- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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Swish, thunk, squeak.
What's that indistinct sound reverberating through your head? Oddly familiar, yet can't quite place it?
That's OK. Take your time. Clear out the oofs, ughs and plunks still clouding your brain from college football season. We know it takes awhile, what with those 34 meaningful bowl games to toss aside.
Got it yet? Yes, that's right. It's college basketball dribbling your way. Goodbye, Lee Corso; hello, Dickie V. Later, gobbledygook BCS computers and howdy to gobbledygook RPI.
Welcome back. We've missed you.
While you were still trying to figure out how Notre Dame's offensive coordinator got a new job and Mike Leach didn't, Auburn hired a coach with fewer wins than the one it fired and when head-to-head competition became so meaningless, we took the liberty of getting started without you.
But no worries. We're here to help.
Two conferences have sort of run ahead of the pack as the calendar pushes to January. Last week we offered up the Big East tutorial.
Now welcome to ACC 101 (prerequisite for March Madness 400).
Required reading (viewing) -- here are five nights to park it on the sofa:
Jan. 17: Maryland at Florida State (noon ET); Georgetown at Duke (1:30 ET); Wake Forest at Clemson (ABC, 3:30 ET); Miami at North Carolina (ESPN, 9 ET).
Jan. 21: Virginia Tech at Wake Forest (ESPN2, 7 ET); Florida State at Miami (7:30 ET); Clemson at North Carolina (ESPN, 9 ET).
Feb. 4: Wake Forest at Miami (ESPN2, 7:30 ET); Duke at Clemson (ESPN, 9 ET).
Feb. 11: North Carolina at Duke (ESPN, 9 ET).
March 8: Duke at North Carolina (4 ET); Clemson at Wake Forest (6 ET).
Five guys with something to prove:
Tyler Hansbrough: He's the reigning player of the year. His team is the best in the country by a landslide, so what more can Tyler do for you? As soon as he decided to return to college instead of moving on to the NBA, Hansbrough set the bar impossibly high -- win another player of the year award and lead his team to the national championship or bust. Going undefeated wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
Gary Williams: No one is feeling the heat more than Williams. Reportedly at odds with his athletic director and making just two NCAA appearances in five years, the coach who directed the 2002 national championship team needs a ticket to the dance to keep the vultures at bay.
Leonard Hamilton: Florida State hasn't been bad under Hamilton. The Seminoles have posted three consecutive seasons with at least 19 wins. They just haven't been good enough. Selection Sunday has ended in a phone call from the NIT, not an announcement on television, and has made fans in Tallahassee antsy for something more.
Duke's Class of 2009: For most college players, getting to the NCAA tournament every year in your career would be a huge accomplishment, regardless of the result. Duke isn't most schools. Greg Paulus and David McClure haven't been beyond the round of 16 in their careers and, worse, were bounced in the second round in 2008 and the first round in '07, this despite being a 2-seed, 6-seed and 1-seed respectively.
Oliver Purnell: Clemson fans have gotten very good at holding their breath, waiting in fear for the other shoe to drop, the sky to fall and the world to come crashing down on their heads. Two great starts, two average finishes. There's no doubt Purnell is doing a good job with the Tigers, but until Clemson's hot start matches a fast finish, Tigers fans will turn blue.
Five reasons the ACC is better than the Big East:
As good as the bulk of the Big East is, the crumbs are really crummy, and this year everyone gets invited to the Big East tournament. University presidents will tell you it's fairer to include everyone, as if this were kindergarten, not college hoops. What's truly unfair is subjecting New Yorkers to a Tuesday of horrifically bad basketball during the Big East tourney when they already have to endure the Knicks.
The ACC might not pack the behemoth punch of the Big Beast, but the worst teams in the league aren't anywhere near as bad as the Big East basement.
And now 12 team breakdowns to tuck under your pillow and memorize. Final exam in April.
