Tradition returned to the ACC last season. For only the second time in the past seven seasons, North Carolina and Duke finished one-two in the regular season standings. The teams split their meetings with the Blue Devils dominating the Tar Heels at Chapel Hill and North Carolina returning the favor at Durham. North Carolina went on to win the ACC tournament title and make a run to the Final Four. Duke, however, lost to Clemson in the ACC semifinals and was upset by West Virginia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Expect these two schools to be the class of the ACC again, but don't count out another school making a run come March.
What school might that be? Well there are several other ACC teams primed to make a move at Duke and North Carolina. Wake Forest returns every key player from a 17-13 squad that crushed Duke in the regular season and was highly competitive in ACC play. Plus the Demon Deacons add the number one recruiting class in the ACC led by McDonald's All-American Al-Farouq Aminu, who will start from day one. Virginia Tech should not be taken lightly either. The Hokies return A.D. Vassallo who can put points up on anyone. Seth Greensberg has several other weapons at this disposal, including point guard Malcolm Delaney and post Jeff Allen. Both Miami and Clemson will be factors in the ACC this year as well. Miami has the best player in the ACC, Jack McClinton, save of course Tyler Hansbrough. McClinton's underrated nationally, but should be on everyone's All-American team by the end of the year. Clemson loses two starters off a team that took North Carolina to the wire three times, but still has Trevor Booker down low. If the Tigers can hit their free throws, look out. The rest of the conference lacks firepower, but none of the bottom-six should be considered easy victories.
This should be the year the ACC returns to being one of college basketball's elite confernces. With players such as Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, Gerald Henderson, Kyle Singler, Jack McClinton, A.D. Vassallo, Trevor Booker, Toney Douglas and Gani Lawal on display, the ACC will be a force. While it does not have as many elite teams at the top as the Big East, the ACC is deeper top-to-bottom. At least seven schools will represent the ACC come NCAA Tournament time, and several more will spend Selection Sunday waiting to hear their names called. Here is a break down of each team in the ACC in order of their predicted conference finsh:
1. North Carolina Tar Heels : The young Tar Heels are not so young any more. Tyler Hansbrough seems to to have been in college the past decade and both Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington have started since their freshman seasons. Every key player, except Alex Stepheson, returns from a team that was run out of San Antonio by Kansas at the Final Four. The Tar Heels expect this year to be different, and why shouldn't they? Hansbrough is the reigning national player of the year and needs only 601 points to pass J.J. Redick's ACC mark. Ellington made 40 percent of his threes last season and should be better with another year under his belt. Lawson, Danny Green, Marcus Ginyard, and Deon thompson all return to make this the number one team in the country. As if returning all five starters wasn't enough, the Tar Heels add three McDonald's All-Americans. While Ed Davis, Tyler Zeller, and Larry Drew probalby would start at most schools, they will struggle to find playing time on this loaded North Carolina team. The key for North Carolina is Ty Lawson. While he was injured last year, this was not the same Tar Heels team. If he stays healthy the entire season, college basketball will be hard pressed to find any team capable of knocking off the Tar Heels.
Postseason Prediction: National Champions
2. Duke Blue Devils: When will Duke start playing like Duke again? That's the question that fans in Durham have been asking the past two seasons. At times last season, Duke played like a Final Four team, but when their shots weren't falling, they were succeptable to anyone. The 2008-09 Duke squad will be extremely deep. The Blue Devils return four starters led by Gerald Henderson and Kyle Singler. Henderson is an athletic freak, who has improved his shot as in on every NBA team's radar. Singler's ability to shoot the three made him a matchup nightmare for foes as well as the ACC Rookie of the Year. He was forced to play out of position last year and faded down the stretch. Greg Paulus and Jon Scheyer return for Duke as well, giving the Blue Devils the best shooting duo in the ACC. The only loss for the Blue Devils wass DeMarcus Nelson, the team's leading scorer the past two seasons. Nelson will be replaced by freshman Elliot Williams, who has the ability to be one of Duke's all-time greats. How far Duke goes in March will depend on if they find a low-post threat. That role may belong to another freshman, Miles Plumlee. Plumlee signed with Stanford, but decommitted when Trent Johnson left for LSU. Plumlee's development will be key to how far Duke goes this year.
