Wake Forest lost point guard Chris Paul. Georgia Tech saw point Jarrett Jack leave. North Carolina lost three starters and its sixth man, all of whom landed in the lottery. Maryland's point guard is gone, whether it helps the Terps or not. NC State lost its best all-around player, Julius Hodge.
Is there anyone left to challenge Duke?
Yup. They're just not your typical ACC names because they are new to the ACC.
The timing is perfect for Virginia Tech and Miami, surprisingly successful in year one in the league, to be contenders again, and for newcomer Boston College, with potential All-Americans Craig Smith and Jared Dudley, to push for a place in the league's upper crust.
Still, the ACC's old guard is not handing the mantle over just yet.
"At first glance, I would say [the perception that the veteran ACC teams are down] is accurate," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. "We did lose a lot, but it's still the ACC."
"The league finds a way to be very good every year," NC State coach Herb Sendek said. "Sometimes it's supposed to be great, and other years it doesn't have the same buildup. But it will be still good from top to bottom."
With the new, larger conference and unbalanced schedules, though, there is less consistency from year to year.
"I've seen this before," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "Everyone said it's down and then it doesn't turn out that way. With 12 teams, it's a lot harder to predict. Duke will be the No. 1 team, but after that it will be difficult to pick the teams. Yes, a team like BC could come in and be as good as the teams were in this league last year."
The opportunity is there. For the league newbies, though, the push to become threats to Duke likely starts at home.
The principal difference between the ACC and the Big East is the level of home-court advantage. Sure, there are a few dominant courts in the Big East, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a weak one anywhere in the ACC. Even traditional bottom-feeders, such as Clemson and Florida State, can pack 'em in and chase away road teams.
That's why it was critical for the Eagles to establish Conte Forum last season. The Eagles got off to a 20-0 start overall, helped out by BC's average of 8,606 fans per Big East game.
"We weren't re-establishing, we were establishing [Conte Forum]," Skinner said. "You used to say how dead the place was. Our fans and students support the game very well, and it was encouraging last season."
Virginia Tech (8-8, T-4th) and Miami (7-9, T-6th) stunned the rest of the league with their strong first-year performances and they, too, were buoyed by better home crowds. The Hokies went from averaging 6,342 fans (in 15 games) in their final Big East season to 9,406 fans (16 games) in their ACC debut. Miami's attendance jumped from 2,545 a game (18 games) to 4,303 (16 games).
Oh, yeah Virginia Tech beat Duke in Blacksburg and Florida State dumped Wake Forest in Tallahassee.
"Even though we were in the Big East, there's a certain sexiness about the ACC," Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "The tradition of North Carolina and Duke and Maryland is in the ACC. As good as the Big East is, and will be with the addition of the Conference USA teams, the ACC brings people out because of the richness of the tradition. They found that out in Miami, and they'll find that out in New England."
Virginia Tech and Miami return four starters apiece, fueling guarded optimism at both programs.
"We're in the middle of the pack with Virginia Tech," Miami coach Frank Haith said. "We're not as good as Duke, but no one is."
All three former Big East programs are hitting the ACC on an upswing, a result of stocking their teams with "program guys" rather than superstars, according to Greenberg. The timing has been near-perfect, as the newcomers all have arrived near the top of a recruiting cycle.
"My philosophy is to get as many top-100 guys as possible, and if you can consistently do that, then you can build a program," Haith said. "Do I think we're going to sneak up on everybody? No. But you're going to face a better Miami team."
The ACC already has gotten a taste of Virginia Tech and Miami. It will find out soon that BC doesn't have much depth but has the two anchors up front that should allow the Eagles to more than hold their own immediately.
"What's encouraging [is] that we're going to be competitive," Skinner said. "When we first got to BC, we weren't competitive in the Big East. But we moved up from the bottom to the top."
Chasing Duke is nothing new to the ACC, but this season, the teams doing the chasing might be.
That's how many ACC teams Joe Lunardi sees in the 2006 NCAA Tournament bracket, including No. 1 seed Duke.
* -- Led team
With the loss of so many quality guards, will the ACC, traditionally a guard-oriented league, remain so? The answer is yes, but not all the guards who will carry the league in 2005-06 will be recognizable names from perennial contenders. To find two of the three best backcourts in the league, you'll have to look in Coral Gables and Blacksburg.
|Best returning backcourts|
|Guillermo Diaz/Robert Hite (Miami)||35.9||9.3||7.5|
|J.J. Redick/Sean Dockery (Duke)||28.0||6.1||5.2|
Zabian Dowdell/Jamon Gordon
|Sean Singletary/J.R. Reynolds (Virginia)||21.2||5.5||5.6|
Yes, the Blue Devils lost early entrant Shavlik Randolph (undrafted) and senior Daniel Ewing (No. 32 to the L.A. Clippers), but as long as shooting guard J.J. Redick, post man Shelden Williams and incoming forward Josh McRoberts were watching the draft instead of participating in it, all is well in Durham.
A year ago, Duke was hit hard when Luol Deng bolted after one season, expected starting point guard Shaun Livingston never arrived and senior guard Chris Duhon finished his eligibility.
This year, Williams, Redick and McRoberts easily could have declared for the draft and likely gone in the first round. But the two rising seniors and the incoming stud weren't tempted like many of their ACC brethren.
"We knew that if we were all coming back, we'd have the chance to do something real special," Williams said Wednesday. "I made the right decision. Nothing is guaranteed, and this is a good situation for me. I wanted to finish my business at Duke, graduate and get a national title and hopefully go undefeated along the way."
A year ago, the Blue Devils were limited depth-wise. Anything behind seven players in the rotation started to become a stretch.
"We never had the team we were expected to have," Williams said.