Player to watch: Rakim Sanders. The gifted sophomore is a big-bodied guard with good athleticism. When he plays well and becomes a threat, it takes the pressure off Tyrese Rice. That's a good thing for BC.
Circle the date: Jan. 27 at Maryland. A year ago in the first round of the ACC tournament, Rice hit two free throws with four seconds left to seriously damage the Terps' postseason hopes.
Good sign: The Eagles aren't simply the Tyrese Rice show. The senior remains the focal point of the team, but with help from Joe Trapani and Corey Raji, BC is getting balanced scoring. Four guys are averaging double figures, a must as league teams turn their attention to stopping Rice.
Bad sign: BC started last season on a similar nonconference tear, opening at 10-4, before skidding to disaster, losing 12 of its final 13 league games.
Why you should care: Boston College is good enough to pull off some shockers, or at least throw a few scares at the league contenders.
NCAA outlook: Getting back to the tourney remains a stretch for the Eagles, but for a team that spiraled to a 14-17 finish last season and still boasts a young roster, an NIT bid would certainly be a huge accomplishment.
Player to watch: K.C. Rivers. The senior is one of just three players in school history to top 1,400 points, 600 rebounds and 200 assists.
Circle the date: Feb. 4 vs. Duke. You won't be getting a ticket. The Tigers athletic department already announced the game as a sellout, so might as well settle in with a beverage (may we suggest Hoegaarden?) and some popcorn and decide for yourself if this Clemson team is for real. There's a very good chance the Tigers could be -- at worst -- 18-2 at tip-off.
Good sign: The Tigers were down 12 points to Miami, a bad omen in the league opener. Instead of wilting, Clemson rallied with a 16-0 run that left the Hurricanes weakened. If the Tigers can stay mentally focused, their scrappy defense makes them a very difficult team to play.
Bad sign: This is all too familiar. Two seasons ago, the Tigers started 17-0, finished the regular season 21-9 and ended up in the NIT. Last year it was a 10-0 start that drizzled to a 10-6 mark in the league that re-emerged as a run to the conference tourney title game and ultimately ended in a first-round loss to Villanova in the NCAA tournament.
Why you should care: Reasonable people are reserving judgment on the Tigers, bitten twice by early-season success and midseason swoons, so Clemson is flying slightly under the radar. But the Tigers are older and wiser -- Rivers is a senior, Trevor Booker a junior -- and could pull off some in-league surprises.
NCAA outlook: Barring a disaster a la the 2006-07 season, the Tigers are in the tourney and appear to have the mental fortitude to advance.
Player to watch: Nolan Smith. Viewed as a somewhat controversial decision, Mike Krzyzewski's switch to Smith as the starter over Greg Paulus has completely changed the tenor of the Blue Devils. Smith, who put a scare in Duke fans when he injured his knee against Loyola, is a faster and much savvier true point guard, a guy who looks for everyone else's shot before his own and sets the tone for a Duke team predicated on making the extra pass. And as an added bonus, bringing Paulus and his shooting touch off the bench is a huge boost to the Devils.
Circle the date: Feb. 11 vs. North Carolina; March 8 at North Carolina. If you have to ask why, you clearly are not all the way detoxed from football.
Good sign: A good team defensively a year ago, the Blue Devils are even better this year. According to kenpom.com, Duke is the nation's fifth most efficient team on the defensive end. More impressive for those who like to crow about the undersized Devils: They are outrebounding opponents by 10.5 boards per game.
Bad sign: Duke isn't shooting the ball well; only 32 percent from the arc. So far the Devils are athletic enough to overcome their troubles, but for a team that shoots the 3 as much as the Devils do, they need the shots to fall.
Why you should care: Everyone in the country is looking for a team that can beat Carolina. The search could end 11 miles from the Chapel Hill campus. Mix the fierce rivalry and Cameron Crazies with a talented, quick and defensively strong Duke team and you have all the makings of a frenzy in Durham.
