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ACC reset: Watered-down league looks like no match for Duke

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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With conference play beginning in earnest this week, it's time to revisit our preseason projections. Here's a look back at how the ACC fared in non-conference play and an updated forecast for the league season:

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Conference RPI: 4

Record against Big Six opponents: 21-22

Conference favorite: Whether Kyrie Irving's toe injury sidelines him for the rest of the season or not, Duke is still a heavy favorite to capture another ACC crown. Not only do the Blue Devils still boast the conference's best talent, fellow preseason contenders North Carolina (point guard play), Virginia Tech (front court injuries) and Florida State (half-court offense) all have glaring weaknesses that make them vulnerable.

Pleasant surprise: Either Miami or Virginia could make an argument, but a 10-2 start makes Boston College the most worthy. In ex-Cornell coach Steve Donahue's first season in Chestnut Hill, the Eagles have won nine of 10 since an early loss to Yale, defeating Texas A&M and Cal on a neutral court, winning at home against Providence and slipping past Maryland on the road.

Biggest disappointment: This was supposed to be the year Virginia Tech avoided the bubble discussion and earned a high seed in the NCAA tournament, but early losses and a flurry of injuries suggest the Hokies may be fortunate to even make the NIT. Guard Dorenzo Hudson and forwards Cadarian Raines, J.T. Thompson and Allan Chaney are each out for the season, leaving Virginia Tech thin in the frontcourt and overly reliant on star guard Malcolm Delaney.

Player of the Year: If Duke is without Irving for the rest of the season, the Blue Devils are very lucky to be able to slide Smith from off guard to point guard. The senior has emerged as Duke's best player so far this season, averaging 17.1 points per game and dishing out a conference-best 5.4 assists per game including 10 against Bradley earlier this month in the team's first game without Irving.

Best freshman: It would be a no-brainer for this to go to Irving were he healthy, but his absence makes this an underwhelming three-way debate between North Carolina's Harrison Barnes and the Wake Forest duo of J.T. Terrell and Travis McKie. At this juncture in the season, the most deserving is McKie, who has averaged 13 points and 8.5 rebounds for the struggling Demon Deacons while scoring far more efficiently than either Barnes or Terrell.

Three best wins:

• 1. Duke 82, Kansas State 68

Comment: Even a purple-clad crowd in Kansas City did little to help the Wildcats keep this one close.

• 2. Virginia 87, Minnesota 79

Comment: For Virginia to deal previously surging Minnesota its lone non-conference loss was by far the biggest upset of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

• 3. North Carolina 75, Kentucky 73

Comment: North Carolina had sustained losses to Minnesota, Illinois and Vanderbilt and desperately needed this marquee win

Three worst losses:

• 1. Kennesaw State 80, Georgia Tech 63

Comment: It looked awful for Georgia Tech at the time. It looks even worse now that Kennesaw State has lost nine straight since that upset win.

• 2. Stetson 89, Wake Forest 79

Comment: A season-opening home loss to Stetson is the worst among a collection of ugly losses for struggling Wake Forest this season.

• 3. Seattle 59, Virginia 53

Comment: A team that relies so much on the three-point shot like Virginia is going to suffer a couple of these each season.

Three fearless predictions:

• 1. Just a hunch, but Duke's lone ACC loss comes Jan. 12 at Florida State. The Blue Devils are good enough and the rest of the league is weak enough that an undefeated regular season is not unfathomable at all.

• 2. At least six teams will finish with between seven and nine ACC wins. The league is so jumbled behind Duke that it's entirely possible that the second-place team goes no better than 10-6 in conference play.

• 3. A new athletic director and a lack of results will spell the end of NC State coach Sidney Lowe's tenure after the Wolfpack miss the NCAA tournament again. You can excuse some of NC State's losses as a result of senior Tracy Smith's absence, but the bottom line is the Wolfpack's best win entering ACC play is against George Mason.

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