Teams: Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami (FL), North Carolina State, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest
Conference Contenders: North Carolina, Duke, Florida State
2010-11 Postseason Players:
NCAA: Duke (1 seed, lost to Arizona in the Sweet 16); North Carolina (2 seed, lost to Kentucky in the Elite Eight); Florida State (10 seed, lost to VCU in the Sweet 16); Clemson (12 seed, lost to West Virginia in the second round)
NIT: Boston College (1 seed, lost to Northwestern in the second round); Virginia Tech (1 seed, lost to Wichita State in the second round) Miami (FL) (2 seed, lost to Alabama in the Quarterfinals)
1. North Carolina begins the season as one of four major title favorites along with Kentucky, Ohio State and UConn, but experience is in UNC's favor- they return all five starters and a heck of a lot of depth, including five or six first-round talents on this roster. Expect ACC Rookie of the Year Harrison Barnes to pick-up where he left off (20 points per game in the season's final 17 games vs. 11.8 in the first 20), but also John Henson (11.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.2 blocks per game, ACC Defensive Player of the Year) and Tyler Zeller (15.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks). When Kendall Marshall took over point guard duties for Larry Drew II, the up-tempo offense was injected with even more octane (8.8 points, 8.5 assists as the starter). So not only are these stars ready to build on the previous year, but Reggie Bullock is due for an improvement after struggles and Roy Williams brings in two elite freshmen- James McAdoo and PJ Hairston.
2. Much has been made of the departures of Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler and rightfully so, those guys were good, very good. But let's not count out Duke's returning talent. Guards Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins were dead-on from the perimeter- combining to shoot 43.1 from 3-point range and accruing two of the highest offensive ratings in all of college basketball. Big men Mason and Miles Plumlee are joined by their youngest brother Marshall and junior forward Ryan Kelly, a stretch-the-floor 4 man who excelled this summer on the team's trip to China. All of the focus is surrounding Duke freshman Austin Rivers, an unbelievable scorer from pretty much anywhere on the court, but will he handle the rock and run the offense? Or will Coach K need to count on another first-year, Quinn Cook, to lead the team?
3. Florida State's blueprint for success remains the same- defense, defense, defense. The Seminoles were the top defensive team in the nation- holding opponents to 40 percent shooting from inside the arc and just 30.6 percent from behind it. They use their length and athleticism well to force turnovers and block shots on the interior and despite the losses of Chris Singleton and Derwin Kitchen, there are six players in the frontcourt rotation- starter Bernard James, likely starter Okaro White and a combination of Xavier Gibson, Terrance Shannon and Jon Kreft. White and Gibson can score from the perimeter, possessing the athleticism and quickness to play inside or out, while Shannon, Kreft, and James are more likely to bang down low. Look out for a big year from combo-guard Ian Miller- a developing point-guard with an NBA future.
4. Former North Carolina State Head coach Sidney Lowe is gone and replaced by Mark Gottfried, the former Alabama coach, but left behind is some talent capable of challenging some of the league's top teams. Point guard Ryan Harrow did transfer out, but NBA-talent CJ Leslie, an uber-athletic 4 will be counted on even more heavily; he is a strong rebounder on both ends of the floor and reliable defensive presence, but as he improves his post and mid-range game, Leslie and the Wolfpack will shine. His classmate, Lorenzo Brown will take over point guard duties and as a scorer, he needs to improve his 3-point shooting, an area where NC State really struggled. The team's best 3-point option, Scott Wood and his 41.9 percent accuracy mark do return as well. Look for breakouts from junior forwards Richard Howell and DeShawn Painter and Gottfried relies on their inside scoring.
5. Going out on a limb here, but Virginia should be much better than their one-game over .500 record in 2011-12. No more losses to Seattle or Wake Forest. With four starters returning, the Cavaliers actually return fifth-year senior Mike Scott back to his starting role at power forward- he averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds in his ten games before injury a year ago. Coach Tony Bennett will also see improvement from sophomore wings KT Harrell and Joe Harris and backup Sammy Zeglinski could move into a starting role with his court vision and shooting range. Last season's top recruit James Johnson will play in his first season with the team this year, joining a three-man recruiting class highlighted by wings Malcolm Brogdon and Paul Jesperson.