NCAA outlook: This looks like a really good Duke team. Unselfish, smart, fast, solid on defense and sometimes downright pretty on offense, it would be stunning if the Devils didn't go deep into the tourney.
Player to watch: Chris Singleton. The McDonald's All-American already is making an immediate impact in his rookie year. Second only to senior Toney Douglas in scoring, he leads the Seminoles in rebounding and has helped Leonard Hamilton break away from his guard-heavy lineups of years past.
Circle the date: Jan. 21 at Miami. It's not yet to the football level, but the hard-court rivalry is picking up steam, what with Miami threatening to become a (gasp!) basketball power and Florida State desperate to get off the NIT schneid. The Seminoles beat their in-state rivals twice last season, erasing the pain of the football team's failure to top the Hurricanes.
Good sign: Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Instead of being skittish kids, the Seminoles appear to be carefree. Aside from an inexplicable egg at Northwestern, FSU hasn't been rattled.
Bad sign: Northwestern beat the Seminoles by 14 in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge, a potentially NCAA bid-killing loss.
Why you should care: Florida State's roster includes six freshmen and two sophomores, players who should stick around for a while and get better.
NCAA outlook: Tantalizingly close to the tournament the past three years, Florida State still is looking for its first ticket in a decade. This team has enough talent but will need some hallmark league wins to impress the committee.
Player to watch: Lewis Clinch. Academically ineligible in the first semester, Clinch returned with 18 points and four assists in his first game back. With D'Andre Bell lost to season-ending spinal surgery, the Yellow Jackets desperately need veteran leadership in the backcourt.
Circle the date: Feb. 28 at North Carolina. Only a Hansbrough block kept the Tar Heels from a monumental upset last season. Don't bet on the Heels forgetting.
Good sign: Sophomore Gani Lawal is delivering on his promising rookie season. The forward is averaging a double-double, jumping his scoring average from 7.2 points as a freshman to almost 17 this year.
Bad sign: The Jackets just haven't been very good. Losing Bell and going without Clinch was certainly an early-season blow, but Georgia Tech already has some bad losses (Penn State, Illinois-Chicago) and has struggled to score against better opponents.
Why you should care: The Yellow Jackets still have the power to scare teams.
NCAA outlook: Not good. Barring a stunning coming together, this doesn't look like an NCAA team.
Player to watch: Greivis Vasquez. Only Georgetown has been able to stifle the junior, who has reached double figures in all but the game against the Hoyas. The emotional guard can still be prone to turnovers, but he also remains a deft playmaker.
Circle the date: Jan. 14 at Miami. Maryland will find out just how good it is in the second game of the conference season. The Terps haven't won at Coral Gables since the Hurricanes joined the league.
Good sign: The nonconference schedule isn't going to bite the Terps this time. There are no hide-under-the-sheets losses, no Ohios or Americans jumping off the card. Instead Maryland played good competition and emerged the better for it. The Terps beat Michigan State and Michigan, quality wins that will resonate, and lost to Gonzaga and Georgetown, not exactly chump teams. More importantly, aside from an overtime win against Vermont, Maryland has pasted the teams it's expected to paste.
Bad sign: The Terps are second-to-last in rebounding margin in the ACC, besting opponents by only 2.3 boards per game. That could prove costly in crucial games.
Why you should care: Dropped off the national radar after failing to make the tournament in two of the past three seasons, Maryland has a quintessential Gary Williams team -- a crew of under-the-radar talent that can and will work its tail off. For everyone fed up with silver-spoon-fed stars, the Terps are a team to root for.
NCAA outlook: The conference schedule hasn't been the hard part for Maryland, and presuming form holds, the Terps are a tourney team.
Player to watch: Jack McClinton. From a virtual unknown at Siena, McClinton has willed himself onto the basketball map. Still not a household name, he is a phenomenal shooter who hasn't even blinked at the longer 3-pointer.
