Here's what to expect in ACC play

Originally Published: January 5, 2012
By Robbi Pickeral | ESPN.com

With the conference season set to get under way this weekend, let's take a look at what's in store for the ACC:

[+] EnlargeHarrison Barnes
Mark Dolejs/US PresswireHarrison Barnes is a key man for UNC when the game's on the line.

The favorite: The pieces are all there for North Carolina. Point guard Kendall Marshall is one of the top assist men in the nation. Seven-foot Tyler Zeller and 6-11 John Henson make up one of the most formidable frontcourts in the nation. Harrison Barnes is one of the top go-to guys in the country, especially when the game is on the line. And the Tar Heels boast sharpshooting off the bench in Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston.

The biggest question for the Tar Heels: Do they have enough edge to win it all?

When they're focused and zoned in, the Tar Heels are hard to stop. Ask Texas, a younger, less talented team against whom UNC took out its lingering frustrations (to the tune of a 19-point blowout) after losing to the Longhorns last season on a last-second shot. But when Carolina's attention lapses, so does its play. UNC looked as if it was just going through the motions in the second half of November's loss to UNLV in Las Vegas. If the Tar Heels stay motivated, they should win the league -- and more.

Other contenders: Duke players sounded the same alarm after their loss at Temple on Wednesday night as they did in their 22-point defeat at Ohio State in late November: they came out flat and they didn't fight hard enough. Although freshman Quinn Cook seemed to be growing more confident at point guard, Austin Rivers, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins can score with the best of 'em, and Ryan Kelly and the Plumlee brothers add a tall post presence, this is one of those Blue Devils teams that should (and will need to) get better as the season goes along. It can compete with anyone, if it can learn from its mistakes.

Virginia, meanwhile, has proved itself the third-best team in the ACC right now, thanks to great defense and fifth-year senior Mike Scott. But only time will tell whether it has the depth to stay in that slot for the long haul.

And although Florida State has to be the league's biggest disappointment so far, it still has the big bodies, and defensive ability, to make a dent in the top tier of the ACC. But after losing to two Ivy League teams already, it just has to prove it can do it.

[+] EnlargeMike Scott
AP Photo/Andrew ShurtleffMike Scott and Virginia have made the chase for the ACC crown an interesting one.

Player of the year (so far): You're not going to like this, Tar Heels fans, but no ACC player has meant more to his team this season than Scott, Virginia's fifth-year forward. Without his points, leadership and consistency, no way would the Cavs have won 11 straight, be ranked in the top 25, and be considered the (albeit) dark horse to topple Carolina or Duke.

UNC's Henson, who is averaging a double-double, may be the more dynamic player, and his teammate, Barnes, may have the most NBA potential. But you can't debate Scott's impact.

Other contenders: Henson and Barnes, UNC; Terrell Stoglin, Maryland.

Freshman of the year (so far): Maybe Duke's Rivers hasn't been the super-duperstar thus far that everyone expected, but he has been solid. He leads Duke in scoring (15.4 ppg, before Wednesday night's matchup with Temple) and minutes (29.4 per game). And you get the feeling it's only a matter of time before he has a breakout game -- even if just to stop fans from reminding each other that last season's super-duper Duke freshman, Kyrie Irving, had a 31-point outing early in the season.

Other contenders: Cook, Duke; Dorian Finney-Smith, Virginia Tech; Patrick Heckmann, BC.

Wins to brag about: Virginia over Michigan; Duke over Michigan State and Kansas; UNC over Wisconsin and Michigan State

Losses that sting: UNC's 10-point loss to UNLV; Duke's loss to Temple and 22-point loss at Ohio State; Wofford over Wake Forest; Princeton over Florida State; Fordham and Mercer over Georgia Tech; Rhode Island over Boston College

Pleasant surprises: Maryland 7-1 freshman Alex Len is averaging 14 points and 8 rebounds after sitting out the first 10 games of the season because of NCAA eligibility issues. He should give the Terps a big (man) weapon against league foes. … After an inconsistent freshman season that ended early when he needed knee surgery, it's nice to see UNC reserve Reggie Bullock get his confidence and shooting touch back. … Duke is developing a good point guard tandem in Tyler Thornton and Cook, allowing Rivers to play in his natural off-guard position. … NC State might lack consistency from game to game, but first-year coach Mark Gottfried has instilled a drive that has been sorely lacking the last few seasons.

Biggest disappointments: J.T. Harrell's and James Johnson's decisions to transfer from Virginia after the first semester, during a winning streak, because of playing time. … What might have happened had UNC thought to foul after Anthony Davis blocked Henson's potentially game-winning shot at Kentucky? We'll never know. … Did anyone else think Devin Booker and/or Milton Jennings would be scoring more for Clemson? The Tigers need a consistent offensive threat. … Reggie Johnson's knee injury (although his recent return should bode well for Miami).

Questions
Is Virginia for real?

After struggling to win against Towson at home, then beating LSU on the road -- in the same week -- Coach Tony Bennett said he realizes "how fine of a line" his team is on. The Cavs enter league play with a 13-1 record built on defense, and they want to be known as a team, Bennett said, that's hard to play against.

Will Duke and UNC grow bored during conference play?Potentially. Their two games against each other will be showdowns. UVa's defense could be challenging. FSU, if it can get its act together, could make things interesting. And NC State should be at its feistiest for its Tobacco Road rivals. But there are a lot of other probable stinkers on the docket, too, beginning this weekend, when UNC plays Boston College and the Blue Devils travel to Georgia Tech; both foes have triple-digit RPIs.

How many teams will make the NCAA tournament?

Usually, beating up on each other during conference play raises everyone's RPI, but that might be challenging this season. As of Monday, only four teams -- Duke, UNC, Virginia Tech and NC State -- could be found in the top 50 of the NCAA's RPI rankings, while two (Maryland and Georgia Tech) fell below 100 and two more (Clemson and Boston College) fell below 200.

Revised predictions

1. UNC: With so much talented balance, still the team to top.
2. Duke: After Wednesday's loss, Coach K's tinkering probably isn't complete.
3. Virginia: Defense, defense, defense. Rinse, wash, repeat.
4. Florida State: Offense will be an issue, but defense and cohesion should improve.
5. Virginia Tech: Hudson seems to be finding groove again after slump.
6. NC State: Great one game, not-so-great the next. Will that pattern continue?
7. Miami: Good thing the Canes got Reggie Johnson back.
8. Maryland: Len gives them a big body to compete with big frontcourts.
9. Clemson: The Tigers have to find a way to score more.
10. Wake Forest: Already topped win total from last season.
11. Georgia Tech: At least it plays Boston College twice.
12. Boston College: At least it has to play Duke and UNC only once.

Robbi Pickeral can be reached at bylinerp@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @bylinerp.