The ACC season is finally upon us.
With conference play starting on Sunday for North Carolina, it's time to lay down some bold predictions for this young group of Tar Heels.
UNC's season didn't start the way Roy Williams was hoping, taking big losses to Butler, Indiana and Texas. But the past is the past, and this squad is pressing forward after a big win against UNLV—its first signature win of the season.
Was that win enough to spark a fire in its souls and unite the team into one cohesive unit?
Time will tell, but my predictions will be counting on it.
So the Florida State Seminoles haven't exactly started the season the way folks were expecting. Just as it's too early to hand the ACC crown to Duke, it's also too early to write off a team like FSU.
Don't forget, the 'Noles were heading into ACC play with a 9-5 record last season. They were 10-6 when they beat down the 15-2 Tar Heels by 33 points in Tallahassee. Then they went on to beat UNC again in the ACC championship.
And in a conference like this one, every team is prone to hitting unexpected bumps in the road. FSU will play as Carolina's bump for the second straight season—and the third meeting in a row.
It won't be the pounding the Tar Heels received last January; expect it to be more like the championship game.
FSU will jump out early off the play of its defense and some stellar shooting beyond the arc. UNC will come back, but will only be able to take temporary leads.
This game will come down the final minute, but Michael Snaer will find a way to dispose of the Tar Heels, 79-72.
It happened last year with Duke, and I think it happens again this year with NC State.
The Wolfpack took a couple dings against Oklahoma State and Michigan, but they are quickly molding themselves into the team most people thought would win the ACC. NC State has five players averaging double figures in points—and freshman Rodney Purvis isn't even in that group.
He will be, though.
But North Carolina is blooming late, too. When these two teams meet for the first time on Jan. 26, the Tar Heels will be coming into Raleigh on a high from two confidence-building blowouts of Maryland and Georgia Tech.
C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell will have their way in the paint, but the Carolina wings turn out to be the deciding factor. Dexter Strickland, P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock have monster games on defense, while Leslie McDonald, Bullock and Hairston light up the arc at PNC Arena.
UNC wins the first meeting 81-76.
NC State is prepared for combat in the next meeting at Chapel Hill. It works quickly to build a lead, taking the Tar Heel crowd out of the equation early. With the Wolfpack fans in attendance, it begins to feel more like home to the boys in red.
It's domination in the paint once again by the NC State bigs. This time, they get some help on the outside from Purvis, Lorenzo Brown, T.J. Warren and Scott Wood.
Carolina is unable to match the Wolfpack's outside shooting in this one and is simply outplayed at the 4 and 5 positions.
NC State tops UNC in Chapel Hill, 84-75
Once again, Duke and North Carolina will play their final game with the title on the line.
NC State had a chance to lock it down with a win that afternoon, but FSU wasn't having it, handing the 'Pack a third loss. Since they split the series with Duke and UNC, the winner of Duke and North Carolina would tie them for first place.
The Tar Heels jumped on Duke early, putting the Carolina crowd in a frenzy and keeping the Blue Devils on their heels for the entire game. With the added advantage of playing ahead, the Tar Heel bigs were much more effective on defense than they were in the first meeting.
Duke put too much focus on threes in an attempt to make a quick comeback. The Blue Devils desperately needed Seth Curry, but he was unable to bury the treys this time.
Once this game opened up, the Blue Devils just didn't have a chance to mount a comeback. The strong defense and transition game proved to be too much Duke.
With an 86-74 win over Duke, the Tar Heels and the Wolfpack would share the title for the first time since 1985.
Reggie Bullock has been shooting lights out from downtown so far this season, and I don't see it stopping any time soon. He currently leads the team with 29 treys, burying them at a 47.5 percent clip.
What convinces me this will continue is his shot selection. Unlike Hairston, and occasionally McDonald, Bullock doesn't take many ill-advised threes. He waits for the moment to present itself rather than forcing threes to happen.
In the offseason, I had Hairston leading the team in three-point percentage. He could still make that happen, but his shot selection hasn't been nearly as wise as Bullock's. That has led to 33.8 percent shooting from deep.
Leslie McDonald would be more likely to overtake Bullock at this point. He has also been extremely efficient, shooting 45.5 percent beyond the arc.
There is no doubt he will receive some stiff competition in the ACC, but both Bullock and McDonald are sitting in the top 10 right now. And I don't expect Quinn Cook, Chase Fischer and Logan Aronhalt to continue shooting over 50 percent.
Everyone's numbers will start to fall off from here, but I expect Bullock to stay consistent and come out on top.
Marcus Paige's career as a Tar Heel got off to a slow start, but I see him turning that freshman corner now.
Currently, Paige sits at No. 6 in the ACC, averaging 4.3 assists per game. And that's after being nursed through most of the non-conference games. Combo guard Dexter Strickland is actually ahead of him with 4.5 per game.
But the floor general duties are finally being shouldered by Marcus Paige, and we will only see this young point guard improve from here.
In Paige's first seven games, he was averaging 3.3 assists and three turnovers per game. In his last five games, he is averaging 5.8 assists and 1.8 turnovers per game.
I don't expect him to jump up to Kendall Marshall numbers, as 9.8 assists per game is just nuts at the collegiate level. I did have Paige at 6.1 in the offseason, though, and I'm sticking to that prediction.
If he progresses faster than I expected, we could see as many as seven assists per game from this youngster. Either way, if he can finish at six assists or above, he has a good shot at being the assist champ in the ACC.