UNC basketball has enough to worry about if it focuses only on the top of the ACC, where the likes of Duke, Virginia and newly arrived Louisville will all be battling the Tar Heels for supremacy. However, if Roy Williams’ troops get too wrapped up in worrying about their elite competition, they’ll be in a prime spot to get tripped up by one of the league’s less-celebrated squads.
If North Carolina wants to avoid taking an upset loss at the wrong time, here are some teams and players it should make sure not to look past in 2014-15.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
N.C. State’s personnel losses have been high-profile ones—T.J. Warren jumping to the NBA, promising point guard Tyler Lewis transferring to Butler—but Mark Gottfried’s cupboard is far from bare. Rising sophomores Beejay Anya and Anthony “Cat” Barber provide the inside-outside foundation, with the 325-pound Anya giving the Wolfpack perhaps the only ACC center who can out-slug UNC's Kennedy Meeks. Both youngsters offer the potential to anchor a better defense than fans in Raleigh have seen in some time.
On the offensive end, floor leader Barber will benefit from not splitting time with Lewis. He’s also got some new weapons to feed, starting with Trevor Lacey. The Alabama transfer is a long-range marksman who doubles as another potent perimeter defender. Meanwhile, 6'8", 230-pound freshman Abdul-Malik Abu arrives to add another big-time athlete down low.
Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
Before academic troubles blew up what would have been his junior season, Grant was a serious ACC Player of the Year contender. One of the conference’s top scorers through the 12 games he played last year, he’s also a serious threat to the status of Duke's Tyus Jones as the league’s best non-Marcus Paige point guard.
With Pat Connaughton and Demetrius Jackson returning alongside him, Grant won’t be completely without help in South Bend. Of course, anyone with questions as to how dangerous he is by himself need only watch his instant-legend performance against Louisville, below, where he scored 12 points in the final 50 seconds.
This is the year when Jim Larranaga really reaps the benefits of a 29-win season in 2012-13. That sensational Shane Larkin-led team earned a spot in the Sweet 16 (just the second such finish in program history). It also helped attract a pair of high-profile transfers, who will now carry the load for a graduation-depleted roster.
Angel Rodriguez (a successful point guard in two seasons as Kansas State’s starter) and Sheldon McClellan (a productive if less-than-efficient scorer at Texas) will give the ‘Canes a formidable backcourt. They’ll also get a boost from explosive redshirt freshman Deandre Burnett, a 6’2” pure scorer who missed all of 2013-14 with an injured wrist.