Contenders lining up for a shot at powerful Duke
By Tim Peeler, Special to CNNSI.com
The list of ACC teams capable of knocking Duke off its long-held throne is rather long, but somewhat dubious.
Duke has either won outright or shared the last five ACC regular-season championships and won three consecutive ACC tournament titles, matching the league-best three consecutive tournaments that North Carolina won from 1967-69 and N.C. State won from 1954-56.
Who's good enough to overtake the defending national champions, who lost Shane Battier, but still have Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy, Carlos Boozer and Chris Duhon?
There's Maryland, which has four starters returning from its first appearance in the Final Four. There's Virginia and Wake Forest, who have a combined seven returning starters, with designs on surprising the defending national champions.
But where is North Carolina? Why are the Tar Heels, with their precious streaks of 27 consecutive NCAA appearances, 31 consecutive 20-win seasons and 37 consecutive top-three ACC finishes, standing behind those other three in hopes of ending the Blue Devils' unprecedented dominance of college basketball's best conference? Isn't Duke-UNC supposed to be the greatest rivalry in college sports?
Well, it could be a long season in Chapel Hill, according to the pundits who have been trumpeting second-year head coach Matt Doherty's possible loss of five of the top seven players from last year's ACC regular-season co-champions. The Tar Heels were picked to finish fifth in the ACC's preseason media poll, only the third time in the 33-year history of the poll that UNC has been picked to finish outside the league's top three.
There's good reason for the lowered expectations, of course. The Tar Heels lost All-America shooting guard and ACC Co-Player of the Year Joseph Forte to the NBA. Center Brendan Haywood, who joined Forte as a first-round pick, and Max Owens finished their eligibility. And crossover stars Ronald Curry and Julius Peppers said they would not return to basketball after UNC's football season ends.
Curry and Peppers have both waffled on their decisions, and Curry at least could end up on the hardwoods again this year. But Doherty isn't counting on having either of them.
That means the coach might have to rely heavily on three freshmen in his lineup, something that has happened only once in UNC history. The year after Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse turned pro, Dean Smith was forced to liberally use freshmen Ademola Okulaja, Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter. Okulaja and Jamison were regular starters and Carter primarily came off the bench.
But shooting guard Jackie Manuel, point guard Melvin Scott and small forward Jawad Williams were considered to be one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, and they will get their chance to prove it early.
Even after the team's first exhibition game, Doherty said he had only two sure starters, seniors Jason Capel and Kris Lang. He likely won't decide how many freshmen he will throw in the starting lineup until the season opener against Hampton on Nov. 16.
Still, the Tar Heels could sneak back into a challenger's role, if only because the other three serious contenders some definite question marks.
Maryland, which has won at Cameron Indoor Stadium twice in the last two years, has proved that it can beat the Blue Devils. Just not in the games that matter most. But finally getting to the Final Four last year has done wonders for the collective psyche of Maryland coach Gary Williams, the players and the long-suffering fans.
"We broke through that ceiling so now anything is possible," Williams said.
Maryland still has four starters returning from last year's Final Four team, but it must replace Terrence Morris, who was more important to the Terps' success than he was given credit for, and reserve small forward Danny Miller, a former starter who was replaced in the starting lineup last year by Byron Mouton. Miller opted to transfer to Notre Dame for his final season of eligibility.
"We lost more than people think," Williams said.
Virginia is dealing with the preseason loss of point guard Majestic Mapp for the second year in a row. Mapp missed last year after suffering a major knee injury during a pickup game last summer. The Cavs had senior Donald Hand to run the offense last year, a luxury they don't have this year.
Mapp needed reconstructive surgery after his initial injury, but it did not heal the way doctors had hoped. He's since had three more surgeries on the knee, including one in October that ended all possibility of him playing this year.
That means Virginia will have to move its best player, junior guard Roger Mason Jr., out of position to play the point guard. That might not be such a bad thing since fourth-year coach Pete Gillen has been successful so far playing senior Chris Williams and junior Travis Watson out of their natural positions, but it may hurt the explosive Mason's ability to score.
Gillen's best hope is that freshman Keith Jenifer, a highly touted recruit from Baltimore, will learn to play point in college quickly and allow Mason to move back to shooting guard.
Wake Forest's deep lineup is still getting used to first-year head coach Skip Prosser, who was hired from Xavier to replace Dave Odom after Odom left for South Carolina. Prosser and Odom have opposite personalities and coaching philosophies and the Demon Deacons are spending the preseason getting used to both.
Still, Duke is the class of the league and of the nation. Even the ACC's challengers admit that.
"It's hard to argue with Duke," Doherty said. "They have four players who are Naismith candidates. They have a team that experienced a national championship. They have maybe the best player in the country in Jason Williams.
"It's hard to argue with that. Maryland, Virginia and Wake Forest have all their guys coming back. If I were a sportswriter, that would be my picks for the top four in the league."
Tim Peeler covers the ACC for the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record. His "This Week in the ACC" column will appear weekly during the season.