Last season was a bit of an anomaly as far as ACC basketball is concerned.
Normally, both Duke and North Carolina are surefire 25-win teams with a serious chance to make a deep run in March.
Two seasons ago, both teams notched 30 wins and made it to the Sweet 16. North Carolina won the national championship.
That's just a typical year of Duke and North Carolina basketball—the rivals account for 40 percent of the last decade's national titles.
The status quo appeared to remain unchanged at the start of last season. Both teams were voted to finish at the top of the conference and both were preseason top 10 teams.
But while Duke exceeded expectations and brought home the school’s fourth national title, the championship defending Tar Heels faltered and failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in coach Roy Williams’ tenure at North Carolina.
Will next season be another aberration for one of the Tobacco Road rivals, or will it see a year in which both schools are on top of college basketball?
As has been the case in several recent seasons, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels will be the favorites to win the ACC in the preseason polls. Both teams will start in the Top 25, maybe the Top 10.
Duke seems like a sure thing to have a banner year next season, but anything can happen.
The jury is still out on North Carolina as they will be adjusting to massive personnel changes for the second straight year. That being said, they certainly have the talent to be one of the top teams in college basketball.
We’re taking an in-depth look at both rosters for next season in an attempt to see how each team projects to finish and who has the significant advantage in the rivalry.
A few weeks ago, we focused on who each team lost and how those departures will affect next season’s relative squads.
This week, we’re analyzing the key players returning for each team.
The Blue Devils and the Tar Heels both lost key players to either graduation, transfer, or early entry in the NBA draft after last season.
Still, both schools have a lot of returning talent ready to fill the voids left by departing players and lead the incoming freshmen.
Duke got a big boost for next season when Kyle Singler announced he would return for his senior year in Durham.
The Final Four's Most Outstanding Player averaged 17.7 points and seven rebounds last season while shooting the highest percentage from behind the arc for Duke.
With so many players declaring early for the NBA draft in light of the potential 2011 lockout, Singler is quite possibly the highest profile returning senior in the country.
Expectations will be high for Singler, especially in light of his brilliant performance in the ACC tournament and NCAA tournament at the finish of last season. He will be the likely favorite to win ACC Player of the Year honors, and he will certainly be in the National Player of the Year conversation when the season beings.
Nolan Smith is also returning for his senior season in Durham.
Although Smith was overshadowed by Singler and Jon Scheyer last season, he had the definition of a breakout year. He doubled his sophomore scoring average, putting up over 17 points per game.
Smith is excellent at breaking down his defender off the dribble, and he is an incredibly versatile scorer able to finish at the rim, hit the outside jumper, and pull up for mid-range baskets.
If Smith continues to develop like he did coming into last season, he could be Singler’s biggest competition for ACC Player of the Year.
The Blue Devils are expecting big things out of sophomore Mason Plumlee next season.
He played a support role behind Lance Thomas, Brian Zoubek, and older brother Miles last season, but he has the talent and athleticism to put up big numbers in his sophomore campaign.
Plumlee will play significantly more minutes next year, and Duke’s likely more up-tempo style will suit his game much better than the slower, half-court game the Blue Devils played last season.
Other key returning players for Duke are Miles Plumlee and Andre Dawkins.
The elder Plumlee brother had a big leap in production last season over what he saw his freshman year, a season in which he started at the beginning of the season but barely saw floor time by season’s end.
He has the physical tools to be a significant presence in the post and like his brother Mason, he’s much better in transition than he is with his back to the basket. He should benefit greatly from Duke’s faster pace next season.
Dawkins showed flashes of his potential last year.
He showcased his shooting touch early in the season and put up some big numbers for a freshman off the bench. But as the season progressed and competition became stiffer, Dawkins struggled to carve out a consistent spot in Duke’s rotation.
He saw significant late-season improvement, however, and had a few confidence building games for Duke in the post season, specifically against Georgia Tech in the ACC finals and against Baylor in the Elite 8 where he hit a few clutch threes in the first half that kept Baylor from breaking away.
