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October 28, 2011

League preview: ACC

We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we'll work backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.

The breakdowns will become more in-depth as the leagues get bigger.

5. ACC

One look at our preseason All-ACC team gives you an idea of the expectations that await North Carolina this season.

Four of our five first-team selections are Tar Heels: Harrison Barnes (our preseason player of the year pick), John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller. UNC became the preseason pick to win the national title as soon as Barnes, Henson and Zeller decided to return to school instead of turning pro.

Their choices brought immediate references to the 2009 North Carolina squad that got much stronger when Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington chose to delay the start of their NBA careers by a season.

Of course, that 2009 team went on to win the national championship. No wonder so many people expect this season's North Carolina squad to follow suit, even as coach Roy Williams tries to point out that a talent-laden roster doesn't necessarily guarantee postseason success.

"We have the chance to be a very good team," Williams said. "We have the best mix because we have experienced talent. Most of the time, you have one or the other. You should always choose talent, but if you have experienced talent, it's even better."

Having the best team on paper also doesn't guarantee a conference championship.

As good as the Tar Heels are, they should face a formidable challenge from archrival Duke in a likely two-team race for the ACC title. The addition of guard Austin Rivers - the top overall recruit in the 2011 recruiting class - gives Duke one of the nation's top backcourts.

While this league features two legitimate Final Four contenders, it also has much less depth than usual. Florida State's size should help the Seminoles return to the NCAA tournament, and Miami's backcourt combination of Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott could give Jim Larranaga a successful first season on the job. But it's hard to imagine either team seriously challenging UNC or Duke.

And the bottom third of the league is as bad as it has been in quite some time. Maryland, Georgia Tech, Boston College and Wake Forest could be in for long seasons.

C Tyler Zeller, North Carolina (7-0/250, Sr.)
F Harrison Barnes, North Carolina (6-8/215, Soph.)
F John Henson, North Carolina (6-11/220, Jr.)
G Kendall Marshall, North Carolina (6-4/195, Soph.)
G Austin Rivers, Duke (6-4/200, Fr.)
F Travis McKie, Wake Forest (6-7/210, Soph.)
F Mike Scott, Virginia (6-8/237, Sr.)
G Seth Curry, Duke (6-2/180, Jr.)
G Malcolm Grant, Miami (6-1/188, Sr.)
G Durand Scott, Miami (6-5/202, Jr.)

North Carolina F Harrison Barnes
Duke G Austin Rivers

1. North Carolina
2. Duke
3. Florida State
4. Miami
5. Clemson
6. Virginia
7. Virginia Tech
8. N.C. State
9. Maryland
10. Georgia Tech
11. Boston College
12. Wake Forest

New coaches: Mark Gottfried at N.C. State (had been an ESPN commentator), Brian Gregory at Georgia Tech (had been coach at Dayton), Jim Larranaga at Miami (had been coach at George Mason), Mark Turgeon at Maryland (had been coach at Texas A&M)
Regular-season winner last season: North Carolina
Tournament winner last season: Duke
League RPI in each of past 3 seasons: 5th in 2010-11, 3rd in 2009-10, 2nd in 2008-09
NCAA bids the past five seasons: 28
2012 conference tournament: March 8-11, Atlanta

Best frontcourt: North Carolina. When Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller decided to stay in school, it assured that UNC would have the nation's best frontcourt. All three are potential lottery picks. After taking some time to adjust to big-time college basketball, Barnes was one of the nation's best players by the end of his freshman season. Henson led the ACC in blocks (3.2) and ranked second in the league in rebounds (10.1) last season. Zeller averaged 15.7 points and 7.2 rebounds and exceeded 20 points in each of North Carolina's four NCAA tournament games. The frontcourt will gain even more talent with the addition of 6-9 freshman James McAdoo, the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2011 recruiting class.
Best backcourt: Duke. Austin Rivers should develop into one of the ACC's top players as a true freshman. Rivers, the son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, was the No. 1 prospect in the 2011 recruiting class. The Blue Devils return two experienced guards in Seth Curry (9.0 points per game last season) and Andre Dawkins (8.1). Duke also adds Quinn Cook, the No. 38 prospect in the 2011 recruiting class.
Program on the rise: Virginia. The Cavaliers seem poised for a breakthrough in the third season of Tony Bennett's coaching tenure. Virginia's 16-15 record last season might not look that impressive, but the Cavaliers won four of their last five regular-season games. They return four starters from that team and also bring back Mike Scott, who missed 21 games last season with an ankle injury. Scott is the ACC's active career leader in points (963) and rebounds (679). Virginia has a chance to finish as high as fourth in the conference and should compete for an NCAA tournament bid.
Program on the decline: Boston College. The Eagles went 21-13 and earned an NIT bid last season largely because of first-team All-ACC pick Reggie Jackson and third-team selection Joe Trapani. They're both gone. In fact, all the starters have departed, forcing second-year Eagles coach Steve Donahue to start over. Donahue eventually could have Boston College in the top half of the conference standings, but the Eagles are destined to finish near the bottom of the league this season.
Coach on the rise: Clemson's Brad Brownell. He certainly knows how to make an instant impact. Brownell earned NCAA tournament bids in his debut seasons at UNC Wilmington and Wright State. He continued that trend last season by leading Clemson to a 22-12 record that included an NCAA tournament victory over UAB. Brownell owns a 189-97 career record in nine seasons at three schools. If Clemson gets back to the NCAA tournament this season without departed G Demontez Stitt and C Jerai Grant, Brownell should start gaining even more notice as a rising star.
Coach on the hot seat: Wake Forest's Jeff Bzdelik. Don't expect many coaching chances in the ACC anytime soon, now that half the league's members have made coaching changes since the end of the 2009-10 season. Bzdelik is the one coach who has the most reason to worry, though, as the Demon Deacons went 8-24 in his first season after reaching the NCAA tournament's second round the previous year under predecessor Dino Gaudio. His team might not be much better this season. Ty Walker has been suspended for the fall semester, while J.T. Terrell and Melvin Tabb have left the program.
Most overrated player: N.C. State F C.J. Leslie. When he arrived on campus last season as the No. 14 prospect in the 2010 recruiting class, Leslie was supposed to help North Carolina State end its NCAA tournament drought. The Wolfpack instead went 15-16 in a season that ended with Sidney Lowe's departure. Leslie averaged 11.0 points and 7.2 rebounds, but his inconsistency prevented the Wolfpack from ever establishing much momentum. He has plenty of time to develop into an outstanding college player, but he hasn't lived up to expectations thus far.
Most underrated player: Miami G Durand Scott. Perhaps because he plays so far from the ACC's Carolina and Virginia media base, Scott doesn't get much attention. He didn't even receive honorable mention when the All-ACC teams were announced last season. But the combination of Scott and Malcolm Grant (a third-team All-ACC pick last season) gives Miami one of the ACC's top backcourt duos. Grant thrives on a well-balanced game. He averaged 13.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.2 steals last season. He also has made himself into a much better shooter from the free-throw line and from 3-point range.

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Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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