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First Look: Louisville arrives, but old guards Duke, UNC and Virginia will lead ACC

 

Quinn CookQuinn Cook is one of the top returning veterans for Duke, which also welcomes a recruiting class featuring four McDonald's All-Americans. (Lance King/Getty)

SI.com is taking a first look at the major conferences for 2014-15. The series includes the A-10, AAC, Big 12, Big Ten, Big East, Mountain West, Pac-12, SEC. Here is the ACC:

The ACC bulks up again in 2014-15, with Louisville arriving a year after Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame joined the fray. While the Cardinals should be a preseason top 10 outfit – or at least near it, thanks to forward Montrezl Harrell returning for his junior season – the old-guard mainstays like Duke, North Carolina and Virginia still will drive the direction of the league next year.

Here's an early look at what's in store for the ACC:

State of the champion

Virginia wasn't the favorite going into 2013-14, but it surged ahead of the pack during conference play to win the regular season with a 16-2 record and then backed that up with an ACC tournament title. The Cavaliers won't be the favorites next season either, despite Tony Bennett returning many experienced parts. Second-leading scorer Joe Harris and leading rebounder Akil Mitchell depart, but six of the other eight players who appeared in all 37 games return. Leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon broke out with a first-team All-ACC season (12.7 points, 5.4 rebounds per game) and will lead the team again. Players like Anthony Gill (8.6 ppg), Mike Tobey (6.4 ppg) and London Perrantes (5.5 ppg, 3.8 apg) will have to assume larger roles. Meanwhile top 100 shooting guard B.J. Stith should help alleviate the outside shooting and scoring that the Cavs lost when Harris graduated.

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Top challenger

Characterizing Duke as a “challenger” is sort of like saying the sun has a decent shot at being the preeminent heat source for this planet. The Blue Devils will be among the top contenders for a national championship, never mind the league title, after welcoming a freshman class featuring four McDonald's All-Americans – including consensus No. 1 overall recruit Jahlil Okafor, who will follow fellow Chicagoan Jabari Parker as a likely one-and-done prospect in Durham. But Duke will be able to fall back on veterans, too, with guard Quinn Cook (11.6 ppg) entering his senior year, and swingman Rasheed Sulaimon (9.9 ppg) and big man Amile Jefferson (6.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg) rising juniors. The latter two might hold down starting spots as the freshmen work in; at minimum, they will be valuable, experienced options off the bench.

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Impact freshman

Okafor, Duke. At 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds, Okafor is already primed to have everything revolve around him on the floor. He is a skilled back-to-the-basket center and should be a double-double machine for the Blue Devils. Even better, he came as a package deal with friend and fellow top 10 recruit Tyus Jones. Their chemistry should help Jones get comfortable in his role as floor general right away.Okafor could be a second straight Duke freshman to earn first-team All-America honors, after Parker managed that last season.

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Impact transfers

Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez, Miami. The Hurricanes plunged from a 29-win season in 2012-13 to 17-16 overall and just 7-11 in the ACC last year, due in large part to significant roster overhaul. And part of that was due to waiting for McClellan and Rodriguez to get eligible. McClellan averaged 13.5 points in 34 games as a sophomore for Texas in 2012-13 and must improve on middling 38.2 percent shooting from that season. Rodriguez averaged 11.4 points and 5.2 assists as a sophomore at Kansas State, making the All-Big 12 second team and also earning a spot on the league's all-defensive team. The pair injects Miami with energy as it attempts to push back toward the top of the standings.

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Coach on the hot seat

Brian Gregory, Georgia Tech. The ACC landscape isn't getting any more forgiving with the new arrivals to the league. The fear of falling even further behind may have been partly to explain for why three of the bottom five teams in the league -- Boston College, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest -- made changes on the bench. A fourth, Notre Dame, viewed its sub-.500 finish as an anomaly brought on by the absence of Jerian Grant, among other things. That left Gregory as a survivor. After three seasons with the Yellow Jackets he is 43-52 overall and 16-36 in ACC play, with back-to-back 6-12 league records. Gregory will return second-leading scorer Marcus Geroges-Hunt, but third-leading scorer Robert Carter announced he was transferring on May 13. Gregory is bringing in a four-star shooting guard in Tadric Jackson, Rivals.com's No. 104 prospect nationally, and he does have a contract that runs through 2018, meaning it would require some scrounging through the couch cushions to find the buyout money to get rid of him. But without some notable progress in 2014-15, Georgia Tech might look for new leadership, if only to ensure it doesn't slip even deeper into the abyss.

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