ACC hoops race looks wide open

Published 8:34 am Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Raleigh News and Observer

The Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball season promises to be different.
For the first time since the ACC added a trio of Big East schools, there is not one overwhelming favorite to win and/or run away with the league.
Yes, North Carolina will go off as the favorite, but these Tar Heels, minus four starters from their national title team, are not like the past three heavily favored versions or the 2005 team. (Duke, in 2006, was the other lock-solid favorite.)
With the aid of some slight underachieving — and the unbalanced schedule — UNC technically shared the 2007 regular-season title with Virginia. Still, the record will note all of the favorites held serve.
This coming season will be more of a combination of the 1984-85 and 1994-95 seasons than anything the ACC has seen since the league’s recent expansion.
In 1985, an incredible five teams in what was then an eight-team league were separated by one game. Georgia Tech, UNC (coping with the loss of some guy named Michael Jordan) and N.C. State each went 9-5. Duke and Maryland were a whisper behind at 8-6.
The good teams were good (three of those teams made the NCAA quarterfinals), but not great (none of them made the Final Four). The bad teams were just blah.
In 1995, Wake Forest, UNC, Maryland and Virginia tied for first — the only time in league history the regular season ended in a four-way tie.
The league was top heavy, though, with the top four locked at 12-4. None of the other five teams finished above .500.
That season also was notable for the vast amount of individual talent spread throughout the conference. A record eight first-round picks, not including some random sophomore at Wake Forest named Tim Duncan, matriculated in the ACC that season.
Next season should be clustered at the top and filled with future NBA talent. A conservative count would be 10 first-rounders playing in the ACC this season.
Since expansion, it has either been “UNC and Everybody Else,” or “Duke and Everybody Else.” The provincial view says it will be “UNC, Duke and Everybody Else” in 2009-10, but as many as six teams enter the season with a legitimate shot at winning the regular season.
Another three teams harbor hopes of an NCAA Tournament spot. On paper, only three teams (N.C. State, Virginia and Miami) appear dead-on-arrival in terms of postseason ambitions.
The 1985 comparison is notable because, at 9-5, Georgia Tech that year had the lowest winning percentage (.643) of any No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament since the league was formed. Even if it’s “UNC, Duke and Everybody Else,” neither traditional power is going to run away from the conference. I’d bet the first to 11 league victories wins. When UNC won the regular season with 11 victories in 2007, five teams were separated by one game.
The point is, this race will be closer than close. So what separates 11-5 from 9-7? Coaching, experience, outside shooting, motivation, the schedule and talent.
The Tar Heels have the coaching and talent in spades, and the schedule can’t be that bad, because UNC can’t play UNC.
But when it comes to experience, only forward Deon Thompson and wing Marcus Ginyard have more than two college starts.
Outside shooting? Point guard Larry Drew II, shooting guard Dexter Strickland and Ginyard are not Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green. That’s just a fact. The current group has a different skill set.
And though Roy Williams’ fast-break offense is not predicated on the 3-pointer, Lawson (51), Green (77) and Ellington (85) combined to make 213 3s last season. No other ACC team had three players make 50 or more 3s.