If there’s one thing that will be true this year in ACC basketball, it’s that the Duke Blue Devils will be aiming to avoid another upset to the likes of Lehigh University. After being knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round last year by the Mountain Hawks, Duke will be moving into conference play with a purpose, hoping to show teams they’re legit contenders.
Not surprisingly, Duke’s first round loss was only the second time since 1990 that the Blue Devils failed to win at least one game in the tournament. Much more shocking is the fact that in the past 11 years, Duke has only made the Final Four twice. Fortunately for the Cameron Crazies, the pieces seem to be in place to make such a run this year.
Three of Duke’s top four scorers return, each a senior on the Coach Mike Krzyewski-lead team. In Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly, and Mason Plumlee, the Blue Devils certainly have one thing the defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats don’t and that’s experience.
The team that will most likely give Duke a run for its money is N.C. State. The Wolfpack return four starters from a squad that made a run to the Sweet 16 last year. Additionally, the school will be bringing in three McDonald’s All-Americans as part of its top ten recruiting class. N.C. State hasn’t won an ACC Championship in over 20 years, but the fruit is ripe for the picking this season. The Wolfpack will be lead by junior C.J. Leslie, who topped the team in scoring and blocks last year. If N.C. State can replicate and add onto its 2011-2012 success, the team could stop the Blue Devils from reaching their lofty expectations.
Along the same lines as the SEC’s Wildcats, the North Carolina Tarheels enter this season with most of its top talent now in the NBA. The team lost four first-round draft picks, leaving Coach Roy Williams with a dearth of proven talent. Fortunately for the Tarheels, they’ve been in this bind before. After their 2005 championship, they lost the likes of Raymond Felton, Sean May, and Marvin Williams, and still finished the next season ranked in the top ten. The Tarheels will have to get top quality play from their inexperienced squad in order to compete at the highest level. Only three players – Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock, and James Michael McAdoo – have actually started a game at UNC.
Outside of the top three schools, all of which come from the same state, the Maryland Terrapins may be a surprise contender if an upper echelon team slips up. Second-year Head Coach Mark Turgeon seems to have a better-rounded team and will likely improve upon his 6-10 ACC record last year. Senior James Padgett will lead a talented, but young squad that might be moving back towards the top of the conference.
The ACC’s two Sunshine State teams – Florida State and Miami – may also rock the boat this year. The Seminoles though must deal with the loss of four starters, while the Hurricanes will rely on Seniors Durand Scott and Reggie Johnson to improve upon their respectable 9-7 conference mark from last season.
Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Clemson will likely all have some shining moments against the ACC’s top talent, but ultimately will be left running in the middle of the pack. Wake Forest and Georgia Tech probably won’t spark too much interest this year, but the Yellow Jackets may show signs of breaking through in the next two or three years.
Much like the conference’s football season, the Boston College Eagles will probably be the league’s basement dwellers. A 4-12 conference mark might be improved, but only with better play by the plethora of sophomores on Coach Steve Donahue’s team. The most glaring statistic for the Eagles was their dreadful scoring last year. Their 59.1 points per game ranked dead last in the ACC. If they can’t improve that this year, they’ll once again be viewed as the league’s doormat.