If we know anything about the 2012-2013 ACC basketball season, we know that it will begin with unique expectations marked by North Carolina's step back and the well-chronicled resurgence of NC State.
Though their status as the team to beat is certainly debatable, the Wolfpack absolutely represents the best chance in recent memory for a team other than North Carolina or Duke to win the ACC title outright, something that has not happened since Wake Forest did it in 2003.
The level of talent returning for the Tar Heels should not be lost when previewing the 2012-2013 season—Carolina possesses a deeper collection of highly recruited talent than any team in the conference.
Given the lower than usual expectations and the increasing level of nationwide attention given to N.C. State, the season is a tremendous opportunity for Carolina to experience an unusual year—one in which they exceed expectations rather than meet them or fall short.
Carolina entered such a season in 2009-2010 amidst much anticipation—which they validated with an emphatic early victory over Michigan State—before falling apart mid-season and missing the NCAA tournament. I have already written on why the same result will not plague the 2012-2013 season. Here are five bold predictions for the relatively under-the-radar Tar Heels.
Reggie Bullock came to Carolina under the shadow of Harrison Barnes and received less attention than he deserved as a consensus 5-star recruit out of high school. His injury in his freshman season and the depth Carolina has had on the wing have limited his opportunity for development, but with Barnes gone, Bullock will immediately step in to replace him at small forward.
Bullock is also the most proven candidate to replace Barnes' scoring load on the wing and from outside the paint, where the Tar Heels will most likely need to produce significantly more offense next season than in the last two years.
The team that produced a disproportionate amount of points from inside loses its entire front court and Kendall Marshall, the point guard so adept at creating those scoring opportunities.
Barnes' virtual no-show during Carolina's NCAA win over Ohio created an opportunity for Bullock which he seized with 17 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, including the game's most critical shot to force overtime. Expect him to play that role often next season in addition to his role as lock-down defender, and emerge one of the ACC's best all-around players.
James Michael McAdoo may be the most talented player in America returning to college basketball next season, spurning what almost certainly would have been a top-10 selection in the NBA draft to play another season in Chapel Hill.
After demonstrating down the stretch of last season the athleticism and ability that made him such a top prospect, the ceiling for McAdoo is a Thomas Robinson-esque transition from reserve to National Player of the Year candidate.
In increased minutes this year, it isn't difficult to imagine McAdoo as Carolina's leading scorer and rebounder, which would be enough to land him on the first team.
Carolina placed nobody in this group in 2011-2012 amidst their well-publicized struggles from beyond the arc. It is therefore easy to forget that prior to the start of the ACC season, the Heels had three—Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and Harrison Barnes—who were shooting above 40 percent and comfortably among the conference's leaders.
Projecting Bullock, Hairston and returning sharp-shooter Leslie McDonald all to finish above 40 percent over the entire season seemed excessively bold, even though Wayne Ellington fell just .005 percentage points short of joining Ty Lawson and Danny Green above that mark in 2009.
But it is nonetheless possible, and I do not expect any of them to fall below 38 percent. Carolina has enough shooters for each to be selective with their shots, so a large volume of three-point shots should not push their percentage down as it did with Ellington.
Each of these players came to Carolina with a reputation as a shooter, and all are sufficiently inexperienced to project significant room to grow. The manner in which Carolina torched Kentucky from the beyond the arc last fall should be a far more regular occurrence next season.
NC State's heralded, and indeed unprecedented, recruiting class has received most of the attention this offseason, and justly so. College basketball is not accustomed to seeing three McDonald's All-Americans head to Raleigh, and it is certainly a sign that NC State can lure top talent and compete at the top of the ACC.
However, a typically stellar year for Roy Williams cannot be lost in the hype, and Marcus Paige headlines a group of four top 100 recruits. Paige is the top-ranked point guard on many recruiting boards and steps into a demanding but rewarding opportunity with the departure of Kendall Marshall to the NBA.
As the starting point guard in an offensive system Roy specifically recruited him to run, Paige will flourish as the floor general of a talented roster. While the other top candidates for this award, including the Wolfpack's Rodney Purvis and T.J. Warren and Duke's Rasheed Sulaimon, will share their role as scorer with established veterans, Carolina will depend on Paige heavily to run the point for at least 30 minutes a game.
Expect standout seasons from the other three recruits mentioned above, but ultimately Paige will make the most significant contribution to his team, both as a scorer and a distributor.
The field for the 2012 Maui Invitational is strong but not top-heavy; the Tar Heels will enter as the favorite with Texas, Marquette and Butler as the other contenders. As the team with the most returning talent, North Carolina will be the best team in the field in November.
Texas will pose the greatest challenge, but their reliance on freshmen, especially in the front court, makes them a work in progress over the course of the season. After losing J'Covan Brown and his 20 points per game to the NBA, the Longhorns will still be searching for a replacement to pick up the scoring load in an early season affair.
Carolina may suffer its own slow start to the season, since it too will have to replace a huge percentage of its scoring. But it has a more talented core of returning role players from last season who are ready to emerge, and in Maui at least, no other team will be ready to challenge.
It was tempting to predict here that North Carolina would continue its dominance over NC State even in the first year of the Wolfpack's resurgence and sweep its rival in the two regular season meetings. North Carolina remains the more talented team, and until NC State gets over the hump, those games will be packed with pressure for them.
After much consideration, though, it seems more likely that Carolina drops one of the two, likely the meeting in Raleigh. The youthful Heels will not run through the ACC regular season with only two losses, as in the last two seasons, and in a season in which they likely lose four or five conference games, a loss to its stiffest competition seems probable.
The ACC regular season race will be a war of attrition unlike any year since 2006-2007, when North Carolina and Virginia shared the title with 11-5 conference records. As in that season, next year's champion could win the league with as few as 11 wins, and in such a race, the team that survives its games against the ACC's cellar will have an edge that is difficult for the other to overcome in a balanced league.
The race will not be decided by a head-to-head comparison between Carolina and NC State, the league's two most talented teams provided C.J. Leslie returns. While splitting the season series and faring equally well against the ACC's other top teams, the Wolfpack will hand Carolina the title with a bad loss or two it cannot afford, finding themselves in more close games than the deeper and defensively better Tar Heels.
Expect several other teams, including Duke to be in the mix, but the Blue Devils' weak defensive personnel remains intact for next season, and the departure of Austin Rivers means they will die by the three-point shot even more than last season. Duke will be maddeningly inconsistent next year, finishing third behind two more talented and more balanced teams.