Off the Dribble: 2003-04 ACC Hoops Preview

After a year where "inexperience" was the word most associated with conference teams, the ACC looks to have an outstanding season this time around. Only 13 of the league's starters from last year have departed, and virtually the entire conference (with the exception of Maryland) appears to be significantly more experienced than it was a year ago.

There's plenty to get excited about with the season officially underway, so let's just cut to the chase and take a quick look at the ACC from top to bottom (in order of predicted finish, with last year's records in parentheses):

1. Duke (11-5 ACC, 26-7 overall)
This team is looking more like the national contenders than last year's product. J.J. Redick, Chris Duhon and Daniel Ewing are all back in form, and it looks like the Blue Devils' weight training program has really paid off for Shavlik Randolph and Nick Horvath, as they have added significant muscle mass to their frames. Let the Carmelo Anthony comparisons begin with freshman sensation Luol Deng, who even Mike Krzyzewski touts as one of the most special players he has ever had in his program. The one thing that the Devils will have to work out is finding someone to replace the defensive intensity that departed forward Dahntay Jones brought to the lineup. Other than that, expect Duke to be Duke again, and take another ACC title.

2. North Carolina (6-10, 19-16)
Fans of other ACC schools are puzzled at how a team that was picked to finish in the lower tier of the conference last year is all of a sudden ranked right up there with Duke. The reason, of course, is the arrival of Roy Williams. The former Kansas coach will surely get the best out of Raymond Felton, one of the premier point guards in the nation, and will push this team faster and harder than anyone has in nearly a decade. If Rashad McCants and Jawad Williams stay consistent, and center Sean May stays healthy, this could be a special year for the Heels. But if injuries expose the team's limited depth (especially behind Felton and May), this could be another long season for the UNC faithful. Losing David Noel for the first two months of the season will hurt a little, but Roy will keep the team in good shape for the long haul.

3. Wake Forest (13-3, 25-6)
The Demon Deacons are going to be a different team without Josh Howard, but that doesn't mean they're going to fall off the face of the earth. Skip Prosser has some very talented guards in Justin Gray, Taron Downey and freshman Chris Paul. Vytas Danelius will try to replace the Howard's intensity, but his scoring and leadership will have to be provided by someone else. The nation's leading rebounding team shouldn't miss a beat in that department with Danelius and center Eric Williams holding down the front line. This team is deep enough to handle early injuries to Downey and backup center Chris Ellis. Don't be surprised if this team gives Duke a run for the conference title!

4. NC State (9-7, 18-13)
The best thing that this Wolfpack team has going for them is Julius Hodge, and the fact that there is no player in the conference (or the nation) quite like him. He'll lead an attack that features solid scorers in Marcus Melvin, Levi Watkins and Scooter Sherrill. The offense will be bolstered by the return of forward Ilian Evtimov, considered the "Philip Rivers" of the team, and Hodge is expected to have an All-American-type season. The key will be how this team responds defensively. Josh Powell was clearly the team's best rebounder, and now the team must fill his spot by committee. Injuries could also expose the team's lack of quality depth, but if Herb Sendek can get significant contributions from newcomers Engin Atsur and Mike O'Donnell (who may remind many fans of Archie Miller), he may be able to keep some of the critics off his back by making the NCAA Tourney for the third year in a row.

5. Maryland (11-5, 21-10)
Head coach Gary Williams may be the difference in whether this is a rebuilding year for the Terrapins or a "reloading" one. Gone are senior leaders Steve Blake, Drew Nicholas and Ryan Randle, but the cupboard isn't bare. Forward Nik Caner-Medley will be a valuable contributor on the wing and John Gilchrist can match-up with any point guard in the conference. The big question is whether or not they can replace Randle's inside game. Williams has athletes like Jamar Smith and Travis Garrison at his disposal, but there isn't a whole lot of experience on the roster. If freshman guard Mike Jones turns out to be better than (or at least as good as) advertised, the Terps will be back in the mix come March.

6. Florida State (4-12, 14-15)
The Seminoles resurgence is no laughing matter. Leonard Hamilton just happened to bring in one of the nation's top recruiting classes, and now he's looking to make some noise in the ACC. Shooter Tim Pickett will continue to light up defenses, and forwards Michael Joiner and Anthony Richardson should enjoy unusually productive seasons. While the backcourt is solid with Pickett, Nate Johnson and Todd Galloway, chemistry could be a concern as newcomers Von Wafer, Alexander Johnson and Diego Romero will be pushing the starters for immediate playing time. Without a doubt this will be a breakout year for Hamilton and his crew.

7. Georgia Tech (7-9, 16-15)
The Yellow Jackets are set in the backcourt with Jarrett Jack, Marvin Lewis and B.J. Elder, but without last year's post tandem of Ed Nelson (transferred to UConn) and Chris Bosh (left for the NBA), this team will be sorely lacking in the rebounding department. Sophomore Theodis Tarver eventually should be a factor in the paint and Australian Luke Schenscher should help out, but until Tarver's dislocated knee cap heals, fans should get used to seeing an undersized lineup with 6-6 Ismail Muhammed at the power forward spot. Paul Hewitt usually knows how to get the most out of his teams, but he will have to go above and beyond his previous coaching performances in order to keep this team in the running for an NCAA Tournament spot.

8. Virginia (6-10, 16-16)
Sources say that Pete Gillen is on the hot seat and this may be the most important season of his ACC coaching career. He is hoping that fresh faces like Gary Forbes, Jason Cain and Donte Minter will help inject some life into this Cavalier team, which used to intimidate conference foes with their speed and energy, but has recently fallen off in terms of intensity and consistency. There remain so many questions about the return to form of point guard Majestic Mapp, consistent scoring by Todd Billet and Devin Smith, and the inside game of center Elton Brown, that there is no certainty for Gillen – except that vultures are circling above him.

9. Clemson (5-11, 15-13)
New head coach Oliver Purnell really has his work cut out for him. There isn't a tremendous amount of talent in the program, and the leadership of departed point guard Ed Scott will be nearly impossible to replace. But the Tigers do have experience in the frontcourt with Chris Hobbs, Sharrod Ford and chunky forward Olu Babalola, and there is hope that a steady backcourt rotation could develop with Chey Christie at the helm. But even if newcomer Lamar Rice performs up to expectations, there is still not enough to help Purnell get this team out of the cellar.

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