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Atlantic Coast Conference preview
By Tony Mejia
SportsLine.com Staff Writer
1. Wake Forest
2. Georgia Tech
3. North Carolina
4. N.C. State
7. Florida State
10. Virginia Tech
11. Miami (Fla.)
Have you caught the new commercials the ACC has put out welcoming new members Miami and Virginia Tech?
Chris Paul will run the show for a team that was very good last season -- and returns five starters.(AP)
For those who might have missed it, the spots feature the existing nine mascots holding hands and dancing as Sebastian the Ibis and the HokieBird are dropped into the group by some form of airlift. Everyone cheers.
Cynically, we wonder if there's a basketball-specific version. In ours, the ibis and maroon turkey-looking thing would be thrown out of a plane into a waiting ring of fire, where demonic-faced Deacons and Blue Devils hiss menacingly and the look on the faces of the new arrivals matches the dictionary definition of horrified.
Not exactly as kid-friendly as the existing piece, but certainly more realistic. The new-look ACC has terrific balance at the top, but there's no question that the new arrivals will be bringing up the rear, with their best chance for conference wins coming against each other.
Wake Forest and North Carolina are considered the favorites by most, but even these Final Four contenders have question marks. The Demon Deacons have to prove they've learned to play defense, a concept that eluded them last season, while UNC's depth and chemistry remain concerns.
National runner-up Georgia Tech, Julius Hodge-led N.C. State and perennial powers Duke and Maryland lurk as well. Welcome aboard, 'Canes and Hokies.
Top three: PG Chris Paul, SG Justin Gray, PF Jamaal Levy.
On the rise: It must be real nice to be on the cusp of greatness and have nothing to do but improve.
That's the story at Wake Forest, where all five starters return from a 21-win team that was often as impressive as you would find in all of college basketball a year ago. Paul is expected to emerge as the finest point guard in the country, a title that could have realistically been bestowed upon him last year.
The improvement of plastic man Levy and bulky Eric Williams in the post will be essential to Wake taking the next step, but should either stumble, there's great depth provided by senior Vytas Danelius and promising sophomore center Kyle Visser. Gray and Trent Strickland will be counted on to fill it up from the perimeter, while old man Taron Downey can play either guard spot and gives Skip Prosser's three-guard lineup great versatility.
Last year's Achilles' heel, shoddy defense, will be a weakness Prosser will work on all season. It came as no surprise that the first 45 minutes of this year's initial practice was spent on guarding the ball and contesting shots.
Top three: SG B.J. Elder, PG Jarrett Jack, C Luke Schenscher.
On the decline: It's going to be hard to top last season's magical run, if only because the Yellow Jackets will be the hunted in 2004, no longer the surprise of the nation as they were a year ago.
Paul Hewitt has a terrific backcourt in place with Jack and Elder back, as well as freakishly athletic wings in Will Bynum and Isma'il Muhammad. The question marks lie up front. Can Schenscher continue to dominate the way he did in March? He had a bone spur removed from his foot in the offseason. What can freshmen Ra'Sean Dickey and Jeremis Smith add? Who replaces Marvin Lewis as a frontcourt perimeter threat?
With five seniors back surrounding Jack, who often plays like one, expect Hewitt's team to thrive despite the target on their back. Notching another national championship appearance? That's a different story.
Top three: SG Rashad McCants, PG Raymond Felton, C Sean May.
On the rise: Roy Williams had a one-year grace period to re-adjust to the ACC. With that out of the way, the demanding UNC fans want results and they want them now. Suffice to say, .500 in conference play isn't going to cut it.
Everybody is back for the Heels, which gives us an opportunity to see what Williams' coaching skills can do. Will Felton become a better shooter and defender? Can the "misunderstood" McCants mature and really become the star he has the ability to be? Will May be able to get through the year healthy? Can Jawad Williams finally put his vast package of skills together as a senior?
Despite the fact that top recruits J.R. Smith and JamesOn Curry failed to arrive in Chapel Hill, there will still be improved depth with hyped newcomers Marvin Williams and Quentin Thomas joining Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott, David Noel and Reyshawn Terry as valuable role players.
Top three: SF Julius Hodge, PG Engin Atsur, PF Ilian Evtimov.
On the decline: Hodge earned ACC player of the year honors after leading the Wolfpack to a surprise runner-up finish in conference play. With the Harlem product back for his senior year, anything is possible.
That said, the loss of double-digit scorers Marcus Melvin and Scooter Sherrill is going to be felt, even though the arrival of Georgetown transfer Tony Bether is expected to ease Sherrill's loss. As for Melvin, how are you going to replace a gritty 6-8 banger who was money from 3-point range? You're not.
Still, Herb Sendek has another NCAA Tournament team on his hands, especially since Turkish sophomore point guard Atsur can only improve and veterans Jordan Collins, Levi Watkins and Cameron Bennerman are welcoming enhanced roles.
Top three: F/C Shelden Williams, SG J.J. Redick, G Daniel Ewing.
On the decline: Mike Krzyzewski was counting on Shaun Livingston, the No. 1 high school player in America in many eyes, to step in and replace Chris Duhon. Livingston had other ideas, inciting enough drool over his potential to land a spot in the NBA Draft Lottery.
