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October 31, 2007

ACC will be hard pressed to repeat success

MORE: Rivals.com Preseason All-ACC teams

Preseason picks
ACC predicted order of finish
1. North Carolina*
2. Duke*
3. N.C. State*
4. Virginia*
5. Maryland*
6. Georgia Tech#
7. Clemson#
8. Florida State
9. Boston College
10. Miami
11. Wake Forest
12. Virginia Tech

Any college basketball coach will tell you the sport is cyclical. When a particular conference has a banner season, that often means a downward turn is on the horizon.

The ACC could be a classic example of that in 2007-08. A league-record seven ACC teams reached the 2007 NCAA Tournament, the most of any conference. Three other ACC teams played in the NIT.

Nobody expects the ACC to match those numbers this season. Heavy personnel losses have cut into the league's depth. Six of its players were taken in the first round of the NBA Draft (the most of any conference): North Carolina's Brandan Wright, Florida State's Al Thornton, Boston College's Jared Dudley and Sean Williams (who was suspended at midseason last year) and Georgia Tech's Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young. Duke's Josh McRoberts and Maryland's D.J. Strawberry were second-round selections.

Virginia Tech lost two guards, Jamon Gordon and Zabian Dowdell, who carried the Hokies to one of the best seasons in school history in 2006-07. The Hokies won 22 games and landed a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Virginia also suffered a key loss with the departure of guard J.R. Reynolds, who was the league's fifth-leading scorer at 18.4 points per game last season.

There also are plenty of questions swirling around perennial power Duke, coming off its worst season in more than a decade. The Blue Devils went 8-8 in league play and were knocked out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Virginia Commonwealth.

Only high expectations surround North Carolina, which may be the ACC's savior. The Tar Heels return a deep and talented squad led by star big man Tyler Hansbrough, a Rivals.com first-team All-American selection last season.

Wake Forest also will be in the national spotlight, but for a far different reason. The Deacons promise to face an emotional year after coach Skip Prosser died of a heart attack on July 26. Assistant Dino Gaudio was promoted less than two weeks later. He takes over a young squad coming off a 15-16 season.

Here is the Rivals.com preview of the upcoming ACC season:

