ACC reset: Duke overtakes Tobacco Road rivals to emerge as clear favorite

With conference play fast approaching, we'll reassess our preseason projections over the next week. Here's a look back at the Dagger's preseason ACC forecast and some updated predictions for the league season:

Conference RPI: 3

Record against Top 25 teams: 5-10

Preseason predictions I'd like to have back: Projecting North Carolina to finish above Duke in the conference race, leaving Erick Green off the first-team All-ACC team and having Virginia Tech 11th in the projected standings. (Maryland is also likely too low at sixth, but in my defense Dez Wells wasn't eligible yet.)

Preseason predictions I still feel good about: Naming Mason Plumlee first-team All-ACC despite objections from opposing fan bases, projecting Duke to have the league's best frontcourt and selecting Wake Forest's Jeff Bzdelik as the ACC coach most likely to be fired at the end of the season.

Conference favorite: Duke has overtaken Tobacco Road neighbors North Carolina and NC State thanks to Mason Plumlee emerging as a national player of the year candidate, Quinn Cook solidifying the point guard position and Rasheed Sulaimon injecting badly needed athleticism at wing. The top-ranked Blue Devils have the nation's best resume so far, boasting wins over Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State, VCU and Minnesota.

Who else could win it: There's no reason to give up on preseason favorite NC State, which has recovered from an ugly 20-point loss to Oklahoma State in November and should take an 11-2 record into conference play. The Wolfpack boast one of the nation's most potent offenses, with five players averaging 11 or more points per game and the entire team shooting 53.4 percent from the field.

Biggest surprise: With Virginia Tech backsliding recently and Maryland still searching for a relevant win to validate its 10-1 start, the nod here probably goes to Duke. Maybe it should never be a surprise when Mike Krzyzewski has the Blue Devils atop the national rankings, but this Duke team entered the season with questions about their point guard play, depth and perimeter defense and has answered all of them so far.

Biggest disappointment: It's a two-horse race between North Carolina and Florida State. The Tar Heels' 9-3 record hides that they've lost by double digits to all three quality opponents they've faced and their best win is over either UAB or East Carolina. They aren't defending consistently, nor are they scoring efficiently enough when 3-pointers aren't falling and they aren't dominating the offensive glass. Florida State's early struggles are also easy to explain: The Seminoles aren't defending at the same elite level as past years, which has contributed to early losses to Mercer and South Alabama.

Player of the Year: The decision between Mason Plumlee and Erick Green may turn out to be a difficult one if the Duke big man propels his team to the ACC title yet the Virginia Tech guard continues to lead the nation in scoring. Plumlee's transformation from promising yet underachieving talent to arguably the nation's top big man so far this season gets him the nod right now, but it's tough to ignore that Green is averaging 25.3 points per game and has tallied 20 or more in all 12 of the Hokies' games.

Best freshman: Even though Rasheed Sulaimon has played with steadiness beyond his years for Duke, it's hard not to go with NC State's T.J. Warren. The 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 13.5 points on 68.1 percent shooting and has chipped in 3.9 rebounds per game as well. Not bad for a kid who isn't in NC State's starting lineup and wasn't even the most heralded freshman on his own team entering the season.

Three fearless predictions:

• 1. Duke will not make it through the month of January with its unbeaten record intact. A Jan. 12 road game at NC State looks daunting, as does a trip to Miami 11 days later. Both those teams have the size to at least attempt to defend Plumlee one-on-one in the paint and the perimeter athleticism to create problems for Duke on both ends.

• 2. North Carolina loses at least six ACC games and flirts with missing the NCAA tournament. Not only are the Tar Heels down this season by their lofty standards, they have a brutally difficult conference slate. The four ACC teams North Carolina faces only once next season are Wake Forest, Boston College, Virginia Tech and Clemson, all of which are projected to finish in the bottom half of the league.

• 3. Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman will have no choice but to fire embattled coach Jeff Bzdelik after three lackluster seasons in Winston Salem. Hiring Bzdelik was an unpopular decision three years ago. With fan support dwindling and anything besides a bottom-three ACC finish very unlikely, the peculiar choice looks even worse now.

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