Forgive us if you thought the ACC was a two team league as North Carolina and Duke are really the only teams that have received publicity at all this off-season/early-start to the 2011-12 season. And rightfully so, North Carolina returns all five starters and has several more key pieces returning off the bench. Duke has just two returning starters from 32-win Sweet 16 team, but the top freshman guard, Austin Rivers, combining with two other perimeter snipers.
But, the ACC is showing much more depth than just these top two teams. Florida State has a bevy of lengthy and athletic big men to throw at opposing teams, locking down the inside, but the guards are also buying into coach Leonard Hamilton's defensive wizardry. Just last game, the Seminoles put the clamps down on South Alabama's perimeter-offense, holding the Jaguars without a 3-point basket on 24 attempts. The Seminoles have forced 63 turnovers, a big reason why they have trailed for 3 minutes and 26 seconds throughout their four total games thus far.
After UNC, Duke and Florida State, the ACC was presumed to be a crapshoot with these teams the only ones likely to make postseason play in the NCAA Tournament, but North Carolina State has emerged as a fourth tournament team in the young 2011-12 season. Even with the losses of starting point guard, Ryan Harrow, who transferred to Kentucky, and Tracy Smith, an Honorable Mention All-ACC selection, the Wolfpack have emerged with their best team since 2006-06, their last NCAA Tournament appearance. Under the leadership of new head coach Mark Gottfried, sophomores C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown have developed into two of the better players in the conference. Leslie, a rangy 6'8" forward, can play inside or out, while Brown has moved from shooting guard to point guard is leads the team with 6.6 assists per game at this juncture. Gottfried has a strong interior presence in the paint with center DeShawn Painter and Richard Howell. That means the starting lineup will feature 6'9" Painter, 6'8" Howell, 6'8" Leslie, 6'5" shooting guard C.J. Williams and the 6'5" Brown at point. Few teams can matchup with their outstanding size and length, but also matching the Wolfpack's energy and hustle.
In this down year in the ACC, N.C. State has an opportunity in front of it. Its young players can continue to buy into Gottfried's system and continue to develop into a team that can challenge the likes of in-state rivals Duke, North Carolina and Florida State as well.