Yahoo! Sports is breaking down each league for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 31 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 4 league, the ACC.
The last time neither North Carolina nor Duke won or shared the ACC regular season crown, Josh Howard led Wake Forest to the 2002-03 title.
N.C. State has a chance to break that stranglehold a decade later.
The Wolfpack, long overshadowed by their more tradition-rich Tobacco Road brethren, have assembled their most talented roster in years at the same time as North Carolina is replacing four NBA first-round picks and Duke lacks a dominant perimeter weapon. No team in the ACC has a better blend of proven returners and promising newcomers than Mark Gottfried's group.
The optimism starts with the return of guard Lorenzo Brown and forward C.J. Leslie, both potential draft picks last June who opted instead to return for their junior years at N.C. State. Brown slid seamlessly from shooting guard to point guard last season and averaged the second most assists in the ACC behind Kendall Marshall, while Leslie scored in double figures in his final 16 games last season and averaged more than 18 points in his final 11.
Between the return of two other starters and the arrival of three heralded McDonald's All-Americans, N.C. State has plenty of frontline talent to complement Brown and Leslie.
In the backcourt, Brown will be flanked by elite perimeter shooter Scott Wood and by scoring guard Rodney Purvis, a freshman whose ability to attack the rim will bring a new dimension to the Wolfpack. In the frontcourt, Leslie will be complemented by double-double threat Richard Howell and freshman T.J. Warren, a 6-foot-8 combo forward.
If N.C. State wins the ACC with that collection of talent, you can be sure North Carolina and Duke will make them earn it.
Despite the loss of Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller, North Carolina will have plenty of talent. Forward James Michael McAdoo and guard Reggie Bullock appear to be the most likely breakout candidates, but the key for the Tar Heels is whether freshman Marcus Paige can handle the starting point guard job and if anyone can give McAdoo some help in the paint.
Duke's frontcourt duo of Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly is the best in the league, but the Blue Devils have plenty of questions too. Can Quinn Cook bounce back from a discouraging freshman season and emerge as the facilitating point guard Duke lacked last year? Can Rasheed Sulaimon and Alex Murphy add length and athleticism to the Blue Devils' often suspect perimeter defense? And can anyone provide frontcourt depth off the bench?
Besides the Tobacco Road trio, three teams in particular look like potential NCAA tournament squads.
Four of defensive-minded Florida State's five leading scorers are back including All-American candidate Michael Snaer. Guard Durand Scott and center Reggie Johnson return to lead a Miami team that fell a win or two short of an NCAA bid a year ago. And then there's Maryland, which will rely mostly on sophomores Nick Faust and Alex Len and some promising freshmen to accelerate Mark Turgeon's rebuilding process and try to return to national relevance a year ahead of schedule.
[More NCAA hoops: ACC preview: Ranking the 15 most intriguing non-league games]
MAKING A LIST
Best shooter: Scott Wood, N.C. State. Wood and Baylor's Brady Heslip were the only two players in college basketball last season to sink more than 40 percent of their threes and more than 90 percent of their free throws. The N.C. State sharp shooter also made 66 free throws in a row last season, the fourth longest streak in NCAA history.
College Hoops Countdown, No. 4: ACC
• ACC Capsule Preview: NC State hopes to emerge from the shadow of its Tobacco Road rivals
• Ranking the ACC's 15 most intriguing non-league games
• Ex-Florida State guard Luke Loucks projects the ACC
• A bounce-back season from Quinn Cook is essential for Duke's hopes
For more news on the ACC, visit Rivals.com
Best playmaker: Lorenzo Brown, N.C. State. This time last year, Lorenzo Brown's move from shooting guard to point guard was viewed as an experiment only necessary because of Ryan Harrow's departure. Brown then made the most of that opportunity, averaging 12.7 points and 6.3 assists last season and establishing himself as a pro prospect.
Best defender: Michael Snaer, Florida State. Although Snaer received the most attention last season for his improved perimeter shooting and his penchant for hitting clutch shots, his perimeter defense remained as strong as ever. He's a lockdown on-ball defender and he chokes off passing lanes with his length and quickness.
Top NBA prospect: James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina. Overshadowed last year by North Carolina's four first-round draft picks, McAdoo averaged 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds in limited minutes off the bench. Now it's his time to assume a starring role. The future first-round pick isn't a back-to-the-basket scorer, but he's a terrific ball handler, rebounder and mid-range shooter.
Best backcourt: N.C. State. For sheer talent and variety, no perimeter unit comes close to the Wolfpack. Lorenzo Brown is the league's premier point guard, Scott Wood is an elite shooter and freshman Rodney Purvis is a brilliant scorer whose ability to get to the rim adds another dimension to the offense. Oh, and off the bench? Impact freshman Tyler Lewis.
Best frontcourt: Duke. On a Duke team with numerous question marks, the frontcourt starters are maybe the two biggest sure things. Ryan Kelly is a face-up forward whose 40.8 percent 3-point shooting stretches a defense, while Mason Plumlee will have the chance to finally realize his potential as the focal point of the offense on the low block. Those two will have to be good because there's not much depth. Third big man Marshall Plumlee is out with a foot injury, and freshman Amile Jefferson is talented but very raw.
Best recruiting class: N.C. State. Even though North Carolina's Marcus Paige and Duke's Rasheed Sulaimon will likely start from day one, N.C. State's group is probably the best. Purvis is the headliner because of his scoring ability from the perimeter, but rugged McDonald's All-American T.J. Warren will be the third big man and playmaking point guard Tyler Lewis will probably be the first big man off the bench.
Coach on the rise: Mark Gottfried, N.C. State. Remember when Gottfried was hired and everyone scratched their heads that the Wolfpack were hiring a retread? Well, all Gottfried has done since is lead N.C. State to the Sweet 16, land an elite recruiting class and make the Wolfpack into ACC title contenders. Not bad for a guy going into his second year on the job.
Coach on the hot seat: Jeff Bzdelik, Wake Forest. Since Bzdelik was an unpopular hire whose first two seasons have been a struggle, the pressure on him to get some results in his third season are immense. Last year, the Demon Deacons won four ACC games after winning one in Bzdelik's first season. They'll need incremental improvement again this season for Bzdelik to get a fourth.
FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: James Johnson, Virginia Tech (Had been a Clemson assistant)
Regular-season winner last season: North Carolina
Tourney winner last season: Florida State
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 6th ; 2010-11: 5th, 2009-10: 3rd
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 15 (Duke 3, North Carolina 2, Florida State 3, Clemson 2, Virginia, N.C. State, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest)
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