Postseason Prediction: Final Four
3. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: Wake Forest never fully recovered last season after the passing of its head coach, Skip Prosser. The Demon Deacons were talented, but young which often showed on the court. New head coach Dino Gaudio proved last season he was the right man to replace Prosser, by leading the Demon Deacons to a 17-13 record, 7-9 in ACC play including an emotional win at home over the Duke Blue Devils. The Demon Deacons surpassed expectations last season led by James Johnson and Jeff Teague. As freshmen, Johnson and Teague led Wake Forest in scoring and showed glimpss of excellence. johnson is a beast dwon low and should dominate with another year's experience. Teague struggled early on, but by conference play, had developed his shooting touch. Wake Forest returns Ishmael Smith at point guard. Smith led the Demon Deacons in assists as a sophomore, but shot an atrocious 29.1 percent from the foul line. Wake Forest's freshmen class will determine whether or not this team reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. This three-man class of Al-Farouq Aminu, Ty Walker, and Tony Woods committed to Wake Forest under Prosser and kept their committments after his passing. All three will play roles in the success of Wake Forest this year.
Postseason Prediction: Sweet Sixteen
4. Virginia Tech Hokies: A win over North Carolina in the ACC semifinals would have put the Hokies in the NCAA Tournament last season. Instead, after the taking the Tar Heels to the wire, Virginia Tech had to reluctantly accept a NIT bid. This season should be different. Virginia Tech returns its core of players led by A.D. Vassallo. Vassallo isn't a household name, but could be if Virginia Tech reaches its potential. His 16.9 ppg led the Hokies as did Vassallo's 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc. Virginia Tech lacks the height of most other ACC schools, but that doesn't mean the Hokies lack frontcourt talent. Jeff Allen played out of position last year at center, but proved effective. He averaged 11.8 ppg and 7.6 rpg. Not bad for a 6-7 post player who battled weight problems his freshman year. Sophomore Malcolm Delaney will run the point again this year and if he continues to improve, the Hokies will be a force in the ACC. Virginia Tech's success will depend on the players behind these three. Someone needs to step up and be another scoring option for the Hokies this year. Two candidates are junior Lewis Witcher and sophomore J.T. Thompson. One or a combination of both will need to replace the departed Deron Washington's althetic presence if the Hokies are to truely make a run this season.
Postseason Prediction: Second Round
5. Miami Hurricanes: Raise your hand if you thought you would ever see Miami basketball out perform Miami football. Didn't think so. Sure the Hurricanes have taken several steps back on the gridiron, but head coach Frank Haith has taken Miami basketball just as many steps forward and made it respectable again. Haith's Hurricanes reached the NCAA tournament last season before bowing out to Texas in the second round. The star of this team is Jack McClinton. McClinton was virtually unstoppable last seaon as he averaged 17.7 ppg. Fouling him wasn't an option either as McClinton shot 91.9 percent from the line last year. McClinton is one of a few players who could challenge Tyler Hansbrough for ACC Player of the Year and it shouldn't surprise anyone if he does. Dwayne Collins does the dirty work for Miami. While not much of a scorer, Collins is a force on the boards and on the defensive side of the ball. Point guard duties will fall to either Lance Hurdle or Eddie Rios. Hurdle, a junior college transfer, started last year while Rios learned the ropes as freshman. One of these two will need to grab control for Miami to be successful. Haith signed as a solid recruiting class led by high-flying DeQuan Jones. Jones, a top-100 recruit, should put up points off the bench and possibly could be a starter by season's end. With Jack McClinton's stellar play, finding a point guard to run the team will determine the Hurricanes' fate.
Postseason Prediction: Second Round
6. Clemson Tigers: The Tigers are for real. Clemson took the ACC by storm last year by beating Duke and taking North Carolina to the wire on three occasions. Losing to Villanova in the first round, however, put a damper on the season, but the Tigers are back this year. Cliff Hammonds and James Mays are gone, but Clemson returns several other key players. Trevor Booker is undersized at 6-7 to play center in the ACC, but few others havew his motor. His rebounding is subreb as are Booker's shot-blocking skills. If he can improve his scoring, Clemson will be even better. K.C. Rivers returns as well for his senior year at Clemson. Rivers has always been known as a shooter, but increased his scoring to 14.7 ppg last season. Behind Booker and Rivers, Clemson is a little shaky. Terrence Oglesby was a three-point shooting specialist last season and was given free-rain to shoot whenever he wanted. As a sophomore, he'll need to expand his game as ACC foes will not overlook him this year. Point guard Demontez Stitt will play a key role for the Tigers as well. Stitt grew as the season went along and should be able to continue his growth this season. Oliver Purnell brought in another good recruiting class led by 5-9 guard Andre Young. Had Young been three inches taller, he would have been a top-25 recruit with his talent. Clemson may be down a bit early as they search for a third scorer, but by ACC play, Purnell will have theTigers as competitive as ever.
