ACC Primer: North Carolina not likely to disappoint this season
Maryland will rely heavily on sophomore Terrell Stoglin as it rebuilds
UNC will need to improve its three-point shooting to live up to expectations
C.J. Leslie's shooting must improve if N.C. State will make it to the tournament
Most conferences would be overjoyed to have a national title favorite (North Carolina), another top-10 team (Duke) and the country's best defensive squad (Florida State). But the nation's most venerable basketball league is facing serious depth issues in 2011-12; after the aforementioned trio, there are no sure-fire NCAA tournament teams. The biggest question is not who will win the ACC -- I'd be shocked if it's not the Tar Heels -- but rather, will any sleepers emerge from the middle of the pack?
Harrison Barnes, North Carolina
I made this same pick last year, and was wrong (sorry, Nolan Smith!). This time, choosing Barnes is more sensible than it is impatient. He knew he was out of the running for any Player of the Year or All-America honors after a frustrating first few months as a freshman, but he's right in saying, "Towards the end of the year, our team was playing as well as any team in the nation, and I felt like I was playing just as well as anybody in the nation." Barnes scored 40 against Clemson in the ACC tournament, averaged 21 per game in the NCAAs, and set the stage for what should be a dominant sophomore year. There isn't another player in college like him -- a 6-foot-8 swingman with his shooting touch, slashing ability, work ethic and desire to take big shots at the end of games.
(Sleeper POY candidates: UNC's Tyler Zeller, Duke's Seth Curry, Miami's Malcolm Grant)
Austin Rivers, Duke
My Postcard from Duke looked at the Rivers question: Although the middle son of Doc Rivers may be Duke's most talented player, he doesn't appear ready to make the same immediate, massive impact that Kyrie Irving did as a freshman last season. By January or February, though, I suspect Rivers will be lighting up ACC defenses from the two-guard spot, and Subzero* won't just be a tongue-in-cheek nickname.
(*There was a Twitter controversy, this offseason, over whether Rivers tried to nickname himself "Subzero" after choosing the jersey number 0. He claims he was just passing along a friend's recommendation, but Duke's veterans -- particularly Andre Dawkins -- still had their fun with it. "They were all like, 'Hey, Subzero, are you going to freeze us?'" Rivers said.)
Terrell Stoglin, Maryland
New Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon inherited a thin team with no frontcourt and is going to need to rely heavily on Stoglin for offense in a rebuilding year. The good thing is, he's a capable, go-to scorer. Stoglin's freshman stats were a perfect hit for my "Breakout Sophomore" formula, in that although he played limited minutes, he used a high rate of possessions (26.9 percent) with a respectable offensive rating (105.2) while he was on the floor.
That's the percent opponents shot against Florida State from inside the arc last season, the lowest in the nation. With an oversized front line that includes Jon Kreft (7-feet), Xavier Gibson (6-11) and Bernard James (6-10), the Seminoles should continue to be stingy.
1. North Carolina
I've already written plenty about the Heels in the Postcard, and am confident in putting them at preseason No. 1 (here and nationally). A big key will be getting accurate, three-point production out of the two-guard spot -- and point guard Kendall Marshall forcing defenses to respect his jumper, too. They don't have to be lights-out from long range, but they can't finish last in the league in three-point percentage for two years in a row.
Power forward Ryan Kelly looked great during the Blue Devils' tour of China, leading the team in scoring, but I wonder if Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski might opt for a dual-Plumlee frontcourt to add defensive balance to the starting lineup. The Blue Devils' three guards (Curry, Rivers, Dawkins) are incredible shooters, but none is a lockdown defender.
3. Florida State
The 'Noles will likely be the ACC's best defensive team, again, but the loss of Derwin Kitchen from their backcourt will hurt more than people realize. On an offensively challenged team, he was their only guard who produced more than a point per possession (1.14). The onus is on junior Michael Snaer to have a breakthrough season.
Seth Davis' Bubble Watch: BYU Cougars
SI Now: Who will claim the final top seed in the NCAA Tournament?
Canadiens put together big comeback to beat Senators 5-4 in OT
Bruins get their eighth straight victory with win over Hurricanes