So why not do some early handicapping of next season’s ACC basketball race?
* North Carolina (29-8, 14-2 last season) is as no-duh a first-place choice as Duke was last season. That “oops” notwithstanding, not even Larry Drew II would pick against the Tar Heels. They not only return Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall, Tyler Zeller and John Henson, but also add freshman James McAdoo of Norfolk Christian, the MVP of the McDonald’s and Jordan Classic all-star games.
* The departures of Nolan Smith, Kyrie Irving and Kyle Singler would derail most. Duke (32-5, 13-3) is not most. Combine the older Plumlee brothers, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins with a five-man recruiting class that includes Austin Rivers, Quinn Cook and Marshall Plumlee, and you have another top-15 squad for Mike Krzyzewski.
* The only program other than Duke to win at least 10 ACC games the last three seasons is Florida State (23-11, 11-5). Here’s betting the Seminoles make it four, despite Chris Singleton’s early entry to the NBA. With Bernard James, Okaro White, Terrance Shannon and Xavier Gibson, FSU again will play suffocating defense, while freshman guard Aaron Thomas could become a much-needed scorer.
* Miami (21-15, 6-10) has never finished this high in seven seasons of ACC membership. Why now? Well, the Hurricanes lost only one notable player, forward and part-time starter Adrian Thomas, and return a dynamic backcourt in Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant. If new coach Jim Larranaga whips 6-foot-10, 300-pound center Reggie Johnson into shape, look out.
* Fifth place usually translates to the NCAA tournament, and that’s a viable goal for a Virginia (16-15, 7-9) program that progressed last season despite losing its best player, forward Mike Scott, to an ankle injury. Scott returns, along with a perimeter of Joe Harris, KT Harrell, Sammy Zeglinski and defensive ace Jontel Evans. Plus, there’s 6-9 redshirt James Johnson and freshman wing Malcolm Brogdon.
Picking Tony Bennett’s squad ahead of Virginia Tech may strike some as contradicting a post earlier this week about the Hokies being a safer investment over the next five years, but I don’t believe so. That’s bigger picture, and this is a snapshot. Besides, look who’s right behind the Cavaliers.
* Virginia Tech (22-12, 9-7) failed to make the NCAA tournament four years running with two of the best players in school history, Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen. But the Hokies will return to the “bubble” with veterans Erick Green, Dorenzo Hudson and JT Thompson, and rookies Dorian Finney-Smith (Portsmouth’s Norcom High) and C.J. Barksdale.
* After advancing in the NCAAs for the first time since 1997, Clemson (22-12, 9-7) extended first-year coach Brad Brownell’s contract. No doubt, Brownell can X and O, and he’ll have to with a team that loses top scorers Demontez Stitt and Jerai Grant. The Tigers need junior forwards Devin Booker and Milton Jennings to emerge.
* North Carolina State (15-16, 5-11) has been searching for a point guard since Chris Corchiani graduated 20 years ago. Or so it seems. Ryan Harrow’s arrival last season was supposed to end that quest. But Harrow is gone after a one-year cameo, transferring to Kentucky after coach Sidney Lowe’s dismissal and another disappointing Wolfpack season. C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown, Harrow’s similarly hyped classmates, need to play at that level for new coach Mark Gottfried.
* Georgia Tech (5-11, 13-18) hasn’t enjoyed a winning ACC season since 2004, the conference’s longest current drought. Don’t expect that to change in Brian Gregory’s first year on the job. Former coach Paul Hewitt’s best player, Iman Shumpert, bailed early for the NBA, leaving behind six players who started at least five games last season, led by Glen Rice and Brian Oliver.
* New Maryland (19-14, 7-9) coach Mark Turgeon’s first order of business was to convince incoming freshman wing Nick Faust to remain with the Terps and team with returnees Terrell Stoglin and Sean Mosley. Mission accomplished. But Jordan Williams’ early NBA draft entry robs Maryland of its only post presence, and Gary Williams’ unexpected retirement robs the program of a coach who belongs in the Hall of Fame.
* Steve Donahue was impressive in his first year coaching Boston College (21-13, 9-7). He needs to be far better this season. The Eagles lose their top five scorers, most notably Joe Trapani and early NBA exit Reggie Jackson, and welcome eight freshmen, four from California. BC’s top returning scorer? Sophomore forward Danny Rubin, who averaged all of 4.1 points. Ouch.
* Ouch doesn’t begin to describe Wake Forest’s pain last season, when the Deacons (8-24, 1-15) face-planted under new coach Jeff Bzdelik. Guard Gary Clark is the only notable departure, Travis McKie and J.T. Terrell flashed promise last year as freshmen, and Tony Chennault should return from a foot injury. But are they enough to spare the Deacons the first back-to-back last-place finishes in program history?