Circle the date: Feb. 7 at Duke. The Hurricanes beat the Blue Devils for the first time in 45 years last season. This is the only meeting between the two this year.
Good sign: Forward Dwayne Collins, who all but disappeared in the postseason a year ago, appears to have rediscovered his hard nose around the hoop. Collins leads the team in rebounding and has become a steady scorer to complement McClinton.
Bad sign: The Hurricanes still aren't getting enough consistent production from the rest of their roster. McClinton's value was underscored against Ohio State when he was ejected after eight minutes and the Hurricanes spiraled to defeat. To be a good team on par with the league's elite, McClinton needs help.
Why you should care: Miami is trying to become a regular player in the ACC, and this team is good enough to make people stand up and take notice. Considered a surprise after an 11-game turnaround last year, the Canes still don't have that exclamation-point win of the season.
NCAA outlook: High on everyone's preseason lists, the Hurricanes have stumbled back to reality, losing to three of the four NCAA-caliber teams they've played (Connecticut, Ohio State and Clemson, and beating a bubble Kentucky team). The 19-point loss to Clemson in the conference opener was an especially ugly one. Miami will need to finish better than the middle of the pack to secure its spot.
Player to watch: Ty Lawson. No, that's not a misprint. Feel free to let your eyes wander to Hansbrough and enjoy the final run of a terrific player, but if you're looking for the engine to the Carolina machine, start at the point. Were it not for the DWI arrest, Lawson very well could have been the only Tar Heel drafted last summer. He can create and shoot, and is as adept a playmaker as you'll find in the game.
Circle the date: Jan. 4, 7, 11, 15, 17, 21, 28, 31; Feb. 3, 7, 11, 15, 18, 21; March 4, 8. Until they lose, if they lose, every single time the Tar Heels step on the floor for a league game, it will be worth watching.
Good sign: In case the whopping beatdowns aren't impressive enough, the Heels now have a healthy Marcus Ginyard, making Carolina better and deeper. Kind of like giving Michael Phelps fins.
Bad sign: Whiplash remains Carolina's best defense. The Heels' blur of an offense makes it impossible for opponents to keep up, let alone stop them. But what happens when shots don't fall, or a team somehow forces them into a half-court game? Roy Williams made defense a priority from the first day of practice and there's certainly no indication the Tar Heels' old Achilles' heel is bothering them, but it will be interesting, at least, to see how they respond when tested.
Why you should care: 33 years. That's how long it's been since a team has finished a season undefeated.
NCAA outlook: Guessing the Heels are in the tourney. Just a hunch. After that, it's called March Madness for a reason. There is no question that North Carolina is far and away the best team in the country, but the best team doesn't always hoist the trophy. Ask UNLV. Carolina should win the NCAA championship, but it doesn't mean Carolina will win the NCAA championship.
Player to watch: Ben McCauley. Among the many mysteries surrounding the Wolfpack last year was McCauley's disappearing act. The forward slid from 14 points a game to 6, from nearly 7 boards a game to under 4. Whether it was the inability to mix J.J. Hickson appropriately into the offense or another malady, McCauley appears cured. He's leading the Wolfpack in scoring and racking up double-doubles after getting none a year ago.
Circle the date: Jan. 20 at Duke. The rivalry has taken a backseat to the one between the Heels and the Blue Devils, but the feelings run equally deep. Adding to it, Duke needed a monster rally to beat the Wolfpack last year by one.
Good sign: Brandon Costner looks like the guy from two years ago. Costner suffered a knee injury during tryouts for the Pan-Am Games the summer before the 2007-08 season. Lacking conditioning and overweight, he was not the player he had been. Now healthy and with his weight down, Costner is matching McCauley in production.
Bad sign: Trevor Ferguson, the Wolfpack's leading 3-point shooter, broke his ring finger and is out until mid-January or possibly early February. That leaves the backcourt in disarray and NC State without its best threat from outside.