Ah, but you don't get to be Coach K without a Plan B.
Sean Dockery is a strong defender who can run the show, but Krzyzewski has been experimenting with Ewing, the team's only significant senior, at the position. Expect Ewing to be invaluable in the manner of past Duke unheralded standouts Chris Carrawell and Roshown McLeod, serving as a key component opposite stars Williams and Redick, who may just be the league's top inside-outside combination.
Other X-factors will be the development of Shavlik Randolph, being counted on to play major minutes up front, and freshman guard DeMarcus Nelson, who will cause matchup problems due to his good size (6-4) and great quickness.
Top three: PG John Gilchrist, SF Nik Caner-Medley, F/C Travis Garrison.
On the rise: After an unexpectedly strong start, the Terps crashed down to earth when ACC play came around last year, losing eight of 11 before rallying to finish strong and creep into the NCAAs.
One big reason for the resurgence was the play of Gilchrist and Caner-Medley, who took turns carrying the team on their back. They will be deadly as juniors, but need help from big men Ekene Ibekwe and Hassan Fofana, who were extremely erratic as freshmen. One of them must step up to help complement Garrison, who takes over the post go-to role vacated by Jamar Smith.
Gary Williams was forced to go exclusively with youth last year and should be rewarded with a more disciplined squad in 2004-05. As they say, the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores.
Top three: C Alexander Johnson, SG Von Wafer, SF Antonio Griffin.
On the decline: This year's fortunes may not be as bright as last year's -- the Noles did win 19 games -- but you're not going to see this program having a down year very often under Leonard Hamilton's watch. This season just happens to be one of transition.
Gone is shooting guard Tim Pickett, a fearless scorer and pocket-picker who willed his young teammates to some great performances last season. He and senior leader Nate Johnson are damaging losses, but the bright side is it forces young guys like Wafer and incoming freshmen Isaiah Swann, Jason Rich and Ralph Mims to grow up quickly. Alexander Johnson is among the ACC's most promising young big men, and he'll get help this year from fellow 6-10 mountain Diego Romero, who redshirted last year after being initially sidelined as the NCAA took its sweet time clearing up his eligibility.
NIT this season, loads of NCAAs in the years to come.
Top three: F/C Sharrod Ford, F Olu Babalola, SG Shawan Robisnon.
On the rise: Oliver Purnell didn't have too much to work with in his first season at the helm, yet found a way to keep his team in plenty of games, even beating UNC and N.C. State.
Things will be slightly better this year, if only because Purnell's newest recruiting class, five-deep, will allow him to field some decent depth. The offense will center around Ford, whose productivity inside opens things up for Robinson from the outside.
Clemson could use more consistency at the point, so if sophomore Vernon Hamilton continues to struggle, don't be surprised to see freshman Troy Mathis getting his shot.
Top three: F/C Elton Brown, F Devin Smith, SG J.R. Reynolds.
On the rise: Is it do or die for Pete Gillen? Probably. He has seven years remaining on his contract, but patience is wearing thin considering the Cavs have flirted more with the ACC basement than with the NCAAs since 2001.
The frontcourt should be a good starting block with seniors Brown, Smith and Jason Clark back. All are rugged rebounders whose desire can't be questioned. Whether they can save the job of the coach who recruited them remains to be seen, but it won't be entirely up to them. Consistent point guard play must be provided by either T.J. Bannister or Sean Singletary, and both are unproven. Reynolds must also continue to develop into one of the ACC's most feared shooters.
The sense of urgency is great, but the talent level isn't. For Gillen, that can't be reassuring.
Top three: PF/C Coleman Collins, PG Marquie Cooke, G Jamon Gordon.
On the decline: It's going to be a long climb for the Hokies, and they won't have security blanket Bryant Matthews, who averaged 22 points and nine boards per game -- along for their first ACC ride.
Replacing the graduated Matthews will be Collins, a sophomore who excelled in his first season and will be the focal point inside. Seth Greenberg expects to surround him with four perimeter players, including 6-7 swingman Carlos Dixon, a fifth-year senior coming off a medical hardship, and true freshman Cooke, the reigning Mr. Basketball in Virginia.
Top three: G Robert Hite, G Guillermo Diaz, C Gary Hamilton.
On the decline: The Hurricanes have done this before -- entering a league they had no business being in -- and it took them a couple of years to escape the Big East cellar.
New head coach Frank Haith knows there will be growing pains, but expects the transition to be a little smoother than it was for Leonard Hamilton in the early '90s. A master recruiter with a great university to sell, it's inevitable that Haith gets things turned around in Coral Gables.
As for this year, they're almost certainly bringing up the rear, with high-flying scoring guards Hite and Diaz the only real attractions worth watching.
F -- Julius Hodge, N.C. State
C -- Shelden Williams, Duke
G -- Chris Paul, Wake Forest
G -- Rashad McCants, North Carolina
G -- B.J. Elder, Georgia Tech
F -- Jamaal Levy, Wake Forest
C -- Sean May, North Carolina
G -- Jarrett Jack, Georgia Tech
G -- Raymond Felton, North Carolina
G -- John Gilchrist, Maryland
Player of the year
Chris Paul, Wake Forest
Newcomer of the year
Marquie Cooke, Virginia Tech
Alexander Johnson, Florida State
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