, but he has to improve his recruiting. You can only out-scheme talent for so long.
14. Georgia Tech (5-13): Brian Gregory’s gambling on “Transfer Roulette” to save his job. Demarco Cox (Ole Miss), Charles Mitchell (Maryland), Josh Heath (USF) and Robert Sampson (ECU) will all have to hit for Gregory to survive.
15. Virginia Tech (4-14): Great hire by the Hokies, superb really, but the cavalry is not here yet for Buzz Williams. He’s trying to win ACC games with a Sun Belt roster.