Andrew Skwara's ACC breakdown
Team on the rise
North Carolina State. Nobody in the league was hotter at the end of last season. Coach Sidney Lowe led a young team to a shocking run to the final of the ACC Tournament in his first year. The Wolfpack went on to reach the quarterfinals of the NIT. Lowe kept the momentum rolling by signing five-star big man J.J. Hickson. With four starters back, including rising star Brandon Costner, many fans in and outside of Wolfpack Country are eager to see what magic Lowe will work next.
Team on the decline
Virginia Tech. After a breakthrough season that included a first-round NCAA Tournament win, the Hokies are in rebuilding mode. Only five scholarship players return, and a solid recruiting class took a hit when prize prospect Augustus Gilchrist was released from his letter of intent after the on-campus tragedy in April. A schedule that coach Seth Greenberg calls "the toughest in the history of Virginia Tech" will make the road even tougher and could lead to a slew of early losses.
Coach on the rise
Dave Leitao, Virginia.. The Cavaliers shelled out a lot of money to land their latest coach, paying predecessor Pete Gillen's $2 million buyout and buying out Leitao's long-term deal at DePaul. It all looked worth it last season. The Cavaliers won a share of the ACC regular-season title for the first time since 1995, landed a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and were a basket away from reaching the Sweet 16. Much of the credit must go to Leitao, who made up for a thin frontcourt with some creative X's and O's. Leitao, 47, also is making steady progress on the recruiting trail. He landed commitments from two top-100 prospects from the 2008 class.
Coach on the hot seat
Leonard Hamilton, Florida State . The timing of FSU's search for a new athletic director couldn't have come at a worse time for Hamilton (Dave Hart, who hired Hamilton, leaves FSU on Dec. 31). Hamilton is entering his sixth season in Tallahassee. There have been numerous close calls, but he has yet to take the program to the NCAA Tournament. Worse yet, star Al Thornton is gone, having exhausted his eligibility. Few players did more for their team last season than Thornton, a first-team All-ACC selection. Now, Hamilton's job may rest on finding a way into the NCAA Tournament without Thornton.
Best offensive player
Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina . Virginia's Sean Singletary is the ACC's leading returning scorer at 19.0 points per game. However, Hansbrough was close behind at 18.4 points per contest. The North Carolina big man does a lot more damage overall because of his penchant for getting to the free-throw line. Hansbrough attempted 315 free throws (and made 242, for 76.8 percent), nearly 100 more than Singletary (218). That translates into a lot more opposing players, usually key big men, landing in foul trouble. Hansbrough's consistency also sets him apart. He has scored in double figures in 63 of 69 games.
Best 3-point shooter
Jack McClinton, Miami . The former Siena guard didn't need much time to show why he was tabbed as one of the nation's top transfers last season. He hit at least three 3-pointers in each of Miami's first nine games. McClinton led the league in 3-pointers made per game (2.9) and in 3-point field-goal percentage (40.4, 91-for-207).
Best defensive player
Tyrelle Blair, Boston College . Blair, a long-armed, 6-11, 242-pounder, looks poised to become one of the nation's elite shot-blockers. Blair played 16.2 minutes a game last season, but he still ranked fifth in the league with 2.1 blocks a game. With some heavy frontcourt losses at BC, Blair should play a lot of minutes and could swat close to four shots per contest.
Best player you don't know yet
Lewis Clinch, Georgia Tech . Nine games into last season, who do you think was the Yellow Jackets' leading scorer? Thaddeus Young? Javaris Crittenton? Both first-round picks are logical guesses, but Clinch is the answer. Clinch was averaging 17.4 points and shooting 49.0 percent from 3-point range at the time. A possible All-ACC caliber-season was spoiled five games later when he was suspended for academic reasons. Now that he's back and Young and Crittenton are gone, look for him to emerge as one of the league's top offensive players.
Deepest bench
North Carolina. At UNC, which is No. 1 in Rivals.com's preseason top 64, most of the attention goes to Hansbrough (No. 1 center in Rivals.com's preseason Power Rankings), point guard Ty Lawson (No. 4) and shooting guard Wayne Ellington (No. 13). But the Tar Heels also boast a number of quality role players. Juniors Marcus Ginyard, Bobby Frasor and Danny Green have starting experience at multiple positions, giving Roy Williams a number of versatile lineups to utilize.
Impact newcomer
Kyle Singler, Duke. Mike Krzyzewski already has called Singler Duke's most talented and well-rounded player. Singler, a 6-8, 220-pound freshman forward from Medford, Ore., possesses a smooth shooting stroke and a great feel for the game. His size and combination of skills have drawn comparisons to Larry Bird.
Freshman sleeper
Jeff Teague, Wake Forest . Wake already has one of the nation's top young point guards in 5-11 Ishmael Smith, who dished out an ACC-high 6.0 assists a game. But Teague, a 6-2, 175-pound point guard, still is going to play - possibly alongside Smith. New Wake coach Dino Gaudio has been raving about Teague's quickness and athleticism. He'll be a good fit for a team that wants to push the tempo as much as possible.
News and notes
Virginia senior point guard Sean Singletary was one of six ACC players to initially enter the NBA Draft, but he was the only one who chose to stay in school, Two transfers are competing for the starting point guard job at NC State: Farnold Degand (Iowa State) and Marques Johnson (Tennessee). Johnson must sit out the fall semester. Five Duke players had offseason surgeries for various injuries: guards Greg Paulus (foot) and Marynas Pocius (ankle), forwards DeMarcus Nelson (wrist) and David McClure (knee), and center Brian Zoubek (foot). Maryland power forward James Gist and UNC guard Wayne Ellington earned two of the 12 spots on the American team that competed at the Pan American Games in July. UNC power forward Deon Thompson played well for the American team at the U-19 World Championships in July. He averaged 10 points and a team-leading 6.1 rebounds.

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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