Winners of the last two national titles, the ACC looks for a three-peat. The Duke Blue Devils will be one of the select few to be anointed contenders for this season’s national crown.
Somehow, at least in my view, Kyle Singler has been lost amidst the Kyrie Irving, Seth Curry mania. But he is the single(r) most important factor in Duke being a favourite to be the last team standing again in April. He is to Duke what Hansbrough was to the Tar Heels - maybe not the most athletic player on the floor, or the most skilled, but the one who works the hardest and by doing so, forces the others around him to work harder.
But there are some teams lying in wait and this year’s version of the ACC may have a few surprises.
Duke (Prediction - First)
No surprise here. The Blue Devils will open the season ranked #1 in the country thanks to the return of stars Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, and the arrivals of point guard Kyrie Irving, shooting guard Seth Curry and power forward Josh Hairston. The front is anchored by Miles and Mason Plumlee, along with Ryan Kelly, giving Duke three potential options down low.
Singler was the most outstanding player in the Final Four last season.
It’s hard to argue that Duke is vulnerable in any area. Their depth at guard is second to none in the ACC. Andre Dawkins and Tyler Thornton would be playing quality minutes at most schools, but here await their chances. Their size and athleticism up front is as good as anyone’s. Perhaps one question is whether or not the front line can dominate defensively, like Zoubek and Thomas did a year ago.
Kyle Singler's defense was often predicated on matchups and he was always up to the task.
Perhaps another question is whether Seth Curry will adjust to the ACC as quickly as most think. I understand the pedigree, and realize that he had big games against Virginia and Clemson as a freshman, but still, this is not the Big South. I am not questioning whether he will get there, but whether there will be a period of adjustment, especially when the other team has the ball.
But then, you have Kyle Singler.
The “questions” about defense may be moot as this year’s team will playing at a much different tempo.
Plus, as an afterthought, there's the Final Four MOP, Kyle Singler. Was he mentioned?
And if those are the biggest questions it’s not much of a quandary. Replacing talented players with even more talented players means last season’s five losses may seem like a lot.
Virginia Tech (Prediction - Second)
Any one of Tech, NC and FSU could occupy the 2-4 spots.
The Hokies are determined to end the seemingly perpetual NCAA tourney snub and are at least going about it the right way to start the season. They play in the 76 Classic tournament and have games against Mississippi State (in the Bahamas?) and Kansas State on their slate as well.
If the Hokies can’t make the 68-team tournament with Malcolm Delaney, Jeff Allen and Dorenzo Hudson there really isn’t anywhere else to shift blame. Allan Chaney (transfer from Florida) is eligible and joins Allen, Victor Davila, J.T. Thompson and Terrell Bell in a balanced and deep front court.
Many will suggest that the key to this team is Delaney but he is going to score and will be a first-team all-conference pick. Jeff Allen, however, needs to be consistent and stay out of foul trouble. His minutes were limited on countless occasions because of early fouls. His talent has far exceeded his output and he is the key to the long-term (tournament) success of the Hokies.
Tech is a solid team top-to-bottom, that has plenty of offensive options and will limit turnovers. They control their own destiny this season and a top 4 finish will ensure a spot in March Madness.
North Carolina (Prediction - Third)
Top recruit Harrison Barnes joins John Henson and Tyler Zeller in a loaded front court. Add in some experience with Alabama transfer Justin Knox and the Tar Heels look to be much deeper and much-improved.
How much they improve will depend largely on the play of guards Larry Drew, Dexter Strickland and two other highly-touted recruits, Reggie Bullock, who will cause some perimeter match-up issues for other teams, and Kendall Marshall, who could be starting at the point. Inconsistency haunted last year’s group but with the new additions, it should become less of an area of concern.
Though the Tar Heels fell far short of expectations last year, a drop from the previous season had to be expected. But the rapid decline wasn’t easily digested in Chapel Hill. Better back court play means the ‘Heels move back up just as quickly.
This team will be good. No NIT here.
Florida State (Prediction - Fourth)
The Seminoles are looking to build on last season’s moderate success, when they were able to replace Toney Douglas and make the NCAA tournament once again.
