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Thursday, October 20, 2011
ACC: Five Things I Can't Wait To See

By Dana O'Neil

Here are five storylines I look forward to following in the ACC this season:

1. North Carolina

No, there’s no missing verb there. I just can’t wait to see North Carolina. Each year there are a handful of teams that start the preseason as the favorites with loaded lineups expected to dance long through March. (Though it should be noted, plenty of overlooked teams often dance longer. Like, say, Connecticut last season.) The Tar Heels are at the top of that must-watch list.

It’s not often in this day and age that five starters return to complete unfinished business. So the mere thought that UNC has talented sophomores is a rare treat. And when you pair those starters with two McDonald’s All-Americans? If you don’t want to watch and see what that sort of basketball concoction produces, you need to check your basketball pulse.

2. Will NC State get its verve back?

Mark Gottfried
Can Mark Gottfried lead the Wolfpack back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006?
Mark Gottfried already has made a splash on the recruiting trail, landing two significant players (Rodney Purvis and Tyler Lewis) who sounded the gong that the Wolfpack are back in the mix. But the real work is on the court. Gottfried doesn’t inherit a ready-made NCAA tournament team, but he has more than enough to work with. C.J. Leslie should be a star in the frontcourt, and Lorenzo Brown is a more than capable point guard.

Certainly the future looks bright, but no doubt State fans would love a little here-and-now to hang their hat on. It’s been five long years since the Pack went to the NCAA tournament. That may remain a touch out of reach this season, especially with a tough schedule, but even a push in that direction should suffice.

3. Can Austin Rivers follow in Kyrie Irving’s footsteps?

Well, maybe not literally. Not even the most dedicated Duke hater could wish Rivers to suffer a season-stifling injury like Irving did.

What I do want to see, though, is if Rivers can be as sensational as Irving, the No. 1 overall draft pick last June, was in his limited time in Durham. He’ll need to be good because the Blue Devils have a lot to replace now that Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler are no longer around. More than great players, those two were terrific leaders.

This being Duke, of course, Rivers isn’t alone. He has a cast of great players around him -- Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins, Ryan Kelly and a trio of Plumlees -- but Rivers will have to be the electric engineer of this cast.

4. Is this the season Virginia completes its turnaround?

When Tony Bennett was hired at Virginia, it was something of a head-scratcher. How could a guy from the Midwest who cut his coaching teeth in the Pacific Northwest succeed in an East Coast league? Apparently, pretty well. In his three years at UVa, Bennett has slowly guided the Cavaliers back to relevance, taking his time to build a program rather than a flash-in-the-pan team.

All signs point to the Cavs reaping the rewards for that "slow and steady wins the race" approach this season. Virginia posted a winning record last season, and that was without Mike Scott for all but 10 games. Now the double-double machine is back from his ankle injury and set to anchor a team that did well in his absence. The Cavs haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2007. That could change this year.

5. Can Florida State earn a little respect?

Quick, what team has been the third-best in the ACC for three years running? Take your time.

Most people tend to overlook Florida State. Here’s what the Seminoles are not: sexy. They aren’t going to wow you with a finesse offense and a flurry of scoring. Remember, this is a team that scored all of 17 points in the first half against Ohio State a year ago and ranked 159th nationally in scoring.

Here’s what the Seminoles are: consistently good. Their nasty defense makes up for whatever they might lack in offense, allowing opponents to shoot just 36 percent against them a season ago, which ranked as the best in the nation. It may make you want to avert your eyes at times, but it’s successful.

This season, Leonard Hamilton will be without Chris Singleton. Then again, the Noles were without their leading scorer late last season because of a foot injury and managed just fine. FSU should be very good again, with Michael Snaer and Deividas Dulkys among those returning. Maybe this year people will notice.