ACC season preview, pt. 3: Raising the bar - MSNewsNow.com - Jackson, MS

ACC season preview, pt. 3: Raising the bar

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Joe Harris, left, and Akil Mitchell, right, could lead the Virginia Cavaliers to an ACC title in 2013-2014. (Source: UVA Athletics) Joe Harris, left, and Akil Mitchell, right, could lead the Virginia Cavaliers to an ACC title in 2013-2014. (Source: UVA Athletics)

(RNN) - Some of the best basketball coaches in the country already called the ACC home. With the latest additions, it has become an embarrassment of riches.

Notre Dame's Mike Brey and Jamie Dixon of Pitt have built perennial winners; each has put a competitive team on the floor at their respective schools for a decade or more. Yet their combined wins pale in comparison to Jim Boeheim's.

The Hall of Famer has compiled 920 victories in his 37 years, all with Syracuse. His total is second all-time to Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who has 957.

The conference's other Hall of Fame coach, Roy Williams of North Carolina, has compiled 700 wins in 25 years.

Fans can look forward to mutual respect between these men. They can also expect a little extra motivation from the coaches, because these basketball minds know there won't be any breaks when they come face-to-face with each other.

Part 1 of the season preview ranked teams 15 to 11. Teams 10 to six were profiled in Part 2 on Tuesday.

5. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Last season: 25-9 (11-7 Big East). Key returnees: Eric Atkins, Pat Connaughton, Jerian Grant.

While Notre Dame may not fit the geography associated with other Atlantic Coast schools, its basketball program is a perfect match. It has consistently produced a Top 25-caliber team under Brey and has a great home-court advantage in the Joyce Center.

The Irish have three of their top four scorers coming back from a team that was among the best in the Big East on offense. The senior duo of Atkins and Grant in the backcourt should keep the team's efficiency as good or better by posting excellent assist-to-turnover ratios.

Atkins' weapon of choice is the outside shot, making 41 percent of the 3-point attempts. Grant takes his fair share from behind the arc, but he is best when he gets into the lane and draws fouls. Both logged a lot of minutes in their junior campaigns; they may get more chances to take a breather with 4-star freshman Demetrius Jackson playing behind them.

The place where an issue may surface is the frontcourt. Jack Cooley, now graduated, grabbed more than 10 rebounds per game, and the guys stepping up to replace him have not shown they can replicate his numbers.

But Brey has the ability to adjust the team's style as needed, based on who he has to work with, and still win. That should serve them well as they adjust to their new setting in the ACC.

4. North Carolina Tar Heels

Last season: 24-10 (12-6). Key returnees: P.J. Hairston, James Michael McAdoo, Marcus Paige.

Williams opted for a smaller, faster lineup in the second half of the year after his young big men failed to live up to expectations. It remains to be seen if he has the pieces in place to return to the norm.

Isaiah Hicks or Kennedy Meeks, both highly sought-after recruits, could fill the gap of  rebounder and scorer UNC missed last season. Whoever gets the minutes will be joined up front by James Michael McAdoo, who fans are still hoping lives up to lofty expectations.

The 6'9, 230-pound junior has the speed and power of a runaway train when he drives to the basket. So far, the knock on him has been he also has the grace of a locomotive, and his lack of interior moves ends up causing too many offensive fouls and turnovers.

The Tar Heels' season will begin without leading scorer P.J. Hairston and another potential starter, Leslie McDonald. Hairston was suspended indefinitely after a pair of run-ins with police during the summer. McDonald's issue seems to come from a designer mouth guard company using him as its spokesman.

Marcus Paige looked hesitant much of his freshman season, and ended up splitting minutes at point guard with Dexter Strickland. But his confidence grew in proportion with his field goal percentage by the end of the year, and he should be primed to lead the up-tempo offense from Day One.

3. Syracuse Orange

Last season: 26-9 (11-7 Big East). Key returnees: Rakeem Christmas, C.J. Fair, Baye Moussa Keita

Boeheim's team will have a younger look than the one that made it to the Final Four. But the signature 2-3 zone defense will still be employed, and it will have a whole new league to give fits to.

With Michael Carter-Williams opting for the NBA, the Orange turns the point guard spot over to freshman Tyler Ennis. He may be more game-fit than most entering the season after competing in the U-19 World Championships, and he has shown a selective eye with his shots, as well as the ability to find his teammates with the pass, in early exhibitions.

C.J. Fair led the offense a year ago with 14.5 points per game and figures to get at least that much again. He and Rakeem Christmas will be the strength of the defense; both averaged better than a blocked shot per game while guarding around the basket.

The place Syracuse may see the biggest dropoff is turnovers. Carter-Williams and James Southerland combined for more than four a game, leading to a big advantage in easy baskets.

One thing the conference will have to account for is that Syracuse will make the necessary tweaks to find what works. And of all the possibilities for great new rivalries, none can compare to the annual matchups of Boeheim and Krzyzewski.

2. Duke Blue Devils

Last season: 27-5 (14-4). Key returnees: Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson, Rasheed Sulaimon.

Duke fans expect banner wins every season. That's not an idiom; they literally expect the team to win games that will earn them banners - ACC championships, Final Four appearances and national title games.

Whether that happens in 2013-14 depends on an incoming freshman, Jabari Parker, a transfer, Rodney Hood, and if they can mesh with the team quickly. With Coach K in charge, that shouldn't be a problem.

The 6'8, 235-pound Parker would have been the No. 1-ranked recruit out of high school many other years, but he fell to a close second behind Kansas' phenom-to-be, Andrew Wiggins. The young man has a mature game with his court vision, passing, post-up moves and a smooth jumper.

Hood is two years removed from a freshman season when he averaged more than 10 points and nearly five rebounds for Mississippi State. At 6'8, he is long and athletic. He can punish defenders by driving to the hoop or draining outside shots over outstretched arms.

Cook should help the team quickly build cohesion. The junior point guard has displayed an excellent feel for the game, knowing when he needs to step up and score and when it is best to defer to a hot teammate.

1. Virginia Cavaliers

Last season: 21-11 (11-7). Key returnees: Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell, Mike Tobey

There's no exact science to championship basketball, but a few factors are almost always a part of it: Good coaching, experienced leadership, strong defense and a go-to guy. Virginia fits that mold perfectly.

Seniors Harris and Mitchell both had breakout seasons a year ago, and Harris has emerged as an early favorite to win ACC Player of the Year honors. With 43 percent shooting from 3-point range and 47 percent overall, defenses will have to account for him at all times on the court - often with double coverage.

That leaves openings for Mitchell on the inside, who can use his world-class athleticism to run by or jump over people. Guys like Justin Anderson and Evan Nolte also figure to improve after seeing plenty of game time as freshman.

None may be better prepared to increase their contributions than Tobey, though. The 6'11 sophomore played alongside the country's best young talent on the U.S. U-19 team at the World Championships, and he has the ability to score inside and make shots from the perimeter.

No other ACC team allowed fewer points than Virginia last year, averaging 55.1 per game. If the team makes a strong run for the conference title, Bennett's packline defense may become the next big thing in college hoops.

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