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Thursday, January 3, 2013
ACC primer: Is it a battle for No. 2?

By Robbi Pickeral
ESPN.com

There are always plenty of twists and turns during the Atlantic Coast Conference season -- and this time around, we may get a few more, thanks to the expanded 18-game conference slate. As the teams prepare to begin league play this weekend, here's an updated look at what to expect from the ACC:

The favorite: Duke. To say the Blue Devils were underestimated heading into the season may be stretching it a bit. After all, they were predicted to finish second by the league's coaches and media. But after last year's dumbfounding defensive breakdowns, chemistry issues and upset loss in the NCAA round of 64, it's fair to say that few would have expected Duke to be undefeated (and ranked No. 1) at this point in the season. Especially after a grueling 16-day run that included showdowns against three top-five teams.

Duke
Duke wasn't picked to win the ACC, but is off to a 13-0 start against a tough schedule.

Credit the offseason work by national POY candidate Mason Plumlee, the addition of athletic wing Rasheed Sulaimon, some solid point guard play by Quinn Cook and the sharpshooting of Seth Curry (despite a nagging leg injury) for the turnaround. The Blue Devils have been impressive.

Other contenders: After some slow early melding, preseason favorite NC State has been solid of late, ticking off seven straight victories entering ACC play. The Wolfpack lead the nation in field goal percentage, five players are averaging double figures, and it all seems to be coming together at the right time. Upcoming game to circle: Jan. 12, at home against Duke.

Maryland, meanwhile, looks as though it has the talent to make a push, with the emergence of 7-foot sophomore Alex Len and the addition of talented transfer Dez Wells. But the Terps (despite winning 12 straight) haven't gotten a high-profile test since their season-opening, three-point loss to Kentucky. And if North Carolina can look more like the team that beat UNLV last weekend than the one that lost to Butler, Indiana and Texas, it may have a shot too.

Player of the year (so far): Plumlee, Duke. The best player on the best team in the league has turned his past potential into present-day production, averaging 19.5 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks through his first dozen games. Heck, he's even making 69.2 percent of his free throws after converting only 52.8 percent last season. He has blossomed into a national player of the year candidate, no doubt.

But don't discount Virginia Tech's Erick Green. The senior guard scored 20 or more points in his team's first 12 games, and ranks second in the nation in scoring (24.4 ppg). Although the Hokies -- who boast a new head coach and new fast-paced attack -- have lost four of their past six games, Green was a huge reason for their surprising 7-0 start.

Others to keep an eye on: N.C. State's C.J. Leslie, the preseason player of the year; Boston College's Ryan Anderson, who ranks in the top five in the league in scoring and rebounding but is often overlooked because his team is near the bottom of the league; Florida State's Michael Snaer, who will try to lead his team out of a confounding nonconference start; and UNC's James Michael McAdoo, who is trying to reduce his turnovers while displaying longer stretches of his potential.

Freshman of the year (so far): This is a toughie, so I'm going to pick two: Duke's Sulaimon and NC State's T.J. Warren.

The former is averaging 11.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists for the nation's No. 1 team, and at 6-4, has added some much-needed size and versatility on the wing for the Blue Devils. The latter, meanwhile, is averaging 13.5 points and 3.5 rebounds while shooting 69.4 percent. But unlike Sulaimon (who has started every game for Duke), Warren has racked up his stats while coming off the bench. And he wasn't even the most heralded guy in the Wolfpack's freshman class.

Wins to brag about: Duke over Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, Louisville and Ohio State; UNC over UNLV; Miami over Michigan State; Virginia Tech over Oklahoma State; Virginia at Wisconsin.

Losses that sting: UNC at Texas; Virginia to Old Dominion; Miami at Florida Gulf Coast; Virginia Tech to Georgia Southern; Boston College to Bryant; Florida State to South Alabama, Mercer and at Auburn.

Pleasant surprises: Georgia Tech, after finishing last season 11-20, has opened the season 10-2 and won seven straight at new McCamish Pavilion. … NC State's Richard Howell and Warren -- two of the "other guys" when talking about the Wolfpack during the preseason -- rank in the top 10 in the nation in field goal percentage and top three on the team in scoring. … Did I mention Duke beat five surefire NCAA tournament teams in the span of 16 days?