This season they will have to replace big man Solomon Alabi, an early NBA draft entrant who was picked in the second round.
There is some reason to believe they can do this, at least to a certain extent. Junior Xavier Gibson was productive in limited minutes last season and the Seminoles added two big bodies in Bernard James and seven-footer Jon Kreft, both of whom transferred from junior college.
Forward Chris Singleton also returns and FSU is looking for a breakout year from the junior. He is joined at forward by Okaro White, another top in-state recruit and Terrance Shannon, who played sparingly last season.
Guard play should be a strength for the Seminoles. Sophomore Michael Snaer should be much improved, especially offensively. Veteran Derwin Kitchen returns, as does Deividas Dulkys and Luke Loucks. Freshman shooting guard Ian Miller will add depth in the back.
If their post defence is decent and they get at least some production from their bigs, FSU should have no trouble getting back to the Big Dance.
On The Edges
North Carolina State (Prediction - Fifth)
The much talked-about recruiting class arrives, maybe just in the nick of time for coach Sidney Lowe.
C.J. Leslie, Ryan Harrow and Lorenzo Brown have been hailed as one of the best groups collectively in the country. Added to holdovers Javier Gonzalez, Scott Wood, Richard Howell and star Tracy Smith, this group gives Wolf Pack fans plenty of optimism.
Cutting down on turnovers and making free throws are two areas that need improvement. If Harrow steps in immediately and does the job, State could be vying for one of the at-large berths in March. After last year’s 5-11 season, and with a sharp upgrade in talent, it’s not unreasonable to look beyond .500 this year, especially as some others are rebuilding.
Miami (Prediction - Sixth)
Before you respond, consider the state of flux that the league overall is in. And consider that Durand Scott, Malcolm Grant and Reggie Johnson return. Yeah, Reggie Johnson, a six-nine, two hundred and ninety pound giant who averaged six points and 4.5 rebounds in about thirteen minutes last year, including a perfect game against Georgia Tech. His will be a name that will be talked about in the ACC this year.
Recruits Rion Brown and Donavan Kirk will bolster a squad that fared well outside of the ACC but struggled within it.
This is a good year for the teams in the middle of the pack to make some noise and the Hurricanes could be poised to do it.
Wake Forest (Seventh)
The recruits just keep on coming for the Deacons, who also welcome new coach Jeff Bzdelik into the fold.
There have been questions surrounding this hire. Some feel that his system, particularly his offense, isn’t going to fly in the ACC, or, with the players themselves. I don’t know if I agree. Yes, I saw his offense at Air Force and Colorado but what options do you have when you are undermanned? At Air Force, specifically, who can you recruit against? And he still had some pretty decent teams.
Top recruits J.T. Terrell, Seven-footer Carson Desrosiers, Travis McKie and Tony Chennault will have the opportunity to get some minutes early, especially Terrell and Chennault, who may inherit the point, although C.J. Harris could slide over there as well.
Ari Stewart and Tony Woods are the two returnees apart from Harris that played significant minutes and will have the opportunity to expand their respective roles.
This is a substantial leap in terms of placing them seventh but there is a significant amount of talent to work with here and Bzdelik has certainly worked with less.
See above for working with, and being successful with, less. Brad Brownell will do a great job here. He loses Trevor Booker but has most of the team returning. The drop, if there is one, may not be as steep as some think.
Javier Vasquez carried this team last season. Landon Milbourne and Eric Hayes (second and third leading scorers) are gone too. Jordan Williams has the potential to be a beast down low but needs to do better than 53% from the foul line.
Boston College (Tenth)
Steve Donahue steps in for Al Skinner and the prospects for this team may not be great for the next couple of seasons but the Eagles have secured a fine coach for the future. There is some experience and talent here now, so don’t be surprised to see BC substantially higher in the standings.
Georgia Tech (Eleventh)
Again, if this team ever stayed together.....Alas, early defections and the lack of any impact guard play will stifle this team. The conference is tough enough without losing your key undergrads every season.
Tony Bennett will turn it around. But not this season.
P.S. I'm not a Duke fan and I'm not a Duke-hater. But one can recognize what is and Singler is.