Forecasting a nine-team basketball conference was trying enough. Then the ACC expanded to 11, then to 12. Now, with the arrivals this season of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, the league balloons to 15.
And quite a 15 it is, littered with NCAA tournament regulars, featuring five past national champions (Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Maryland and Syracuse) and headlined by three Hall of Fame coaches (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Carolina’s Roy Williams and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim).
Which is enough to make any handicapper whimper and crawl into the fetal position.
Wednesday morning at the Charlotte Ritz-Carlton – the venue chosen for its proximity to ESPNU’s studios – media, coaches and players gather for the ACC’s annual preseason Operation Basketball. Here’s how one preseason ballot will look. Last season’s records are in parentheses:
* Virginia’s Joe Harris, 6-6 senior guard: The lone returnee from last season’s All-ACC first-team. Has made himself into an outstanding 3-point shooter.
* Syracuse’s C.J. Fair, 6-8 senior forward: Versatile senior forward led Orange in scoring, rebounding, 3-point accuracy and minutes last season as a junior to earn second-team All-Big East honors.
* Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant, 6-5 senior guard: The son of former Clemson and NBA forward Harvey Grant, Jerian was the Irish’s most skilled player, a second-team All-Big East selection who led his team in scoring and assists.
* Duke’s Rodney Hood, 6-8 sophomore forward: The codger in me still resists voting a freshman to a preseason team, so Hood gets the nod over heralded teammate Jabari Parker. Hood averaged 10.8 points as a freshman at Mississippi State in 2011-12 before sitting out last season.
* Boston College’s Olivier Hanlan, 6-3 sophomore guard: Maybe I’m putting too much stock in his 41-point ACC tournament eruption against Georgia Tech, but Hanlan was the league’s fifth-leading scorer last season, not to mention the rookie of the year.
* Others who merit consideration include North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, the latter’s early-season status is uncertain due to disciplinary matters. Also: Virginia’s Akil Mitchell, Notre Dame’s Eric Atkins, Duke’s Quinn Cook, North Carolina State’s T.J. Warren and Wake Forest’s Travis McKie.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Harris.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Parker.
ORDER OF FINISH
1. DUKE (30-6, 14-4, lost to Louisville in Midwest Regional final): Losing your top three scorers usually precludes a first-place forecast, but Parker, Hood and point guard Quinn Cook make the Blue Devils the clear faves.
2. SYRACUSE (30-10, 11-7 Big East, lost to Michigan in Final Four semi): Fair is the only returnee who averaged more than 5.1 points, but outstanding freshmen led by point guard Tyler Ennis and Boeheim’s trademark 2-3 zone defense virtually assure the Orange will contend.
3. VIRGINIA (23-12, 11-7, lost to Iowa in NIT quarterfinals): I’m buying the hype surrounding Tony Bennett’s fifth Cavaliers team, especially if point guard Malcolm Brogdon’s surgically repaired left foot remains healthy.
4. NORTH CAROLINA (25-11, 12-6, lost to Kansas in NCAA round of 32): With the Tar Heels returning eight of their top 10 scorers, this may be too low. I just wonder about Hairston’s stability.
5. NOTRE DAME (25-10, 11-7 Big East, lost to Iowa State in NCAA round of 64): Atkins, Grant and Pat Connaughton give the Fighting Irish a quality three-guard lineup and are the reason Notre Dame ranked second nationally in assist-turnover ratio.
6. BOSTON COLLEGE (16-17, 7-11): Hanlan and forward Ryan Anderson headline five returning starters from a team that lost seven ACC games by five points or less, three by a point.
7. PITTSBURGH (24-9, 12-6 Big East, lost to Wichita State in NCAA round of 64): With a frontcourt led by seniors Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, there’s little reason to believe the Panthers won’t make the NCAA for the 12th time in the last 13 years.
8. MARYLAND (25-13, 8-10, lost to Iowa in NIT semis): Dez Wells and friends have a decent chance of ending the Big Ten-bound Terps’ three-year NCAA drought, the program’s longest since 1989-93.
9. GEORGIA TECH (16-15, 6-12): The Yellow Jackets haven’t had a winning ACC season since 2004, the year they reached the national title game. Even with four returning starters led by Marcus Georges-Hunt, that’s unlikely to change.
10. FLORIDA STATE (18-16, 9-9, lost to Louisiana Tech in NIT first round): After leading the ACC in field goal percentage for an unprecedented four straight years, the Seminoles plunged to 10th last season, 221st nationally. And that’s why they missed the NCAA for the first time in five years. Forward Okaro White is among seven returnees who started at least five games last season.
11. NORTH CAROLINA STATE (24-11, 11-7, lost to Temple in NCAA round of 64): Last year’s ACC preseason favorite lost its top four scorers and will need significant contributions from newcomers such as center BeeJay Anya, guard Anthony Barber and LSU transfer Ralston Turner.
12. WAKE FOREST (13-18, 6-12) With four returning starters led by McKie, the Deacons should be improved, and for coach Jeff Bzdelik’s sake, they had best be.
13. CLEMSON (13-18, 5-13): If junior wing K.J. McDaniels ever learns to channel his athleticism, he could be all-league material. But there may not be enough talent surrounding him.
14. MIAMI (29-7, 15-3, lost to Marquette in NCAA East Regional semis): With their top six scorers gone, the Hurricanes figure to drop dramatically. DePaul transfer Donnavan Kirk could cushion the fall.
15. VIRGINIA TECH (13-19, 4-14): A third consecutive last-place finish seems likely for a program that lost the nation’s leading scorer in guard Erick Green. Seniors Jarell Eddie and Cadarian Raines need to shoulder more responsibility.
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