Nathenastlea's Blog
The ACC men's basketball season promises to be different.

For the first time since the ACC added a trio of Big East schools, there is not one overwhelming favorite to win and/or run away with the league in 2009-10.

Yes, North Carolina will go off as the favorite, but these Tar Heels, minus four starters from their national title team, are not like the past three heavily favored versions or the 2005 team. (Duke, in 2006, was the other lock-solid favorite.)

With the aid of some slight underachieving _ and the unbalanced schedule _ UNC technically shared the 2007 regular-season title with Virginia. Still, the record will note all of the favorites held serve.

This coming season will be more of a combination of the 1984-85 and 1994-95 seasons than anything the ACC has seen since Miami and Virginia Tech joined the league before the 2004-05 season and Boston College came a season later.

In 1985, an incredible five teams in what was then an eight-team league were separated by one game. Georgia Tech, UNC (coping with the loss of some random future megastar named Michael Jordan) and N.C. State each went 9-5. Duke and Maryland were a whisper behind at 8-6.

The good teams were good (three of those teams made the NCAA quarterfinals), but not great (none of them made the Final Four). The bad teams were just blah.

In 1995, Wake Forest, UNC, Maryland and Virginia tied for first _ the only time in league history the regular season ended in a four-way tie.

The league was top heavy, though, with the top four locked at 12-4. None of the other five teams finished above .500.

That season also was notable for the vast amount of individual talent spread throughout the conference. A record eight first-round picks, not including some random sophomore at Wake Forest named Tim Duncan, matriculated in the ACC that season.

Next season should be clustered at the top and filled with future NBA talent. A conservative count would be 10 first-rounders playing in the ACC this season.

Since expansion, it has either been "UNC and Everybody Else," or "Duke and Everybody Else." The provincial view says it will be "UNC, Duke and Everybody Else" in 2009-10, but as many as six teams enter the season with a legitimate shot at winning the regular season.

Another three teams harbor hopes of an NCAA Tournament spot. On paper, only three teams (N.C. State, Virginia and Miami) appear dead-on-arrival in terms of postseason ambitions.

The 1985 comparison is notable because, at 9-5, Georgia Tech that year had the lowest winning percentage (.643) of any No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament since the league was formed. Even if it's "UNC, Duke and Everybody Else," neither university in the Research Triangle Park area is going to run away from the conference. I'd bet the first to 11 league victories wins. When UNC won the regular season with 11 victories in 2007, five teams were separated by one game.

The point is, this race will be closer than close. So what separates 11-5 from 9-7? Coaching, experience, outside shooting, motivation, the schedule and talent.

The Tar Heels have the coaching and talent, and the schedule can't be that bad, because UNC can't play UNC.

But when it comes to experience, only forward Deon Thompson and wing Marcus Ginyard have more than two college starts.

Outside shooting? Point guard Larry Drew II, shooting guard Dexter Strickland and Ginyard are not Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green. That's not a knock _ it's just fact. The current group has a different skill set.

And though Roy Williams' fast-break offense is not predicated on the three-pointer, Lawson (51), Green (77) and Ellington (85) combined to make 213 3s last season. No other ACC team had three players make 50 or more 3s.

Motivation? This is a biggie. How many times did Williams mention that Sports Illustrated (or The Associated Press) didn't rank UNC in the preseason top 25? Or that UNC was picked sixth in the conference? Ol' Roy burned that respect card into the ground and then lit the ashes on fire to stoke that post-title team to the max.

This post-title team will go off in the top five nationally and as the preseason favorite. That's the main difference between this team and that overachieving 2006 team. And that, my friends, is the difference between going 12-4, and striving to prove the world wrong, and settling in comfortably at 10-6.

A dark horse from Boston College, Maryland, Florida State or Georgia Tech could emerge to win the regular season. Each team has its strengths _ experience (BC), 3-point shooting (Maryland), talent (FSU and Georgia Tech) and motivation (Georgia Tech) _ but each has its flaws.

How will BC adjust without Tyrese Rice? Has Maryland really upgraded its bigs? Will Florida State show life after Toney Douglas? Will Georgia Tech successfully navigate the toughest schedule in the league?

That leaves only one team: Duke.

Coaching? Check. Experience? Check. Outside shooting? Check. Motivation? Check. Schedule? They should go 6-0 in their home-only and away-only games. Talent? Not as much as there could be, but enough.

No question. fatigue will be a challenge, especially for Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer, but it's not as if Mike Krzyzewski specializes in the 12-man rotation. In Singler, Scheyer, Nolan Smith, Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek, Duke has five ACC-tested veterans who offset the potential talent gap with the experience of playing together.

UNC has more talent (although six guys play the same position), but aside from summer pickup games, no experience in being on the floor together. And the aforementioned backcourt problems.

Yes, Duke is thin on the perimeter, but the Devils don't have to run last season's ACC gantlet of great guards. Lawson, Ellington, Rice, Douglas, Jeff Teague and Jack McClinton are gone.

There basically are Malcolm Delaney at Virginia Tech and Greivis Vasquez at Maryland, and then a mixture of mediocrity and inexperience among the other nine backcourts.

Duke's big men aren't overwhelming, but they are functional.

That means the season hinges on the ability of Singler, Scheyer, Smith and freshman Ryan Kelly to hit outside shots. I'll take that bet, and my guess is so will Krzyzewski.

If Duke can squeeze guard Andre Dawkins into school a year early, then Krzyzewski could use Dawkins, Kelly and the Plumlee brothers off the bench. That's a nine-man rotation, which is roughly 2{ more spots than K used in winning the national title in 2001.

And let's go back to motivation. Duke will be in full "UNC 2005-06 mode," overlooked because of the exits of Gerald Henderson (NBA) and Elliot Williams (transfer) and intent on proving it can keep up with UNC.

We don't know what will happen. Heck, there could be another four-way tie like 1995.

I do know this _ it will be different.


RALEIGH NEWS & OBSERVER staff writers' ACC basketball picks:

J.P. Giglio

1. Duke

2. UNC

3. Boston College

4. Maryland

5. Florida State

6. Georgia Tech

7. Clemson

8. Virginia

9. Virginia Tech

10. Wake Forest

11. N.C. State

12. Miami

Robbi Pickeral

1. UNC

2. Duke

3. Boston College

4. Georgia Tech

5. Florida State

6. Maryland

7. Wake Forest

8. Clemson

9. Virginia Tech

10. N.C. State

11. Virginia

12. Miami


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