Maryland won the ACC men's basketball tournament last season and, two weeks later, Duke and Georgia Tech reached the Final Four. All three teams return at least three starters and, perhaps most important, their coaches. Yet none is considered the favorite in the ACC.
Why? Wake Forest, voted the media's choice to win the league, returns five double-digit scorers, including point guard Chris Paul, expected to be the conference player of the year. North Carolina, voted to finish second, brings back the core of its team and adds Marvin Williams, one of the two best high school players who opted not to jump to the NBA.
The league clearly is the nation's best and, according to some ACC coaches, the best it has ever been. In the coaches' poll released last week, three teams ranked in the top four. Maryland Coach Gary Williams, whose team was voted to finish sixth in the ACC, likened it to 1985, when three Big East teams made the Final Four.
Said Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, "We have more outstanding teams relative to the rest of the country than in other years."
The ACC features a slew of experienced players, including four of the best point guards in the country. However, only one true standout, North Carolina State's Julius Hodge, is a senior. In fact, only three seniors -- Hodge, Georgia Tech's B.J. Elder and Virginia's Elton Brown -- averaged more than 13 points per game last season. In the new age of college basketball, sophomores and juniors are veterans.
"Yeah, that's considered an experienced team, but that's just the way the game goes," Williams said. "If you look at the NBA draft this year, how many college players were drafted? You look at Europe, they had nine or 10 guys, and then the high school guys. You're down to less than 30 college players. You still have to earn your way into the draft. You don't just automatically leave to go."
The other oddity about this year's league is that teams will not play a double round-robin schedule because of the addition of Virginia Tech and Miami. It's too early to determine who benefits by playing some teams only once, but Krzyzewski agreed with many coaches in that "there has to be a few teams in our league that have it more advantageous than others."
Duke, which had been picked to finish first each of the past four years, was voted to finish fourth this season after losing freshman Luol Deng and high school recruit Shaun Livingston to the NBA draft. At issue is how the Blue Devils will compete in a point guard-heavy ACC without a natural or experienced floor leader.
"Duke is going to figure everything out," Maryland point guard John Gilchrist said. "They always do."
Despite reaching the national title game last season, Georgia Tech was voted behind Wake Forest and North Carolina. Yellow Jackets players said they don't mind hovering under the radar before the season starts. But they acknowledged that the tournament run changed the perception of the program.
"It's been really different," Georgia Tech guard Jarrett Jack said. "This is a big city with pro sports, but you go around the city and everyone knows you. Coach [Paul] Hewitt is Atlanta's newest celebrity."