Still, Duke landed a No. 1 seed in the Austin Regional, making it to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual Final Four participant Michigan State.
This season, the loaded Blue Devils have a shot to place Williams (15.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 3.7 bpg in 2004-05) and Redick (21.8 ppg, 40.3 percent on 3s) on the first-team All-ACC and possibly first-team All-American lists. McRoberts could end up being the national freshman of the year.
The Blue Devils also return role shooter Lee Melchionni, guards DeMarcus Nelson and Sean Dockery, and forward David McClure, who might or might not redshirt. Added depth will come from the newcomer class, where two (McRoberts and point guard Greg Paulus) might start and power forward Jamal Boykin, center Eric Boateng and shooting guard Martynas Pocius are all expected to be significant contributors.
Accordingly, expect Duke to be No. 1 or No. 2 in most preseason polls.
"We're going to have a really good team," Williams said. "We knew we were limited last year, and everyone thought it would be a struggle for us in the ACC and NCAA Tournament. Not this year. We're not only looking at the ACC title but we want the national title, too. We've got bigger expectations than last year, and we have more pieces in the program to get us there."
Craig Smith apparently is getting stronger every day, which indicates he could be a beast in the post for BC in the ACC.
NC State could be this season's version of Wisconsin. The Badgers lost all-everything guard Devin Harris and then got to the Elite Eight last season. The Wolfpack lost Julius Hodge, but a strong core returns, allowing the Wolfpack to be a contender for a top-four league spot.
Duke's staff looks at shooting guard Martynas Pocius as, perhaps, the steal of the recruiting class.
North Carolina's newest NBA players, notably Sean May, see no reason why David Noel won't be a big-time scorer for the Tar Heels next season.
Don't forget Clemson gets Troy Mathis back after the freshman point was suspended for last season. This could be significant in a conference lacking dominant point guards.
Frank Haith looked at the hire of Southeastern Louisiana head coach Billy Kennedy as one of the most important offseason moves for Miami.
Virginia's guards (Sean Singletary, T.J. Bannister and J.R. Reynolds) can compete with any in the league, but the inside game will continue to be the weak link.
Wake Forest will go with Justin Gray at the point, and outgoing lead guard Chris Paul said Gray has been working hard preparing for the transition. The key will be ensuring that Gray thinks as much about distributing the ball as about shooting.
Georgia Tech's best chance for a veteran leader is forward Theodis Tarver, the only senior on next season's team.
Virginia Tech will have to go with a committee approach to replace forward Carlos Dixon.
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton didn't really sweat losing shooter Von Wafer to the NBA draft after two seasons, not with yet another stellar recruiting class coming in.
Don't get me wrong. I do not dislike change; otherwise, I would still be pining for the Southern Conference, Chuck Taylors, shorty shorts and Lenny Wirtz. I love the old days, but the present is better in almost every way.
However, it is not better with regard to the elimination of the home-and-home sweetness of the old ACC schedule. Gone are the days when you played every team in the league twice, and could protect your home court and go into hostile territory and try to walk out a bloodied winner. Imagine Wimbledon if Roger Federer had to play some of his matches without being able to serve would that be a fair test?
That's one thing, and it's a big one. The other is the hand-wringing over whether the Big East newcomers will win or lose in the long run.
It is of little consequence right now. In the early '90s, Florida State came into the league and won right away. However, it was tough for the Seminoles to fight the traditional ACC powers on those powers' own turf. You can bring in a good team, but once in the league and recruiting against the big shots, it's tough to remain as good.
We won't know the outcome of this for several years. Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech will be competitive, but at what level and for how long? My sense is the former Big East teams will do just fine.
Miami coach Frank Haith
"Carolina isn't disappearing. There are certain schools that don't just go away in our league, and Carolina is one of them."
Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg
|Team||League record||Overall record|
# -- NIT participant
Note: League newcomer Boston College (25-5, 13-3) tied for the Big East regular-season championship in 2004-05.
|Leading returning scorers|
|Player (Team)||2004-05 PPG|
|J.J. Redick (Duke)||22.8|
|Guillermo Diaz (Miami)||18.4|
|Robert Hite (Miami)||17.2|
|Nik Caner-Medley (Maryland)||16.9|
|Justin Gray (Wake Forest)||16.3|
There would have been a Seminole on this list had Von Wafer not declared for the draft (and somewhat surprisingly been selected at No. 39 by the Lakers).
Still, don't feel bad for Leonard Hamilton. He just received a transfer commitment from standout Auburn freshman guard Toney Douglas and has reeled in yet another highly rated recruiting class, one that includes four all-state performers including Casaan Breeden, the South Carolina player of the year, and Uche Echefu, the Maryland player of the year who chose Florida State over North Carolina.
"I realize that sometimes rating recruiting classes and draft statuses has become a sport," Hamilton said. "In reality, you have to get the kid, work them, put them into the system and see what happens. I don't put a lot of stock into whether a recruiting class is rated. I am more interested in how it matures."
The results haven't quite been there yet on the floor (especially outside of Tallahassee) in the ACC, but as FSU continues to stockpile talent, don't be surprised to see the Seminoles in contention sometime soon.
|FSU's classes under Hamilton|
|2005||NA*||Casaan Breeden, Ryan Reid, Uche Echefu, Jerel Allen, Toney Douglas#|
|2004||15||Isaiah Swann, Jason Rich, Ralph Mims|
|2003||1||Alexander Johnson, Diego Romero, Von Wafer, Antonio Griffin|
|2002||Unranked||Tim Pickett, Nate Johnson|
* -- expected to be in top 15
# -- must sit out 2005-06 season as a transfer
Andy Glockner/Peter Newmann
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