Biggest disappointments: It has been yet another strange, slow, frustrating nonconference campaign for Florida State, which won the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic but also has lost to South Alabama, Mercer, and most recently, Auburn. The Seminoles bounced back last year -- all the way to an ACC tournament crown -- but can they do it again? … Clemson senior forward Milton Jennings' two-game suspension, after being suspended twice last season. … Is UNC ever going to settle on a permanent starting center?

Scott Wood
Scott Wood is among five NCSU players averaging at least 11.5 PPG for the 11-2 Wolfpack.

Three questions going forward

1. Can NC State fulfill its preseason hype?
Now that the formerly top-10 Wolfpack have dealt with all the preseason (over?)hype, dropped a bit out of the spotlight and gotten a couple of losses out of their system, can they push Duke for the conference crown? NC State has all the pieces, what with Scott Wood hitting 3-pointers, Howell corralling rebounds, Lorenzo Brown doling out assists and Leslie doing a bit of everything. We'll know a lot more after that Jan. 12 showdown against the Blue Devils.

2. Is Maryland for real?
When the NCAA granted Wells' appeal to play immediately at Maryland without sitting out a season after transferring from Xavier, it instantly made the Terps one of the most intriguing teams in the league. And they still are. Wells, a wing, is averaging 12.3 points and 4.7 rebounds; a more-confident Len is averaging 13.3 points and 8 rebounds; and the Terps rank in the top 10 in the nation in rebounds, assists and field goal percentage. The question now is: Can they keep up those numbers against the likes of Duke and NC State, after racking up those digits against the likes of Georgia Southern, Monmouth and LIU Brooklyn?

3. Is there any way Jeff Bzdelik keeps his job?
The third-year Wake Forest coach has posted only five ACC wins total in his previous two seasons, and so far, things haven't gotten a whole lot better in Winston-Salem. Nonconference losses include blowouts at the hands of Iona and Nebraska, and fan angst got so bad last month that Bzdelik stopped taking live calls during his radio show. At least the Deacs enter conference play on a three-game winning streak.

Revised predictions

1. Duke: Eventually, the Blue Devils will lose. But not often. Great senior leadership from Plumlee, Curry and Ryan Kelly should continue to pave the way.
2. NC State: It might be hard to hold on to that nation-leading field goal percentage against some of the ACC's defenses, but it's going to be fun to watch.
3. Maryland: The Terrapins boast their best record entering ACC play since 1998-1999 and their longest winning streak in 10 years.
4. North Carolina: Last weekend's win over UNLV showed the Tar Heels' potential to play defense and play tough. Doing both consistently is the next step.
5. Miami: The Hurricanes were on a pretty good roll until they lost big man Reggie Johnson -- who was averaging a double-double -- to a broken left thumb. He's expected to miss much of the ACC season, and how the Canes absorb the loss will be key.
6. Florida State: Last year, the Seminoles were 9-5 entering ACC play and turned things around. They're 8-5 now. Losing a 12-point first-half lead (and the game) at Auburn is not the best way to enter league competition. But they still boast playmaker Michael Snaer.
7. Virginia: The Cavaliers have the defense to finish well above this prediction, and they also have the benefit of playing Duke and NC State only once during the unbalanced league schedule.
8. Virginia Tech: With high-scoring Erick Green -- as well as a new push-the-pace attack -- the Hokies are capable of upsetting anyone, anytime. But they have only seven scholarship players, which eventually takes a toll.
9. Georgia Tech: Coach Brian Gregory looks as though he has this team headed in the right direction, and it's going to be fun to watch it grow up. Freshman Marcus Georges-Hunt leads the team in scoring (11.1 ppg), and freshman Robert Carter leads it in rebounding (9.7).
10. Clemson: The Tigers need to get as much out of senior big men Devin Booker and Milton Jennings as they can. Ten players are averaging at least 9.4 minutes.
11. Boston College: Switching to a four-guard lineup has helped the Eagles run to a five-game winning streak entering conference play. But this is still a building year for the still-underclassmen-laden team.
12. Wake Forest: Wednesday's win over Xavier means the Demon Deacons have won four of their past five. But it's still hard to see Wake crawling out of its two-year ACC funk.