Player of the Year: Harrison Barnes, North Carolina
Barnes may not put up Durant-ian numbers as a freshman, but he's the best wing player to hit college since Kevin Durant. The 6-foot-8 small forward from Ames, Iowa, has a mature grace to his game, with the ability to pull up for picture-perfect threes well beyond the college line, or blow by a defender and glide to the rim. He gets the POY nod over Duke's stars -- Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Kyrie Irving -- because Barnes will be the centerpiece of Carolina's attack from Day 1. The Heels need him to score, and score frequently, to avoid the same offensive woes that relegated them to the NIT in 2009-10.
Impact Freshman (other than Barnes): Kyrie Irving, Duke
When Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked why he was willing to heap so much praise on Irving before he'd played his first college game, Krzyzewski said, "It's just true." Like Barnes, Irving plays with veteran-level composure, and it's not a stretch to say he'll be considered the best point guard in the nation -- in any class -- by the end of the season, when Duke is cutting down the nets in Houston.
Breakout Candidate: Reggie Johnson, Miami
The 6-10, 303-pound, Hot Pocket-powered sophomore is still relatively anonymous, because he only averaged 13.6 minutes per game last season playing behind Dwayne Collins. But Johnson, whom I've called the "next Dexter Pittman" for his ability to offensive rebound at a high rate (16.7 percent) and score with high efficiency (122.4 offensive rating), should be a frontcourt force in the ACC this season, even if he only plays 20-24 minutes per game.
Inside the Numbers: 28.3
That's the percentage Duke opponents shot from beyond the three-point line last season -- the second-lowest rate* in the nation. The Blue Devils insulate themselves from upsets by playing excellent pressure D on the perimeter, not allowing foes to even attempt many treys, much less make them. It'll be vital for Irving to defend as well as Jon Scheyer did last season, when he led the team in steals at 1.6 per game.
(* Only Coastal Carolina, at 28.2 percent, was stingier.)
On the occasions the Blue Devils opt to play small(er), with Kyle Singler at the four, they have the potential to spread the floor with an absurdly good three-point shooting lineup. Singler shot 39.9 percent from long range last season, Nolan Smith shot 39.2, Andre Dawkins shot 37.9, and Kyrie Irving and Liberty transfer Seth Curry appear capable of approaching the 40 percent mark as well.
2. North Carolina
Freshman point guard Kendall Marshall, as Seth Davis said in his Postcard from Chapel Hill, is the Heels' X-factor. Everyone's certain that their top rookie, Harrison Barnes, will thrive in Year 1, but how quickly can Marshall get a grasp on North Carolina's up-tempo attack? UNC needs an upgrade over Larry Drew at the point in order to contend for a high NCAA tournament seed.
3. Virginia Tech
The Hokies have to be depressed about losing senior swingman J.T. Thompson for the season with an ACL tear; he was a consummate glue guy who would've helped them challenge Duke for the ACC title. They still have a talented team led by guards Malcolm Delaney (20.2 ppg, 4.5 apg) and Dorenzo Hudson (15.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg), and almost certainly will break through to the NCAAs after being left out of the field each of the past three seasons.
4. N.C. State
Kyrie Irving is the ACC freshman point guard who's getting all the national attention, but Wolfpack rookie Ryan Harrow should have a major impact this season as well. State has been held back in recent years due to its lack of an elite floor general, and power forward Tracy Smith said that Harrow, a five-star recruit out of Georgia, has "done some things with the ball I've never seen anyone do."
The Tigers are my sleeper pick to finish in the ACC's top five. Their star for the past three seasons, Trevor Booker, may be gone, but they still have a solid, senior point guard in Demontez Stitt; an underrated power forward in Jerai Grant; and a trio of sophomores -- Devin Booker, Noel Johnson and Milton Jennings -- who could have breakout seasons. New coach Brad Brownell is a proven tactician (from his work at Wright State and UNC-Wilmington) who'll keep Clemson from slipping to the NIT.
6. Florida State
Forward Chris Singleton is college basketball's best defender -- or at least he is on my list -- but can the 'Noles lead the nation in defensive efficiency for a second straight season? Their incredible two-point defense (opponents shot just 40.3 percent, the second-lowest rate in the country) wasn't due to Singleton alone; 7-1 center Solomon Alabi and 6-8 forward Ryan Reid, both of whom were selected in the second round of June's NBA Draft, were high-impact defenders as well.
Sophomore power forward Jordan Williams is being hyped as a breakout candidate, but he already had a big freshman year, averaging 9.6 points and 8.6 rebounds, and putting up four double-doubles in ACC play. His offensive numbers should surge as the Terps search for scorers in Year 1 of the Post-Greivis Era.
Sophomore guard Durant Scott is hoping to build off the huge closing month he had in '09-10. He scored 29 (on 11-of-15 shooting) against North Carolina, 17 against Virginia Tech and 21 against Duke, and appears more than ready to become the Canes' new points-per-game leader.
9. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons are well-positioned for the future, with two sophomore standouts (combo guard C.J. Harris and swingman Ari Stewart) and a top-15 recruiting class debuting this season -- along with new coach Jeff Bzdelik, who was previously orchestrating a turnaround at Colorado. But a lack of experience, especially at the point-guard position, where Harris is being converted to run the show, will probably keep Wake from reaching the NCAAs.
10. Boston College
The Eagles have a talented top three in senior swingman Joe Trapani, senior power forward Corey Raji and junior combo guard Reggie Jackson. But they were awful at defending inside the arc last season (ranking 224th nationally, at 48.9 percent) and they remain undersized, with just one player taller than 6-8 (reserve center Josh Southern, who's 6-10).
11. Georgia Tech
Iman Shumpert, one of the game's best lockdown defenders (see his work against Greivis Vasquez, Jon Scheyer and James Anderson last season), is back for his junior year in the backcourt, but the Jackets lost their killer interior duo of Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal to the NBA. Tech was already mediocre on offense with those guys; without them, it'll really struggle to score.
Four-star shooting guard K.T. Harrell is the headliner of a six-man recruiting class that should grow into an excellent team in 3-4 seasons. The present, for coach Tony Bennett, isn't as great, as the Cavs lost 10 of their final 11 ACC games and don't have a clear offensive star to replace Sylven Landesberg, the talented two-guard who was suspended last March and later left the program.