The Dagger - NCAAB

Our week-long ACC preview continues with a look at the conference's five most intriguing storylines entering the new season.   

1. How will North Carolina bounce back from last year's debacle?

It's probably safe to assume that North Carolina won't finish 5-11 in the ACC again this season, but how much the Tar Heels improve depends on their defense and point guard play.

A more motivated and more athletic roster should help improve a defense that surrendered a league-worst 71.9 points per game last season. And at point guard, either incumbent Larry Drew will have to make strides with his decision-making and outside shooting, or incoming freshmen Kendall Marshall will have to show he's capable of getting into the lane enough to make an impact.

One area that will almost certainly no longer be a weakness is an offense that failed to eclipse 65 points six times last season in ACC play. Although the loss of Ed Davis and Deon Thompson deprives North Carolina of its two best interior scorers, touted freshmen Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock will provide the outside shooting and ability to create off the dribble the Tar Heels lacked a year ago.

2. Can NC State's touted freshmen class save Sidney Lowe's job?

Were it not for the star-studded incoming freshman class that Sidney Lowe managed to lure to NC State, the Wolfpack's fifth-year coach almost certainly already would have been out of a job. NC State went 5-11 in ACC play last year and is just 20-44 in the conference in Lowe's tenure, though closing last season with six wins in nine games suggested better days may be ahead.

Next season's team should be NC State's most talented in years with a nucleus of big man Tracy Smith and guards Scott Wood and Javier Gonzalez returning and three highly touted freshmen set to arrive. Point guard Ryan Harrow and combo guard Lorenzo Brown can both handle the ball and finish around the rim, while fellow freshman C.J. Leslie can defend two positions, block shots around the rim and finish in transition. 

The only negative for NC State is that it will be counting on all three of its young players to contribute immediately. An NCAA tournament berth is a reachable goal for the Wolfpack, but anything less will probably spell the end of Lowe's tenure in Raleigh.

3. Is this year's Duke team better than last year's?

Despite the departure of standout guard Jon Scheyer and starting big men Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas, Duke may be deeper and more talented this year than they were a year ago. The unexpected return of forward Kyle Singler and the arrival of promising backcourt newcomers Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry certainly give Mike Krzyzewski the type of options that will make him the envy of other coaches.

If Krzyzewski wants to go big, he can play Mason and Miles Plumlee in the frontcourt, start Singler at small forward and begin with a backcourt of Irving and senior Nolan Smith. If Krzyzewski wants to go small, he can bring one of the Plumlees off the bench, slide Singler down to power forward and go with Curry, Smith and Irving for a three-guard attack.

Only twice since the UCLA dynasty has an NCAA champion managed to repeat, but the Blue Devils have as good a chance to defend their title as anyone since Florida in the 2007-08 season. Duke will likely start the season No. 1 in the nation and anything short of a national title will be considered a disappointment. 

4. Can Virginia Tech avoid Selection Sunday drama?

If ever there were a season that Virginia Tech should be good enough to avoid the dreaded bubble, this one figures to be it. The Hokies return the core of a team that won 25 games last season yet was one of the final squads left out of the NCAA tournament as a result of a dubious strength of schedule.

Guard Malcolm Delaney returns for his senior year after averaging a league-high 20.2 points per game last season and getting to the foul line as well as anyone in the nation. Surrounding Delaney is an experienced supporting cast including lockdown defender Jeff Allen, high-scoring guard Dorenzo Hudson and talented Florida transfer Allan Chaney.

With a beefed-up non-conference schedule that includes Kansas State, Mississippi State and Purdue, a lack of marquee opponents shouldn't be a problem for Virginia Tech this season. The Hokies have only made one NCAA tournament appearance in the past four years despite averaging 21 wins a season, but next season they should be playing for seeding by the time the calendar turns to March.

5. How will the ACC's three new coaches fare?

All three of the ACC teams with new coaches are longshots for the NCAA tournament, but Boston College's Steve Donahue probably has the toughest assignment. Not only were there only seven scholarship players on Boston College's roster when Donahue arrived, all the returners also are accustomed to Al Skinner's physical, halfcourt offense instead of the ex-Cornell coach's three-point happy system.

Clemson's Brad Brownell likely has the best chance for immediate success with four returning players who averaged seven or more points per game, but the defensive-oriented Tigers will miss big man Trevor Booker. A lack of outside shooting will hinder Clemson, as will having no go-to scorer in Booker's absence. 

The most difficult to predict will be Wake Forest, which welcomes former Colorado coach Jeff Bzdelik and five talented freshmen including high-scoring J.T. Terrell and productive big man Carson Desrosiers. Some have picked the Demon Deacons as low as last in the ACC next season, but it's hard to see that happening with the influx of talent joining returnees guard C.J. Harris and forwards Ari Stewart and Tony Woods.

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