All things considered, the Blue Devils return five of the eight players who averaged double figures in minutes on last year’s championship team, meaning they should, at the very least, have the experience to make another run next year.
The Tar Heels had a very young squad last season, and they return a number of experienced players ready to prove that they can return North Carolina to its normal position in the ACC.
Larry Drew II was rumored to transfer once the season ended, but he will be back in Chapel Hill next season. Although Drew was the subject of much criticism last season, his return is a big positive for the Tar Heels.
Despite being a sophomore last year, he was really a freshman in terms of game experience.
Drew played behind both Ty Lawson and Bobby Frasor at the point guard spot during his freshman season. Next season, he will be one of the most experienced players on the court for the Tar Heels.
He’s long, has a quick first step, and has shown himself to be a streaky scorer. He struggled with consistency and taking care of the ball last season, but the same can be said of most inexperienced college point guards.
Critics of North Carolina will be quick to dismiss Drew’s potential, but look at what happened last year for Duke with Nolan Smith. Both were McDonald’s All-Americans in high school and both struggled to run the point with confidence and consistency as sophomores.
Drew may not have the offensive potential of Smith, but if he can see big development in the offseason, he could have a big junior season.
The Tar Heels also return John Henson at the power forward spot, hopefully with more weight on his frame.
Henson didn't live up to the hype that came with him as a freshman.
He was ranked in the top five of the 2009 class according to most scouting services and was predicted by many to challenge Georgia Tech’s Derrick Favors for ACC Freshman of the Year honors. His performance fell far short of those expectations.
However, Henson made solid progress as his playing time increased after Ed Davis' injury in the middle of ACC play.
In his last 13 games, Henson averaged 9.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. He also showcased an incredible shot blocking ability, averaging 2.2 blocks per game in his final 13 games.
If Henson adds weight, builds his offensive repertoire, improves his free throw shooting (he was a late game liability last season), and continues the improvement he displayed late last year, he could be a difference-maker as a sophomore.
Tyler Zeller will look to fill the void in the post left by Deon Thompson and Davis.
Zeller spent a lot of time injured in his first two seasons in Chapel Hill (he has only played in five more games than Henson despite arriving at North Carolina a year ahead of him).
Despite his time spent on the sidelines, Zeller is a very productive player when he gets significant minutes.
With his speed, he is at his best when the Tar Heels are running up and down the floor, though he has enough offensive versatility to score in the half court effectively. His health throughout the season will be one of the most important factors for the Tar Heels' success next year.
The other key returning player on North Carolina’s roster is Will Graves.
He was one of the few players on last year’s Tar Heel team that showed the kind of emotion and attitude necessary to lead his teammates, and he will likely be looked upon to help lead the team as the only scholarship senior other than Alabama transfer Justin Knox, who has never played for North Carolina.
Graves will start next season as the only current Tar Heel player to ever score 20 points in a game of college basketball, and while he has the range score in bursts, his offensive production was wildly inconsistent last year.
He may get lost in the shuffle a bit next season with all of the incoming backcourt talent. He could also spend some time playing out of position at the power forward spot in certain scenarios.
Regardless, Graves will be one of the few proven offensive commodities on a Tar Heel team looking to significantly improve offensive production.
While the Tar Heels bring back several players with the potential to do big things, Duke has the clear advantage in the “who’s back” department.
Smith and Singler are proven stars. Both were in the top 5 in ACC scoring last season.
Their return gives the Blue Devils ample senior leadership and enough scoring to build an offense around.
Despite the long term potential of guys like Henson, there are no returning North Carolina players that seem like a sure thing in terms of production next season, at least not the level of production Smith and Singler provide.
Anything can happen between now and November. Last year’s role players and underachievers can become next year’s stars.
Nolan Smith is proof of that for Duke. Henson, Zeller, or Drew could follow Smith's lead next season.
As for now, one thing is certain as far as the returning players go for college basketball’s biggest rivalry.
Duke will have the luxury of relying upon proven stars as their younger players progress.
North Carolina will not.