This is the first in a series of conference previews leading up to the opening of college basketball season. TOMORROW: The Big East
It's Final Four or bust for the guys in Carolina Blue.
In 2005, Roy Williams took North Carolina's best team since 1993 to a national title over Illinois. Since then, it's been strong teams but disappointing results for the Tar Heels, right up through last year's Final Four debacle against Kansas; a game which was over before tipoff.
The Heels landed a coup when the pacemakers of their team; Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson and Danny Green; all decided to come back to Chapel Hill after the last three all dipped their toes in the NBA waters.
An ACC regular season and tournament title might just be the tip of the iceberg toward the Tar Heels march to the National Championship.
However, there ARE other teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and they'll all be gunning for UNC throughout 2008-09. Here's my predicted order of finish:
1) North Carolina Tar Heels
Read everything above and it'll explain why the Heels are on top of the ACC this year.
2) Duke Blue Devils
Just another season in Durham. Coach K returns from helping Team USA toward their gold medal and will be the Tar Heels stiffest competition in the ACC this season. They return sharpshooting guards Greg Paulus and Jon Scheyer while sophomore forward Kyle Singler has improved his post presence this past offseason. If Brian Zoubek can stay healthy, the reigning ACC Newcomer of the Year will become a 7'1" terror. Gerald Henderson is quite possibly the best wing in the league; his tenacity and grit are traits that coaches coveted during recruiting and he has only expanded them. Highly touted forward Olek Czyz is in the system now and earned MVP honors during spring workouts.
3) Wake Forest Demon Deacons
The Deacs endured one of the biggest tragedies in recent memory when Skip Prosser suddenly passed away just before last season started. Many pundits wrote off Wake because of a combination of Prosser's passing and their overall youth, but the Demon Deacons came through with a respectable 17-13 record and youngsters like James Johnson and Jeff Teague emerged as budding leaders of the future. All three recruits for 08-09, including Al-Farouq Aminu, kept their commitments as well and Aminu, Tony Woods and Ty Walker will all see significant playing time.
4) Miami Hurricanes
You're not reading incorrectly. The traditional football powerhouse has a hell of a basketball team again this year, and it all centers around stellar senior guard Jack McClinton. He's possibly the most underrated player in the ACC but he's ready to burst on the national scene this season. A dynamite three-point shooter and commanding floor leader, if it weren't for Hansbrough, McClinton might be a frontrunner for POY honors. Beyond Jack, the 'Canes return four starters from a team that won 23 games and made the NCAA Tournament last season, including forwards and dominant rebounders Dwayne Collins and Jimmy Graham.
5) Clemson Tigers
This should take the sting away from another disappointment of a football season: Oliver Purnell is the anti-Tommy Bowden. He's got a young, dynamic and now tournament seasoned team that's hungry to make strides in conference. Though they lose dynamic leaders in Cliff Hammonds and James Mays, senior swingman K.C. Rivers is ready to fill their shoes. The guys helping him out, Demontez Stitt, freshman phenom Andre Young and sharpshooting guard Terrence Oglesby, are a cast of characters that make the Tigers a darkhorse for a top-3 finish in the ACC.
6) Virginia Tech Hokies
Seth Greenberg almost got it done for the Hokies last year, but his team got snubbed on Selection Sunday. Greeny didn't let his team get down about it though, leading VA Tech to the quarterfinals of the NIT after a 21-win season. After being a high-scoring, explosive team in 2006-07 and going to the tourney, the Hokies have transitioned into one of the best defensive lockdown teams among the major conferences. They're a top-three rebounding team in conference but will have to find a way to improve their long range shooting. 1-7 against the RPI top-50 will not cut it, either.
7) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Iman Shumpert is going to make an impact very quickly. He's Paul Hewitt's only freshman and he's going to muscle his way into the rotation with his shooting touch and defensive skill. Bassirou Dieng is a graduate transfer that will use his 6'9" frame to bang around inside and matchup with the best ACC big men.
8) Florida State Seminoles
Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. The 'Noles have made the NIT for three consecutive seasons but have been left at the altar scratching their heads on Selection Sunday in all three of those seasons. I don't think this is the year they'll get over the hump, either. Leonard Hamilton does the best with what he has, which this season will include a major upgrade in size.
9) Boston College Eagles
Tyrese Rice is back, and BC should thank their lucky stars to have him back, as he accounted for 28.5% of their entire offense last season. The Eagles are woeful from the outside but make up for it with adequate defense. Josh Southern and Rakim Sanders show promise, but this is a work in progress for Al Skinner.
10) N.C. State Wolfpack
Was JJ Hickson's departure really addition by subtraction? He commanded touches on almost every possession; something that rubbed many of his teammates the wrong way. Sidney Rice doesn't have a ton of talent to work with, including the lack of a seasoned point guard, and he's got not much to build on after losing their last nine of 2008 by more than 10 points each night.
11) Maryland Terrapins
Hard to believe this team was the national champion just 6 1/2 years ago. Then, it was all about Juan Dixon and Steve Blake...now, it's all about whether Gary Williams will hold onto his job. The program continues to lose the top recruits from Baltimore and Washington year after year. The Terps turn the ball over more than any other team in the ACC, and all of those turnover machines return this season.
12) Virginia Cavaliers
Ever wonder what life in Charlottesville would be like without Sean Singletary? Welcome to it.