6. The Hurricanes were one of our "surprise" teams in 2011-12, but unfortunately, Miami sinks back into the pack due to a knee injury that will cost an already-hefty and out of shape Reggie Johnson about half the season. A major problem with last season's Frank Haith-coached team was their inability to come out on top in close games. In ACC play, the Hurricanes lost four straight games decided by four points or less against more talented teams. Along with Johnson, backup Julian Gamble will be sidelined the entire season with a knee injury. Now, without size or bulk in the frontcourt, the team will be even more reliant on guards Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant- two strong perimeter shooters. Unfortunately, Miami will miss Reggie Johnson and his dominating rebounding capabilities too much to get into the NCAAs.
7. Clemson made their run into the NCAA Tournament behind some stingy defense that ranked 25th in holding opponents to 43.6 percent from inside 3-point arc, while protecting the basket with a slew of blocks and forced turnovers. The Tigers lose their top two players, starting guard Demontez Stitt and forward Jerai Grant, but can re-load with three starters and some significant contributors returning. Diminutive point guard Andre Young did a solid job running the offense with efficiency and broke plays off and created for himself when the opportunities arose. Devin Booker, the brother of Clemson-great Trevor, is now in his junior season and teams up with athletic 4-man Milton Jennings to create an underrated frontcourt, both offensively and defensively. The top recruit in the class is four-star forward Bernard Sullivan who will add depth to the frontcourt as well.
8. 10. There is a solid foundation to build on at Georgia Tech - Mfon Udofia and Glen Rice combined for 20 points per game, while deferring most of the offense to now-New York Knick guard Iman Shumpert. In the frontcourt, Julian Royal is a four-star recruit due to his ability to score both inside and out. He will complement 6'11", 260-pound center Daniel Miller very well in the paint; Miller is one of the top shot-blockers and rebounders who has breakout potential this season for the Yellow Jackets.
9. The Hokies have been on the bubble every year and year is finally different - Virginia Tech will not contend for an NCAA Tournament spot. The Hokies lost three starters, including 2,200+ point scorer Malcolm Delaney and 1,700+ point scorer Jeff Allen. The key to finishing in the middle of the pack will be standout freshman Dorian Finney-Smith and the return of Victor Davila. Finney-Smith is a smooth, combo-forward, while Davila is a wide-bodied low-post banger who gets to the foul line often, but unfortunately, rarely converts (46.4 percent).
10. Maryland lost two huge pieces in coach Gary Williams and starting center, Jordan Williams, an all-league caliber player for the Terps. Mark Turgeon starts his regime with only one of last season's top six scorers and only two players on the roster that played 10 minutes per game. Not exactly a ton of potential here. There will be a huge weight on point guard Terrell Stoglin, an 11.5 point, 3.5 assist per game player from last season and he will be in charge of getting top recruit Nick Faust his scoring opportunities.
11. Wake Forest will once again be at the near the bottom of a rebuilding conference, but take a step up with three returning starters. The team's second-leading scorer, promising guard, has left the team and university due to personal issues, a huge blow to the program. Expect sophomore Travis McKie to have another strong year, but the Demon Deacons will still struggle for the second-consecutive year.
12. Steve Donahue has his work cut out for him with Boston College - all five starters, including first-round pick Reggie Jackson, but also two role players as well. A nine-man recruiting class is highlighted by four-star forward Ryan Anderson, but there are many unknowns on this roster.
Top 5 NBA Prospects:
Harrison Barnes, North Carolina: Top 3 overall
A long, athletic wing who had a heck of second-half of the season after a slow start.