Postseason Prediction: Second Round
7. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: It seems like just yesterday the Yellow Jackets were the toast of the ACC, a Final Four team with all the momentum on their side. Those days are long gone. Two consecutive losing seasons have put head coach Paul Hewitt on the hot seat despite signing four McDonald's All-Americans the past three years. This Yellow Jacket team should be at least on the NCAA Tournament bubble, if not better, depending on the growth of its young players. Gani Lawal is a sophomore this season which makes him one of the most experienced players on the Georgia Tech roster. Lawal has caught the attention of NBA scouts and needs to stay focused on college before thinking of his pro future, unlike some Yellow Jackets of recent years. Lewis Clich needs to regain his touch this year. Clinch's off-the-court troubles have been well documented and have prevented him from becoming an all-ACC calibar player. Clinch needs to stay on the court this year because of his ability to strech the floor, something Georgia Tech lacked last year. Point guard for the Yellow Jackets is secure with Maurice Miller starting. Miller overcame injuries last season to become Georgia Tech's point guard as a freshman. It wouldn't be surprising if Hewitt uses a lot of three-guard sets with Miller, Clinch, and freshman superstar Iman Shumpert on the floor. Shumpert, a 6-5 guard, has a chance to be special and should compete for ACC Rookie of the Year honors. The Yellow Jackets have been down as of late, but should rebound and be in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament berth this season.
Postseason Prediction: First Round
8. Florida State Seminoles: Could this be the season the Seminoles finally break into the NCAA Tournament? Possibly, but not unless Florida State starts beating the teams it should beat night in and night out. It seems every year Florida State beats one of the ACC's elite teams only to fall to a bottom-dweller the next game. Head coach Leonard Hamilton hopes to change that this year. Hamilton will count on Toney Douglas to led the Seminoles once again this year. Douglas was the team's leading scorer and defensive stopper. He topped the ACC in steals last season and is expected to do just a swell on defense again this year. Florida State will have plenty of depth in the post as well. 6-9 power forward Uche Echefu is back for his senior season. Echefu has had an up-and-down career, but took a step forward last season, especially with his offensive game. 7-1 Solomon Alabi is finally healthy this year. His freshman campaign was cut short due to injury and Alabai was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA. Joining Echefu and Alabi down low will be two of the ACC's best freshmen, Chris Singleton and Xavier Gibson. Singleton, a McDonald's All-American, was recruited heavily by ACC and SEC schools, but chose the Seminoles in the end. Gibson escaped Alabama's hands and committed to Hamilton. Both freshmen should play often and factor into the Seminoles' attack. Leonard Hamilton has Florida State on the upswing. Whether or not he leads them to the NCAA Tournament remains to be seen.
Postseason Prediction: NIT
9. N.C. State Wolfpack: Sidney Lowe is directly on the hot seat after last season's decision to start J.J. Hickson over Ben McCauley. This displeased the Wolfpack faithful and hurt the team's chemistry. In 2007, N.C. State made a run to the ACC Championship game with great team chemistry. Last season was a disaster, to say the least, for the Wolfpack. Sure Hickson put up big numbers and was a NBA Draft pick, but he dominated the ball too much and affected the play of bigs McCauley and Brandon Coster. Most people feel Hickson's departure is addition by subtraction, which should appear in games this year. McCauley was solid as a sophomore, but couldn't find his niche during his junior year as a result of Hickson's presence. Costner's play declined as well, from an all-conference freshman year, to an underachieving sophomore season plagged by times of looking lost and lack of energy. Courtney Fells returns for the Wolfpack at shooting guard and brings great shooting ability. Fells is easily able to get his shot off with his 6-6 frame, but needs to be a leader his senior year. N.C. State needs to find a point guard and quick. Javier Gonzalez ran the point last year, but could be replaced by Farnold Degand, who missed half of the year with an injury. The reemergence of both McCauley and Costner will determine whether or not the Wolfpack return to the Big Dance this year.
