Heels shine amid clouds in the ACC; Carolina has its flaws, too, as bedeviled Duke reloads


GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The Atlantic Coast Conference has enjoyed more serene men's basketball off-seasons.

The ACC has suffered some public relations blows since last season, when Duke lost in the NCAA final, making it six straight years without a national championship for the land's proudest league.

North Carolina is the media favorite to win regular-season honors in the ACC for the first time since 1993, when the Tar Heels were the conference's last NCAA champion. On Tobacco Road, however, they are bemoaning several losses: prime recruit Jason Parker to academic deficiencies; assistant coach Phil Ford temporarily to a drinking problem; and tradition, as Michael Jordan has bestowed the Tar Heels with a new uniform design.

Duke has gone 43-5 in the conference during the past three years, and, despite the early departures of Elton Brand, William Avery and Corey Maggette, the Blue Devils won't disappear. The scrutiny was too much for coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose image was tarnished by an ESPN Magazine article on the exodus.

For the second time in three seasons, Duke has the nation's premier recruiting class. Forward Carlos Boozer was the national prep player of the year; 6-foot-11 Casey Sanders should be a force; and Krzyzewski said Jason Williams is the first penetrating point guard he has had since Bobby Hurley.

Is Krzyzewski rejuvenated by the roster makeover?

"I'm not opposed to coaching great talent," said Krzyzewski, who has Chris Carrawell, Shane Battier and Nate James returning. "Will I enjoy this year? Yeah, but last year, that wasn't like sticking pins under my fingernails."

North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge wants to press and run more, but any stylistic changes had to be slowed by the absence of Ford, who has been in treatment since his second drunken driving arrest, in late September. Even if point guard Ed Cota wants to push the pace, the Tar Heels' front line is not built for speed.

Cota, who bucked the trend and returned for his senior season with the Heels, said North Carolina is motivated by last season's NCAA tournament debacle, a first-round loss to Weber State.

"I've watched the second half of the video at least 10 times," said Cota, who is charged with getting the ball inside to 7-foot Brendan Haywood and 6-11 Chris Lang.

The ACC's top-heaviness had a cost last season, when only three teams were selected to the NCAA tournament, its low since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. There should be less of a gulf between the top teams and middle of the pack. That topic is of interest to Maryland coach Gary Williams, who is looking for his seventh straight NCAA bid with a team picked to finish fourth.

"In the ACC, usually, you say it's going to be a dogfight, but that wasn't the case last year," Williams said of a season in which Duke went 16-0 and the Terps 13-3. "This time, you can look at each team and say that if they get certain things going, they're capable."

The Terps will be one of several ACC teams starting a freshman, in their case Steve Blake, at the point. They're anchored by junior forward Terence Morris, who today should be named ACC preseason Player of the Year. The balloting was conducted yesterday, at the ACC's Operation Basketball.

The ACC might appear to be down to outsiders, but that's never the impression on the inside. Just ask Clemson coach Larry Shyatt.

"They'll run over you in a glass-bottom truck," Shyatt said of his league rivals, "and watch you die in your sleep."

NOTES: Drew Nicholas played in Saturday's red-white scrimmage. Williams said he showed no ill effects of the bone he broke in his left hand in September. Virginia coach Pete Gillen, who went with six scholarship players last year, said, "It's nice not to have to coach every dribble" anymore. He's added four freshmen and two transfers, all highly regarded.

ACC predictions

ACC media predicted the order of finish for men's basketball (first-place votes in parentheses):

1. North Carolina (74) 792

2. Duke (16) 712

3. Wake Forest 577

4. Maryland 481

5. N.C. State 442

6. Georgia Tech 396

7. Virginia 351

8. Florida State 179

9. Clemson 113

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