Austin Rivers, Duke: Mid-to-late lottery
The top-recruit in the nation according to most accounts, Rivers is a scoring machine and will help Duke ease past the graduation of Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and the loss of Kyrie Irving. He has unlimited range and excellent fundamentals.
James McAdoo, North Carolina: Late-lottery-to-mid 1st round
This five-star forward is a throw-back 4-man that is highly skilled and fundamentally sound. McAdoo is active on both ends of the floor, especially as a rebounder, but will give Roy Williams and the Tar Heels even more depth, championship-level talent and depth, in their frontcourt.
John Henson, North Carolina: Late-lottery-to-mid 1st round
Long and lean, this athletic 4-man needs to add muscle to his frame, but is a tremendous rebounder and shot-blocker.
Although his stats won't blow you away, Plumlee has good size and excellent mobility and athleticism and a motor that never stops.
Tyler Zeller, North Carolina: Mid-to-late 1st round
He had some huge games for the Tar Heels last season due to his size and finishing ability around the rim.
C.J Leslie, NC State: Late 1st round
Although a bit undersized with a narrow frame, Leslie is a big-time athlete who moves like a guard and has an emerging perimeter game
Kendall Marshall, North Carolina: Late 1st - early 2nd round
His court vision and passing abilities are unmatched in college basketball, but lacks the perimeter shooting to keep defenses honest
PJ Hairston, North Carolina: 2nd round
Hairston should earn immediate playing time due to his range and 3-point accuracy for a North Carolina team that shot just 32.8 percent from behind the arc in 2010-11- good for 248th in the country.
Reggie Johnson, Miami (FL): 2nd round - undrafted
The bulky, physical center will miss half the season rehabbing a knee injury, but his size and rebounding are attractive to teams
New Places (key losses to teams by way of, transfer or early-entry to the NBA):
Ryan Harrow, NC State: Transferred to Kentucky
Kyrie Irving, Duke: Declared early for the NBA Draft
Reggie Jackson, Boston College: Declared early for the NBA Draft
Iman Shumpert, Georgia Tech: Declared early for the NBA Draft
Rakim Sanders, Boston College: Transferred to Fairfield
Chris Singleton, Florida State: Declared early for the NBA Draft
Jordan Williams, Maryland: Declared early for the NBA Draft
New Faces (key additions to teams by way of transfer or incoming freshman):
Nick Faust, Maryland: Faust is an long, athletic in-state product with very good all-around skill. With three starters gone from last season's 19-win team, Faust will be one of the highlights this season in the conference.
PJ Hairston, UNC: See Above
James McAdoo, UNC: See Above
Austin Rivers, Duke: See Above
Marshall Plumlee, Duke: Plumlee completes the brotherly trio in the Duke frontcourt. He's an agile, 6'11" center that runs the floor well and can score around the rim. Plumlee is another body that is important in terms of depth as Duke takes on challengers North Carolina and Florida State's talented bigs.
Julian Royal, Georgia Tech: Brian Gregory needs some building blocks if he wants to return Georgia Tech to the NCAA Tournament and it all starts with his 6'8" forward. Royal can score with his back to the basket, but also face-up and knock down mid-range jumpers.
Dorian Finney-Smith, Virginia Tech: An in-state prize for coach Seth Greenberg. This versatile combo-forward can be a matchup nightmare with his size (6'7"), athleticism and quickness. He attacks the rim well off the bounce, knocks down shots from the perimeter and is aggressive on the glass.
Awtwan Space, Florida State: Space is a prototypical, lengthy and athletic wing that can do it all and will help Seminole fans start to forget about the early-departure of Chris Singleton. He can score from the perimeter or post-up smaller defenders and oozes potential moving forward.
Ten Non-Conference Games To Watch
North Carolina vs. Michigan State (Carrier Classic) - November 11
NC State vs. Vanderbilt - November 19
Duke @ Ohio State (ACC-Big Ten Challenge) - November 29
Wisconsin @ North Carolina (ACC-Big Ten Challenge) - November 30