With the start of the 2012-13 college basketball season fast approaching, ESPN Insider is looking at the five burning questions facing each of the major conferences. In this edition, Seth Greenberg examines the ACC.
This coming season could be one of the most intriguing in the ACC in recent memory. The emergence of NC State, coupled with some uncertainty for Duke and North Carolina and three teams on the rise that could make a run at the league title in FSU, Miami and Maryland, could make this a season to remember in the ACC. Here are my answers to the five burning questions facing the league in 2012-13.
1. Is NC State the best team in the ACC?
There is no denying that the Wolfpack had a terrific run in last season's NCAA tournament. Mark Gottfried did a masterful job of changing the culture in Raleigh, his system turned out to be a great fit for his personnel, and at season's end his team was playing with a poise and purpose few could have imagined coming into the season.
That said, until the Wolfpack defeat Duke and North Carolina (NC State was 0-for-3 against those teams last season), it is hard to anoint them the team to beat. State has the potential to be special, but can it play consistent winning basketball over the course of an 18-game conference schedule?
Gottfried will have to carefully manage his team chemistry, with some talented newcomers joining a roster already loaded with established veterans. He'll also have the challenge of eliminating distractions and keeping his Wolfpack in the present as they deal with heightened expectations.
Outside of Duke and UNC, what other teams can challenge the Wolfpack for the ACC title? Try looking at the state of Florida. Leonard Hamilton's Florida State Seminoles have the depth and length few teams can match, and an experienced backcourt in Ian Miller and Michael Snaer. Okaro White is also back, and the return of Terrance Shannon from a torn ACL will help as well. This is a team that will be in the conference title race at season's end (remember, the Noles beat both Duke and North Carolina last season).
When you look closely at the Miami Hurricanes' roster, you realize that this is a team that has the potential to reach the upper echelon of the ACC this season. Few teams in the country have a better backcourt. Durand Scott is a physical "ball guard" who can get in the lane and play through contact, while Shane Larkin has a great feel for the game, sees plays early and has the ability to defend the ball. The frontcourt is stacked as well, with Reggie Johnson an immovable object on the block and Kenny Kadji flashing the skill set and versatility of a future NBA power forward. This team beat Duke in Cameron last season and could make a deep run in March 2013.
2. Who will be the league's top newcomer?
It would be easy to select NC State's Rodney Purvis or T.J. Warren here, but they will not have a direct impact on the success of their team the way Marcus Paige will for the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Coach Roy Williams will be handing the ball over to Paige. He will have to run one of the fastest transition games in college basketball, and his decision-making had better be good. He will have the benefit of being surrounded by a talented group of perimeter players in Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock, but make no mistake: If North Carolina is going to compete for an ACC championship and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, Paige will be a major reason why. The good news for UNC fans is that the freshman has all the tools to make that a reality.
3. Who will win ACC player of the year?
NC State's C.J. Leslie is the most talented player in the ACC. His physical gifts are at another level. He runs the floor like a deer, is explosive off the floor, is hard to keep off the offensive glass and is a matchup nightmare in the high post. But he's not my pick to win the ACC POY award -- I'm instead going with his teammate, Lorenzo Brown.
Brown is the pulse of the NC State team. He is a physical on-ball defender, makes good decisions in both the halfcourt and transition, is a capable scorer who can both make shots and get in the lane, and has total control of Gottfried's offense.
The aspects of Brown's game that make him so valuable are his intangibles. He leads, communicates and sets the tone for the Wolfpack. He is the consummate winning player who commands the respect of his teammates and gets them to buy into playing to win.
4. Who is this season's sleeper team in the ACC?
Maryland has the potential to be ACC's sleeper team for 2012-13. Mark Turgeon's teams take care of the ball, defend and rebound. The development of 7-foot-1 sophomore center Alex Len will be pivotal for the Terps -- how well he plays will go a long way toward determining if they can separate themselves from the other emerging teams in the league.
Guard Nick Faust gained valuable experience as a freshman and finished the season playing with the confidence and poise of a more experienced player. The return of Pe'Shon Howard gives Maryland a veteran play-starter and on-ball defender. A deep freshman class gives the Terps size (Shaquille Cleare), length and versatility (Jake Layman) and athleticism (Seth Allen).
If Xavier transfer Dez Wells wins his appeal and is eligible immediately, Maryland will not only be good enough to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament, but will have a chance to advance once it gets there.
5. How many tournament bids will the ACC get?
I'll predict the ACC ends up with six bids. Duke, if it can guard the ball, can make a deep tourney run. The return of Strickland and the improvement of Hairston and James Michael McAdoo will put the Tar Heels back in the ACC championship mix. NC State, FSU and Miami all look like tourney teams to me, and I think Maryland certainly has the potential to earn a tournament berth as well.