Why you should care: Dominic James' heroics and Steph Curry being Steph Curry are all that stand in the way of the Wolfpack and an undefeated record. James drained a 3-pointer with 0.4 left to give Marquette a win and Curry went for 44, including a nail-in-the-coffin off-balance 3, to help Davidson beat NC State by five.
NCAA outlook: The Wolfpack are an interesting case. Not many people are talking about the Pack, but they are playing well and could very well be a surprise team in the ACC.
Player to watch: Sylven Landesberg. Collecting rookie of the week awards in bunches, Landesberg is hurtling toward the league's top newcomer award. He leads the ACC in scoring and is helping the Cavaliers get accustomed to life after Sean Singletary.
Circle the date: Feb. 4 vs. Boston College. Virginia won only five conference games last season, but two of them came against the Eagles.
Good sign: Sammy Zeglinski, the point guard tabbed to replace Singletary, is getting better at taking care of the basketball. Struggling through a skein of three consecutive games with five turnovers early in the season, the redshirt freshman has settled down considerably.
Bad sign: Mamadi Diane, who averaged 11.8 points last year, is suffering through a perplexing slump. The senior is averaging only 4.1 points per game, and a year after sinking a team-best 60 3-pointers missed his first 21 from beyond the arc.
Why you should care: The Cavaliers are only going to get better. The roster is loaded with freshmen and sophomores, all getting considerable playing time. If that's not a good enough reason, watching Landesberg is worth it.
NCAA outlook: This is a transition season, so the tournament isn't in the cards.
Player to watch: Malcolm Delaney. The point guard continues the way he finished his rookie season. A solid playmaker, Delaney also has emerged as a reliable scorer. The threat of Delaney, who has more than doubled his production from last year, keeps the heat off A.D. Vassallo.
Circle the date: Jan. 14 vs. Richmond. Last year the Hokies dropped a 52-49 decision to the Spiders, a loss that proved costly come NCAA decision time.
Good sign: Forward J.T. Thompson, sidelined by a hernia, is back in the lineup. The powerful sophomore will inject energy and points off the bench and adds depth to the Hokies' lineup.
Bad sign: Though the losses have been close, they've also robbed Virginia Tech of a chance of grabbing a solid nonconference victory.
Why you should care: The Hokies are a much better team than their record would indicate. They've been in every game, losing by a combined eight points, including an improbable buzzer-beater against Xavier. With a roster made of underclassmen, Virginia Tech also is a program that should just get better as the year, and the years, go on.
NCAA outlook: Seth Greenberg lobbied hard on behalf of his Hokies last year to no avail. Right now Tech is probably on the outside of the tourney looking in, but if those close losses turn into important wins, it could play its way into the bracket.
Player to watch: Al-Farouq Aminu. The highly touted freshman lived up to his billing from the start, becoming the first Wake rookie to post a double-double in the first game of his career. Now with more doubles than any other ACC rookie, Aminu is giving the Demon Deacons a formidable presence in the post.
Circle the date: March 3 at Maryland. The Terrapins had Wake's number a year ago, winning both meetings between the schools and holding the Deacons under 40 percent shooting.
Good sign: The less-than-choosy Demon Deacons of a year ago are taking better shots.
Bad sign: Wake continues to be troubled by turnovers. The Deacs commit 17.4 per game to only 15.6 assists. Certainly a great deal of that is attributable to youth, but if Wake wants to run with the big boys of North Carolina and Duke -- literally and figuratively -- it will have to take better care of the basketball.
Why you should care: If you're looking for a feel-good story, look no further than Winston-Salem. Less than two years after the sudden death of Skip Prosser, Dino Gaudio, Prosser's right-hand man and dear friend, has Wake off to its best start in eight years.
NCAA outlook: Last year's slide from 11-3 and in to 17-12 and the NIT won't be repeated. Though still young, this Wake Forest team is talented and wiser for the experience of last season.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.