This year Wake has the ability to attack opponents with a three guard lineup that features Paul, the ACC's top scorer, Justin Gray, and Taron Downey. All three can light opponents up on any given night. Coupled with a front court that includes slightly built yet top rebounder Jamaal Levy, one of the ACC's most dominant big men in Eric Williams, and grizzled senior Vytas Danelius, Wake has all the tools in place.
Depth isn't a concern as Prosser can go to 7-footer Kyle Visser, 6-9, 270lbs Chris Ellis, 6'7 freshman Cameron Stanley, and 6'5 Trent Strickland.
T2. Georgia Tech: A spot in the National Title game will certainly server notice that you've arrived as a head coach. That's just what Paul Hewitt did last year with a group of Yellow Jackets that were simply too athletic for many teams to handle. This year the group in Atlanta returns the nucleus of that team and adds some key components in what should translate into another big year in the once proud "Thriller Dome".
It could be argued that the Jackets snuck up on opponents last year. After being picked to finish near the bottom of the pile, Tech entered every game (and every gym) unafraid and un-intimidated. Much of the credit goes to their point guard, 6'4 Jarret Jack, who really grew into the role of team leader last season and proved to be the go-to-guy. That looks to continue this year with Jack once against leading the charge into the ACC.
With scorers B.J. Elder and Isma'il Muhammad capable of lighting it up on any given night and, arguably, last season's most improved player in 7'1 Aussie native Luke Schenscher, the Jackets will hurt teams in a number of ways. Will Bynum provides immediate scoring punch off the bench, but the difference this year is in the post where there is actual depth thanks to the recuperation of Theodis Tarver and the arrival of former high major recruit Ra'sean Dickey.
T2. North Carolina: There is once again talent in Chapel Hill, though there's been talent there for the past two seasons with the big three of Raymond Felton, Sean May, and the explosive Rashad McCants. Despite those levels of talent the Heels have faltered in a big way in the first two years of this era, participating in the NIT and then being bounced in the first weekend of the NCAAs last year. None the less this year looks to be better for the boys in pastel as Coach Williams welcomes perhaps the nation's top freshman, Marvin Williams, to the Hill while welcoming back his entire contributing roster from last year's ever dangerous team.
The key for the Tar Heels starts with controversial scorer Rashad McCants, who has shown the ability to be an unstoppable scorer, and then an intolerable nescience in the next minute. If McCants can stay focused mentally, then UNC has one of the most formidable lineups in the country.
With Melvin Scott and Jackie Manuel proving to be some of the league's top role players, the Heels look poised to make legitimate noise on a national stage for the first time in a while. The key will be chemistry as the Heels have several players who could be auditioning for David Stern's handshake in June. There's no doubt there is the talent and natural ability to make a title run, but will the behind the scenes instances, which have plagued UNC since McCants and company arrived on campus, surface at inopportune times? That remains to be seen.
4. Duke: Gone are the experts picking the Blue Devils to remain at the top of the conference they have so thoroughly dominated since 1997. In their place are critics and skeptics looking for Duke to fall back to the levels of the also rans. While that could be the case with the make up of the ACC this season, don't expect Mike Krzyzewski's crew to accept anything less than a conference title.
Led by the ACC's most dominant defensive big man, Shelden Williams, and the conference's most deadly marksman, J.J. Redick, Duke enters the season with a starting lineup composed of five high school All-Americans, with another fighting for starter's minutes. The key will be the development of Shavlik Randolph, who after three years of doubts and expectations seems ready to have his break out season. Unlike the last two seasons, it's imperative to Duke's success that the former No. 1 player in the class of 2002 succeed.
If Williams and Randolph can avoid foul trouble and fatigue, the Blue Devils have one of the best big tandems in the country with Williams providing the power and Randolph the finesse. Coupled with a perimeter attack of Redick, Daniel Ewing, and super frosh DeMarcus Nelson, Duke has five players capable of carrying the team to victory on any given night.
Junior point guard Sean Dockery will have to fight hard to keep Nelson on the bench throughout the season while working to improve his decision making and offensive game. A defensive wiz over the past few seasons, Dockery takes the reigns from Chris Duhon, who led Duke through so many tough contests last year. To keep the Blue Devil offense going, Dockery's jump shooting will have to improve and early indications are he's put in the time on his own this season, but the results will have to be tangible and soon.
Spelling Williams and Randolph will be primarily former NFL signee Reggie Love (6'3, 240), who has the athleticism and strength to compete in the post at the Division One level and 6'10 former walk-on Patrick Johnson, who will be asked to fill the role of Matt Christensen, and Nick Horvath when called upon – someone who can come in and bother opponents with his height, but isn't expected to score.
Freshman David McClure appears to be the latest in a long line of heady contributors that seems to be on every successful Coach K team. With a style of play resembling Chris Carrawell, and Nate James, McClure will be called upon to play both forward positions depending on match ups, which essentially gives Krzyzewksi a solid eight man rotation to work with. There are certainly questions, but Duke has enough talent to beat anyone on a given night provided fouls and injuries are kept at a premium.
5. North Carolina State: Julius Hodge, the conference's reigning Player of the Year, flirted with the NBA Draft, but quickly found the market wouldn't warm to him. So he returns to N.C. State with an even larger chip on his shoulder and a roster full of experience in hopes of finally pushing State back towards success in March.
