Sweet Carolina

Tar Heels are heavy favorites to win ACC this season

North Carolina is everyone's favorite to win the ACC and reach the Final Four in San Antonio.

Oct. 26, 2007

By Josh Herwitt



Josh is CSTV.com's men's basketball editor and writes a weekly national column.
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For as much parity as there's been in college basketball over the last five years, it's still hard to find another conference that rivals the tradition and character of the ACC.


Season after season, we're told that the ACC is hands down the best conference in the country.


Coaches say it, players show it, and simply, the numbers don't lie.


Between 10 national championships, 38 Final Four teams and a 319-157 (.670) record in NCAA Tournament games, the ACC has made a point of maintaining the highest level of consistency of any Division I conference.


For much of last season, that argument held true with the conference sending a nation-best seven teams to the Big Dance.


But it was there that the league showed some of its true colors, managing to place only one team in the Sweet 16 with the others concluding their seasons by the end of the first weekend of tournament play.


It was a surprise to many to see the nation's top conference falter at a time when it's been traditionally so good and just as much a surprise when North Carolina didn't reach the Final Four, though many suspected it would.


Yet for as often as it's been regarded as the country's top basketball conference, the ACC isn't quite as deep this season as it has been in the past.


That's partially due to the loss of players like Brandan Wright and Josh McRoberts, but the conference could still see six and possibly seven teams make it back to the Big Dance on Selection Sunday.


Standing at the forefront once again are the Tar Heels, the likely pick not just to win the ACC but the national championship come March in San Antonio.


Nothing, however, is ever safe in this conference, and with the kind of talent that permeates throughout the ACC, nothing is ever definite until the winners are officially crowned in early March.


1. North Carolina (31-7, 11-5)

In four short seasons in Chapel Hill, Roy Williams has accomplished more than many coaches do over their entire coaching careers. After capturing the Tar Heels' first ACC title since 1998 and reaching the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight year, the North Carolina coach found himself in Springfield, Mass., last month for his induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Now with UNC returning three starters in Naismith Player of the Year candidate Tyler Hansbrough (18.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg), point guard Ty Lawson (10.2 ppg, 5.6 apg) and wing Wayne Ellington (11.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg), Williams has a deep and talented squad that is everyone's favorite to win the conference and reach San Antonio in March. While the Heels will miss Brandan Wright's versatility and shot-blocking ability at the power forward position in addition to Reyshawn Terry's three-point shooting, southern California natives Deon Thompson and Alex Stephenson should fill the void and leave Williams with one of the most complete teams in all of college basketball.

2. Duke (22-11, 8-8)
Last season might have been one of the most uncharacteristic years for Duke basketball in a long time. After finishing just sixth in the conference standings, the Blue Devils entered the NCAA Tournament as a six seed, only to be upset by VCU in the final seconds of its first-round contest. But Mike Krzyzewski and his players have had a long summer to think about what happened last year, and with a talented freshmen trio in Kyle Singler, Taylor King and Nolan Smith, Duke shouldn't have a problem getting past last year's disappointment. The Blue Devils showcase plenty of experience and talent in the backcourt with senior DeMarcus Nelson, junior Greg Paulus and sophomores Gerald Henderson and Jon Scheyer back in Durham, but the real question mark for Krzyzewski will be the play of his frontcourt, particularly with center Brian Zoubek taking over the starting position for Josh McRoberts. If Zoubek can stay healthy and pick up the slack for McRoberts this season, Duke could go toe-to-toe with archrival North Carolina for the conference crown.


3. N.C. State (20-16, 5-11)
After struggling at times in conference play last season, the Wolfpack made quite a splash in the ACC Tournament, knocking off Duke, Virginia and Virginia Tech before falling in the title game to North Carolina. That has N.C. State fans hopeful that the 2007-08 season can be even more promising with Brandon Costner (16.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and Gavin Grant (14.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg) both returning to the lineup, but the biggest query for head coach Sidney Lowe remains at the point guard slot after seeing Engin Atsur graduate last year. Six-foot-5 guard Courtney Fells could step in and provide some help immediately after upping his scoring average to 12.8 points during N.C. State's postseason push, while forward Ben McCauley should continue to improve following a sophomore campaign that saw the West Newton, Pa., native average 14.4 points and 6.9 rebounds as an All-ACC Honorable Mention selection.


4. Clemson (25-11, 7-9)

Oliver Purnell's team couldn't have had a much better start to last season after winning its first 17 games, but the Tigers quickly fell apart down the stretch, missing the NCAA Tournament and having to settle for a NIT bid even with a school-record 25 wins. Clemson, however, returns a trio of scorers that could finally push the Tigers over the hump in 2007-08. Seniors Cliff Hammonds (11.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and James Mays (12.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg), in particular, will be counted upon to run the offense and carry the scoring load over the course of the season, and sophomore center Trevor Booker should be much-improved after averaging 10.4 points during his rookie campaign. But if the Tigers hope to be one of the 65 teams selected to the Big Dance this year, consistency will be the biggest factor for Purnell and his players.

