A year ago, the ACC was viewed as one of the strongest basketball conferences in two decades, rich with an abundance of talented point guards and as many as six programs expected to challenge for the Final Four.
There was a different mood as league coaches and players met with the media Sunday. Seven ACC players, including four from North Carolina's 2005 national championship team, were among the first 22 picks of the NBA draft, leaving the new 12-team league with only one sure entity.
Duke was the unanimous choice by the media's 87 voters to win the league. The Blue Devils return two unanimous first-team all-conference selections in seniors J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams and are widely regarded as the nation's top team.
"After that," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said, "there is a lot of confusion."
ACC newcomer Boston College, which returns four starters from a team that won 25 games while playing in the Big East, was picked second. Maryland (fifth) and Virginia Tech (eighth) are expected to strongly contend for NCAA tournament berths. Virginia, under first-year coach Dave Leitao, was selected to finish last.
Maryland returns four starters from a team that missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993. The only starter who departed was point guard John Gilchrist, who those within the program said disrupted team chemistry with his individual play.
On Sunday, Williams said his relationship with Gilchrist was more strained than any relationship he has had with a player. Williams said he had plenty of sleepless nights this spring wondering if he could have handled the situation differently.
The buzzwords this year, however, are togetherness and consistency. The Terrapins, anchored by four seniors, pledged to avoid the individual play that polluted last year's team.
"We want to get another ring," said senior Chris McCray, referencing Maryland's 2002 national title and 2004 ACC tournament title.
Maryland brings back 84.3 percent of its scoring from last year. That stands in stark contrast to North Carolina, which lost four non-seniors to the NBA draft and returns a mere 9.1 percent of its offense.
The Tar Heels feature freshman Tyler Hansbrough, the league's preseason pick for rookie of the year, but lost their top seven scorers. Coach Roy Williams said the coaching staff has been more patient and deliberate in practice because of the inexperience.
"It's a tremendous difference," he said. "Last year we knew we could throw the ball inside to Sean May. This year we don't know if we have an inside presence."
Much like North Carolina, Duke also has a talented freshman in forward Josh McRoberts, who was considered a possible first-round NBA draft pick had he turned pro out of high school. But the headliners in Durham, N.C., promise to be Redick and Williams.
"The chances of us having two guys the caliber of J.J. and Shelden be here for their senior years is slim," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
If the ACC is slightly down overall this year, coaches said the results will show in the NCAA tournament, not in preseason hyperbole.
"You can blow smoke this time of year," Gary Williams said. "Come March, you are what you are."