The loss of Marquis Melvin and Scooter Sherrill will sting, but the Wolfpack believe they have answered those issues with the arrival of Georgetown transfer point guard Tony Bethel and the return of Ilian Etimov from two years of injury and recovery. Coach Sendek also benefits from the arrival of a high major big man Cedric Simmons, who will step in early to provide rebounding and shot blocking ability in the paint.
There's considerable depth in the post with Levi Watkins, Jordan Collins, and freshman Andrew Brackman all able to contribute on both ends of the floor. Sendek also has the ability to run a guard oriented attack with Hodge and Bethel being teamed with sharp shooting Engin Astur, and swingman Cameron Bennerman.
State is always overlooked when it comes to picking the ACC, and have made a living out of stealing games and inching toward the top of the league standings. This year could be more of the same.
6. Maryland: A magical run in March led by point guard John Gilchrist was only the beginning of good things to come for this group of Terrapins. Usually when you get to the middle of the second tier of a conference, you find teams hoping to make the NIT. With Maryland you have a team that could reasonably vie for as high as a No. 4 seed in March.
Gilchrist will likely build on his ACC MVP and stellar March performances, assuming more of a scoring guard role while maintaining his point guard duties for coach Gary Williams. He'll certainly have his share of weapons with Nik Caner-Medley on the wing along with D.J. Strawberry, Chris McCray, and former All-American Mike Jones.
Inside the Terps will have big man Travis Garrison and conference's fifth leading shot blocker (despite getting less than 15 minutes per game) in Ekene Ibekwe. Freshman big forward James Gist and sophomore Hassan Fofana provide additional muscle and size for Williams off the bench.
7. Florida State: The Seminoles lost their heart and soul when Tim Picket moved on. Still there is room for optimism in Tallahassee as the ‘Noles welcome a number of new faces and welcome back experienced freshmen.
Diego Romero, a 6-10 240-pound Argentine, who had trouble with NCAA eligibility last year, looks to be the conference's best kept secret and should provide FSU with some interior fire power alongside with 6-10, 250-pound sophomore Alexander Johnson, who started 16 games last year and proved to be an emerging presence in the lane. Size won't be an issue with Romero and Johnson being backed up by 6-8, 240-pound senior Adam Waleskowski (team's leading rebounder), 6-10 freshman Jerome Habel, and 6-7 Anthony Richardson in the front court.
Von Wafer, a 6'4 scoring guard showed flashes of brilliance last year, while 6'6 Andrew Wilson returns as the team's best returning perimeter threat. Point guard will be an issue, but returning junior Todd Galloway should be up to the challenge while holding off talented freshman Jason Rich.
In the past teams who overlooked Florida State came away disappointed as they have knocked off several top teams in the past few years while playing others to a close loss. That won't be the case this year, but in the end the Noles look to be on the bubble of the NCAAs, but then again the amount of raw talent and athleticism is enough to put a scare (or worse) into any team in the country.
8. Virginia: Returning four starters from a team that won 18 games is usually a recipe for success. However the Cavaliers, led by 7th year coach Pete Guillen, face a tough conference schedule that will likely relegate them to the bottom of the second tier in the ACC standings.
Top returning scorers Elton Brown and Devin Smith provide a good inside/outside punch while sophomore J.R. Reynolds appears poised for a big season after scoring just over nine points per game as a freshman. Point guard T.J. Bannister is a capable leader, but the Cavs need a fiery leader on the floor to help the team improve in hustle categories, most notably rebounding – Virginia finish 310th in rebounding last year.
9. Clemson: Oliver Purnell is improving the talent and recruiting at Clemson, but this year that's not enough. The team returns leading scorer Sharrod Ford (6'9) in the middle and power forward Olu Babalola, but after that the question marks are too many to expect a season of great success.
The freshmen class is solid consisting of 6-5 Sam Perry, 6-6 Cheyenne Moore, 6-9 James Mays, 6-1 Troy Mathis, and 6-4 Cliff Hammonds, and they'll contribute early. But the learning curve this year will be steep.
10. Miami: The Hurricanes have proven the ability to sneak up on teams in the past, including former non-conference tilts with North Carolina However the program's top player, Darius Rice is gone, and the top recruit, C.J. Giles, decided to go to Kansas leaving the Hurricanes resembling more of a tropical depression.
11. Virginia Tech: Welcome to the ACC Hokies of the Hardwood. Adding prized freshman Marquie Cooke was a step in the right direction. However, the main excitement in Blacksburg this year will likely seeing all the big time programs fulfilling the scheduling obligations in the ACC.
NCAA Tournament Projections
No. 1 Seed – Wake Forest
No. 2 Seed – Georgia Tech
No. 3 Seeds – North Carolina, Duke
No. 6 Seed – N.C. State
No. 6 Seed – Maryland
On the Bubble
*- Of the top four teams, it's the Blue Devils with the toughest schedule. Duke plays Wake Forest, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, and Maryland twice. N.C. State and Florida State get a shot at Duke once.
*- North Carolina and Georgia Tech face off once with Carolina getting only one shot at Wake, but plays N.C. State twice.
*- Georgia Tech plays Duke twice, UNC once, Wake twice, Maryland once, and N.C. State twice.