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ACC Primer: North Carolina not likely to disappoint this season

Most conferences would be overjoyed to have a national title favorite (North Carolina), another top-10 team (Duke) and the country's best defensive squad (Florida State). But the nation's most venerable basketball league is facing serious depth issues in 2011-12; after the aforementioned trio, there are no sure-fire NCAA tournament teams. The biggest question is not who will win the ACC -- I'd be shocked if it's not the Tar Heels -- but rather, will any sleepers emerge from the middle of the pack?

Harrison Barnes, North Carolina

I made this same pick last year, and was wrong (sorry, Nolan Smith!). This time, choosing Barnes is more sensible than it is impatient. He knew he was out of the running for any Player of the Year or All-America honors after a frustrating first few months as a freshman, but he's right in saying, "Towards the end of the year, our team was playing as well as any team in the nation, and I felt like I was playing just as well as anybody in the nation." Barnes scored 40 against Clemson in the ACC tournament, averaged 21 per game in the NCAAs, and set the stage for what should be a dominant sophomore year. There isn't another player in college like him -- a 6-foot-8 swingman with his shooting touch, slashing ability, work ethic and desire to take big shots at the end of games.

(Sleeper POY candidates: UNC's Tyler Zeller, Duke's Seth Curry, Miami's Malcolm Grant)

Austin Rivers, Duke

My Postcard from Duke looked at the Rivers question: Although the middle son of Doc Rivers may be Duke's most talented player, he doesn't appear ready to make the same immediate, massive impact that Kyrie Irving did as a freshman last season. By January or February, though, I suspect Rivers will be lighting up ACC defenses from the two-guard spot, and Subzero* won't just be a tongue-in-cheek nickname.

(*There was a Twitter controversy, this offseason, over whether Rivers tried to nickname himself "Subzero" after choosing the jersey number 0. He claims he was just passing along a friend's recommendation, but Duke's veterans -- particularly Andre Dawkins -- still had their fun with it. "They were all like, 'Hey, Subzero, are you going to freeze us?'" Rivers said.)

Terrell Stoglin, Maryland

New Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon inherited a thin team with no frontcourt and is going to need to rely heavily on Stoglin for offense in a rebuilding year. The good thing is, he's a capable, go-to scorer. Stoglin's freshman stats were a perfect hit for my "Breakout Sophomore" formula, in that although he played limited minutes, he used a high rate of possessions (26.9 percent) with a respectable offensive rating (105.2) while he was on the floor.

40.0

That's the percent opponents shot against Florida State from inside the arc last season, the lowest in the nation. With an oversized front line that includes Jon Kreft (7-feet), Xavier Gibson (6-11) and Bernard James (6-10), the Seminoles should continue to be stingy.

1. North Carolina

I've already written plenty about the Heels in the Postcard, and am confident in putting them at preseason No. 1 (here and nationally). A big key will be getting accurate, three-point production out of the two-guard spot -- and point guard Kendall Marshall forcing defenses to respect his jumper, too. They don't have to be lights-out from long range, but they can't finish last in the league in three-point percentage for two years in a row.

2. Duke

Power forward Ryan Kelly looked great during the Blue Devils' tour of China, leading the team in scoring, but I wonder if Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski might opt for a dual-Plumlee frontcourt to add defensive balance to the starting lineup. The Blue Devils' three guards (Curry, Rivers, Dawkins) are incredible shooters, but none is a lockdown defender.

3. Florida State

The 'Noles will likely be the ACC's best defensive team, again, but the loss of Derwin Kitchen from their backcourt will hurt more than people realize. On an offensively challenged team, he was their only guard who produced more than a point per possession (1.14). The onus is on junior Michael Snaer to have a breakthrough season.

4. Miami

New coach Jim Larranaga inherited the ACC's most proven backcourt in senior Malcolm Grant and junior Durant Scott, who can both score in bunches. The key for the 'Canes making the NCAA tournament, though, will be a monster year from monstrous junior forward Reggie Johnson, who's the league's best per-possession rebounder.

5. Virginia

Mike Scott's second senior season -- his first one was cut short after 10 games due to ankle surgery -- is a reason to be bullish on the Cavs, and not just because he slimmed down on the Subway Diet. Before his injury, Scott was playing like a star, posting team-high rates in offensive rebounding (13.4 percent), defensive rebounding (24.4 percent) and offensive efficiency (110.4).

6. Clemson

The Tigers' offense will struggle after losing top scorers Demontez Stitt and Jerai Grant, but their D should be good enough to keep them in the ACC's upper half. They ranked 11th nationally in defensive efficiency in Brad Brownell's first season as head coach.

7. N.C. State

Mark Gottfried should be able to harness the Wolfpack's talent better than Sidney Lowe did, but sophomore focal point C.J. Leslie will need to take a major leap forward in shooting accuracy if they're going to have a shot at the NCAA tournament. He hit just 54.2 percent of his free throws and 43.3 percent of his field-goal attempts as a freshman.

8. Virginia Tech

Remember the name Erick Green: He's the junior guard who's set to inherit the bulk of Malcolm Delaney's shots and will be the Hokies' star-by-default this season. The x-factor is whether fifth-year senior forward Dorenzo Hudson, who redshirted with a foot injury last year, can get back to his production levels from '09-10, when he averaged 15.2 points per game.

9. Maryland

Given my projections for a Stoglin breakout, I'm curious to see how freshman two-guard Nick Faust fits into the mix. He's the highest-rated recruit on the roster and might be the future face of the program as it tries to tap into more Baltimore-produced talent. Will he break into a backcourt rotation with Stoglin, Pe'Shon Howard and Sean Mosely right away, or will this be a learning year? New coach Mark Turgeon will have plenty of leeway to experiment as no one expects the Terps to get near the NCAA tournament.

10. Georgia Tech

New coach Brian Gregory is actually worse off than Turgeon, having inherited a roster that's even thinner on talent, and having to spend his first season as a nomad, playing in alternate home arenas while Tech's gym is being refurbished. The offense is likely to be turned over to junior Glen Rice, Jr., who has the genes of a gunner but made just 30.2 percent of his threes last season.

11. Wake Forest

The Deacons went 1-15 in the ACC last year and aren't bringing in any instant-impact recruits. Coach Jeff Bzdelik is feeling pressure to show signs of progress in his second season. His best defensive force, shot-blocking center Ty Walker, is suspended for the fall semester. The good news, if there is any, is that sophomore wing Travis McKie looks like someone they can build around. He quietly had a strong freshman season (105.9 offensive rating, 21.6 percent of possessions used) and is one of the league's most versatile contributors.

12. Boston College

The Eagles did beat Wake Forest twice last March -- and made the NIT -- but their entire starting lineup, including first-round pick Reggie Jackson, is gone. Coach Steve Donahue is starting over, with one of his best bets being allowing sophomore Danny Rubin to launch plenty of treys: Rubin's 43.3 percent accuracy rate (33-of-76) was second-best on the team last season.