ACC Undeterred Despite Early Disrespect
Looking back, it's hard not to laugh, isn't it?
And now this year's preseason basketball rankings, which are beginning to trickle out in magazines and online, are proving equally baffling. But for the opposite reason. The ACC is likely to feature no more than three or four teams in the top 25. The Big Ten, by comparison, might wind up with three teams in the top five at the start.
So the ACC's supposed powerhouse basketball programs have less depth than football? It can't be that much of an off-year for a conference that has produced the last two national champions, can it?
"We're a conference that has won a lot, five national championships in the last 10 years, three in the last six,'' Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Wednesday at the annual ACC media day, dismissing the early rankings. "I think we're gonna be good.''
Spoken by the coach who could find his team the consensus No. 1 when the polls are released. The Blue Devils are the defending national champions and the obvious early picks to win again with starting forward Kyle Singler, the ACC's preseason player of the year, along with starting guard Nolan Smith joined by strong backcourt additions Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry.
"Duke pretty much ran through the NCAA tournament until the championship game,'' Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "Who played them tough? ACC tournament. They had a tough game against Miami. Who played 'em better than anyone down the stretch? The 12th place team in our league.
"The reality is this league, year in, year out, top to bottom, it's hard to play in.''
But beyond Duke, nobody really knows where the depth of the ACC will come from this year. It's perhaps that guessing game that has cost the ACC in early projections. There is North Carolina, which is pegged for the top 10 by many at the start seemingly based more on reputation than recent performance. Remember, the Tar Heels were highly rated at the opening of last season, too, before plummeting like a LeBron James popularity contest in Cleveland.
This year is expected to be different, in part because of the addition of freshman forward Harrison Barnes, the latest likely one-and-done player who could be the No. 1 pick in next year's NBA draft. He was voted the preseason rookie of the year and is expected to make a major contribution .
The ACC media voted the Tar Heels to finish third in the ACC behind Duke and Virginia Tech. One voter actually gave North Carolina a first-place vote.
"It had to be a North Carolina graduate that hates Duke,'' North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, before positing another guess. "Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles? Somebody like that.''
Despite the national perception that the ACC is made up of Duke, North Carolina and everybody else, the locals aren't buying it this time. Yes, Virginia Tech actually earned more votes in the media poll than the Tar Heels, an upset by some measures. These are the same Hokies who received that jaw-dropping snub from the NCAA tournament committee last spring, which ignored their 23-8 record at the time and 10-6 mark in the ACC and left them out of the field.
It still stings.
"Even if we made tournament (this year) we'd still have a chip on shoulder,'' said senior guard Malcolm Delaney, who led the ACC in scoring last season with 20.2 points per game. "Definitely from last year, that was very disappointing.''
Delaney is one of five starters, including four seniors, returning for the Hokie,s who are likely to be a top 25 team at the start of the season and could turn out to be better than their football counterparts, for a change. That's even with the loss of key reserve J.T. Thompson, who tore a knee ligament in September and is out for the year.
Beyond those three teams, there are a handful of others that could rise to the upper half of the conference. Among them, Florida State, with defensive player of the year Chris Singleton, is also seeing some top 25 buzz.
"It's good to be out there,'' Singleton said, "but we're not as far as we want to be. We want to be in every poll, not just some people's polls.''
There's also North Carolina State, with a trio of top-rated recruits including forward C.J. Leslie and guards Lorenzo Brown and Ryan Harrow to go with returning starters Tracy Smith and Javier Gonzalez. They could put the Wolfpack back on the map in the ever-competitive Triangle region of North Carolina that includes the Tar Heels and Duke.
Maryland, Clemson and Miami come with questions marks and possibilities as they, too, look to angle for the half-dozen or so NCAA tournament bids the ACC is bound to receive.
"Every year I've been at Maryland, they've had us ranked seventh, eighth, every year in the conference,'' forward Dino Gregory said nonchalantly. "We always find a way to prove them wrong. This year is no different.''
Forget about getting any preseason respect, though. You won't find them on any of the polls.
Not that it matters.
"When I was at Kentucky, back in my early stages of coaching, I looked at the preseason rankings for 50 years,'' Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. "I looked at the end of the season rankings for 50 years. The same schools always got placed in the preseason and it didn't matter what happened at the end of the season. A lot of those teams at the end of the season weren't even ranked at the beginning of the season.''
If the ACC is as strong as the players and coaches believe it will be, that scenario will no doubt play out once again.
This isn't ACC football, after all.