5. Virginia (21-11, 11-5)

In just his second year in the league, Virginia coach Dave Leitao showed last season that he has what it takes to compete with the blue bloods of Duke and North Carolina. The former Northeastern and DePaul coach, after all, earned ACC Coach of the Year honors after tying for the ACC regular season title and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. And with Sean Singletary, one of the ACC's top scorers last season at 19 points per game, returning for his senior season after pulling his name out of the NBA Draft, the Cavaliers have as good a chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament and advance past the second round for the first time since 1995. Replacing J.R. Reynolds will be the biggest uncertainty for Virginia, and Leitao is hoping that Mamadi Diane and Adrian Joseph can help relieve some of the scoring pressure that Singletary will feel this season in Charlottesville.

6. Maryland (25-9, 10-6)
Following an impressive 25-9 record and a third-place finish in the conference, Maryland coach Gary Williams is hoping that the Terrapins will have enough firepower with just two starters returning to the lineup. Senior forward James Gist will have to step up his role after averaging 12.6 points and 7.2 rebounds last season, while point guard Greivis Vasquez showed plenty of potential in running the offense as just a freshman. But with sharpshooter Mike Jones gone, the Venezuelan will have to become a reliable threat from three-point range if the Terps hope to make it two straight years in the NCAA Tournament. Eric Hayes could also prove to be a consistent perimeter shooter, as the sophomore sunk 39.3 percent of his three-point attempts last season.


7. Georgia Tech (20-12, 8-8)
Losing a dynamic scoring tandem in Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young -- the team's top two scorers in 2006-07 -- will certainly change things for the Yellow Jackets this season, but Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt likes what he has coming back to Atlanta. Senior sharpshooter Anthony Morrow (9.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg), who played through injury much of last season, is finally healthy for the first time in his career and could be an all-league player for the Jackets in 2007-08. Georgia Tech should also benefit from the return of senior center Ra'Sean Dickey (8.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg), who has the opportunity to be a shot-blocking presence once again this season. Of course Lewis Clinch should be the team's primary scorer after averaging 13.2 points last year, but the Jackets could be on the outside looking in come March unless Clinch and Morrow can pick up the slack for Crittenton and Young.


8. Boston College (21-12, 10-6)

Boston College coach Al Skinner loses two critical pieces in Jared Dudley and Sean Williams from last year's team that reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to eventual Final Four participant Georgetown, but the Eagles do return junior point guard Tyrese Rice, a preseason All-ACC candidate who did finish second on the team in scoring with 17.6 points per game. But Skinner doesn't have much in the way of scoring after that, and he'll need guys like John Oates (4.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and Shamari Spears (7.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg) to take on greater scoring responsibilities in 2007-08. While Rice could certainly finish as a First Team All-ACC selection, the Eagles might not have enough offensive weapons to secure their seventh NCAA Tournament bid in the last eight years.


9. Virginia Tech (22-12, 10-6)

The Hokies had a breakthrough year in 2006-07, finishing third in the conference in just its third year as part of the reformed ACC, but a lot has changed in Blacksburg since last season. Leading scorer Zabian Dowdell (17.4 ppg), for one, has graduated, and so has Jamon Gordon (11.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg), leaving Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg to rely on senior guard-forward combo Deron Washington (12.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg) to lead the team at both ends of the floor. Meanwhile, junior A.D. Vassallo will also have to step up his game after averaging 11.1 points and 4.0 as a sophomore. But with Washington and Vassallo as the only two returning starters for the Hokies, Greenberg could be a year away from another postseason berth with so much young talent, including seven freshmen, to develop.


10. Wake Forest (15-16, 5-11)

The tragic death of former coach Skip Prosser this summer left the Wake Forest community in a state of shock for much of the off-season, but with Dino Gaudio taking over as the Demon Deacons' new head man, Wake is hoping to improve upon last's year lackluster finish with four starters returning to Winston-Salem. One of those players is sophomore guard Ishmael Smith (8.7 ppg, 6.0 apg), who became the fifth freshman in ACC history last year to lead the league in assists. Junior guard Harvey Hale will also be a crucial piece for Gaudio this season, but replacing center Kyle Visser, who led the team in scoring with 17 points per game, with a reliable and skilled post player could prove to be the biggest challenge for the former longtime assistant of Prosser.


11. Florida State (22-13, 7-9)

After just missing out on a trip to the NCAA Tournament last season with its most wins since the 1992-93 campaign, Florida State returns four starters to Tallahassee, including Toney Douglas, who finished second on the team in scoring (12.7) and assists (2.7) as a sophomore. But the biggest piece missing from last year is leading scorer Al Thornton (19.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg), and if sixth-year coach Leonard Hamilton hopes to have the Seminoles competing for another postseason berth, he'll need veterans like Isaiah Swann (10.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg) and Jason Rich (10.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg) to carry the load and set an example for the team's six newcomers this season.


12. Miami (12-20, 4-12)

The Hurricanes finished last in the conference a year ago, and while Jack McClinton returns to Coral Gables after averaging a team-high 16.7 points per game and setting a school record for three-point field goals made (91) and free throw percentage (.895), Miami will need more than just the 6-foot-1 junior guard to score the ball each time down the floor. That could be a problem for fourth-year coach Frank Haith, who will need the team's second-leading scorer, Brian Asbury (11.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg), to help McClinton pick up the slack on the offensive end. Haith does have a good amount of experience returning with redshirt senior center Anthony King back for his fifth year and Dwayne Collins (8.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg) settling in at the four spot, but the Hurricanes will need a third scorer to remain competitive in a conference loaded with talent from top to bottom.

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