Duke, Carolina and NC State each have a unique perspective on the upcoming college basketball season, as well as certain themes that promise to remain prevalent throughout the year.
Duke is trying to win back-to-back championships.
UNC hopes to redeem itself after a disappointing and inexcusable 2009-10 season.
State believes it finally has talent to compete in the ACC and seeks its first NCAA Tournament bid in five years.
Duke is by far the most complete team in the conference and should begin the season as a near-unanimous number one nationally. Every team has flaws, but it is tough to find any with respect to this Duke team. The Devils have a great backcourt and an inside game to go with it. In fact, SI.com recently rated Duke's backcourt number one in the country and its frontcourt number two.
Of course, those rankings are based on potential and expectations. Will Kyrie Irving be as good as advertised? He is considered by many to be the best point guard in the country, and he has yet to play a game at the college level.
We know Duke will get great contributions from Kyle Singler, but will the Plumlees, Ryan Kelly and/or Josh Hairston be able to provide the toughness and interior presence that Zoubek produced during last season's championship run? While limited offensively, Zoubek was a key to that title.
Duke's challenge is to forget that they are trying to repeat and focus on this season alone. Certainly Coach K will be able to get this team playing to its maximum abilities. Anything short of a Final Four would be a surprise and a disappointment for the Blue Devils.
Carolina is probably more ready to start the 2010-11 season than any other team in the ACC. They are coming off the worst season in Roy Williams' career, and their sports programs are under NCAA scrutiny. The Heels are prepared to redeem themselves and prove last year was a fluke.
UNC, as usual, has top-level talent but does have some noticeable flaws. In particular, they are thin in the frontcourt, literally and in terms of depth. Their likely starters include skinny John Henson and Tyler Zeller, both of whom are finesse players.
The Heels have only two other players that aren't guard: Harrison Barnes and Justin Knox. While Knox is a true post player, Barnes is more of a wing. An injury to anyone of those four could pose a big problem.
Two other flaws are concerning: uncertainty at point guard and outside shooting. Last season, point guard issues were prevalent throughout. Coach Williams hopes either Dexter Strickland, Larry Drew or Kendall Marshall can solidify that position this year.
Carolina's top three point shooter, Will Graves, was dismissed from the team, which means freshman Reggie Bullock will have added pressure to perform. Fortunately, he should have some help, as Barnes will be able to knock down some threes as well.
In a preview, sometimes it is natural to focus on a team's flaws, since those represent the questions that will have to be answered during the season. However, Carolina has the talent and the motivation to finish in the top three of the ACC and at or near the top 10. Expect a point guard to step up and Barnes to be an instant star. A Final Four is not completely out of the question, but is unlikely. A good result for UNC this year would be a Sweet 16.
There has not been this much excitement around the NC State program in quite some time. The Wolfpack brought in a top five recruiting class and returns its key contributors from last season. It is time for State to produce some measurable success.
State has talent and depth at all five positions, and Lowe will have nice some lineup options. While CJ Leslie is the prized recruit of the class, expect Lorenzo Brown to make the biggest impact. Zo is more physically mature than Ryan Harrow, and Leslie and fills the Pack's biggest need: shooting guard.
State's inside game projects to be excellent with Tracy Smith, Richard Howell, Leslie and an improved DeShawn Painter. They've also got some good shooters in Scott Wood, Brown, Harrow and Javi Gonzalez.
Everything is not peachy, though. The Wolfpack, like everyone else in the league not named Duke, has some flaws. First, Coach Lowe has not yet proven that he can produce a winner and, for various reasons, had his worst season in the year his team's talent was at its highest level. Will his 2010-11 team suffer from the chemistry issues that plagued the 2007-08 squad?
Another concern is whether Harrow's slight frame can handle the rigors of ACC basketball. Harrow is a great talent, but is he ready?
NC State appears to have all the pieces in place for a breakthrough season. In a potentially down year for the ACC, State has no excuse for failing to finish in the top half of the league and earning an NCAA bid. They are good enough to finish as high as second, but a finish anywhere in the top five of the ACC would be considered a success.