Postseason Prediction: NIT
10. Maryland Terrapins: Oh, how the mighty have fallen. This was once a top-10 program, annually competing with the likes of Duke and North Carolina for ACC titles. Times have changed in College Park, though. Gary Williams is still at Maryland, but for how long. One NCAA Tournament appearance in the last four years has the fans restless. The Terrapins lost its two post starters in James Gist and Bambsle Osby. Together, they combined to form the best duo down-low in the ACC and will be hard to replace. Grevis Vasquez returns, but that isn't always a good thing. At times Vasquez can be the best point guard in the country as evidenced by his 6.8 apg, which led the ACC. However, Vasquez led the NCAA in turnovers as well last season with a total of 149. That's way too many to be successful in the rigorous ACC. Eric Hayes is back at the other guard postition and should be the beneficiary of several Vasquez assists. Hayes is another great shooter in a conference seemingly loaded with an endless amount of shooters. The small forward spot should be secure with Lsndon Milbourne coming back. Milbourne improved greatly last year and could be one of the conference's best. How Maryland replaces Gist and Osby will be the key this year. Williams only signed one recruit, 6-4 Sean Mosley, so help won't come from there. Someone will have to step up in the paint, otherwise it could be a long season for Maryland.
Postseason Prediction: NIT
11. Boston College Eagles: Quick, name a Boston College player other than Tyrese Rice. Give up, well you're not alone. Rice was a one-man show for the Eagles last season. His 21.0 ppg was second best in the conference and included a 46-point showing against North Carolina. Rice's play kept Boston College in many games last year, but he can't do it alone again. Head coach Al Skinner needs an unheralded recruit to step up as Jared Dudley and Craig Smith did in the past. That player could be Rakim Sanders. He averaged 11.3 ppg for the Eagles last season and came on strong to end the year. Sanders plays bigger than his 6-5 frame would indicate, and he isn't afraid to mix it up down low. Another big for the Eagles is 6-10 sophomore Josh Southern, another under recruited player who ended up at Boston College with something to prove. His emergence will be key for the Eagles this season. Boston College needs to find a point guard to take the pressure of ball-handling off of Rice. Biko Paris may be asked to do so, but is inexperienced and could struggle with the likes of Ty Lawson in the ACC. Rice is more than capable of running the point, but Boston College would be better served with him off the ball. Just when the Eagles look down, Al Skinner always seems to pull a rabbit out of his hat and make them overachieve. He'll need to do that gain this year because besides Tyrese Rice, this team simply lacks the talent of other ACC schools.
Postseason Prediction: NIT
12. Virginia Cavaliers: Sean Singletary finally exhausted his college eligibility last year. Gone are his 16.9 ppg and 222 three-pointers over his four year years at Virginia. Head coach Dave Leito needs someone to replace Singletary and that person could be Sylven Landesberg. He was a 6-6 McDonald's All-American out of New York, and will be counted on to pick up some of Singletary's offense. Landesberg, who chose Virginia over a handful of top Big East programs, has all the tools to be great, but will need time to adjust to the college game. The Cavaliers leading returning scorer is Mamadi Diane, a 6-5 senior swingman. Diane was a good scoring option last season, but that was with Singletary having to deal with being the defense's number one concern. His ability to step up his scoring output will be a factor in how well Virginia does this year. Leitao has several quality post options at his disposal this season. 6-8 power forward Mike Scott was a starter last year, but never was a dominate post presence. 7-0 Assane Sene and 6-11 John Brandenburg both are incoming freshmen who should play roles on this Cavaliers squad. Point guard for Virginia likely will be Calvin Baker, a William & Mary transfer. Baker played exceptionally well last year backing up Singletary when given the chance. This is going to be a long year for Dave Leito and his Cavaliers. They were only 17-16, 5-11 in conference, with Sean Singletary, so expect this year not to be any better. Leito has plenty of talent on the roster, but Virginia likely is at least a year away.
Postseason Prediction: None