NC power shift obscuring possible impact teams in Florida, Maryland.
Most of the coaching turnover happened before last season, so the most impactful development heading into this one is North Carolina's roster moving en masse to the NBA. With the Tar Heels, who have won at least a share of five of the last six regular-season titles, in transition and Duke still looking for some answers on the perimeter, the stage is set for NC State to make a run at its first league crown since 1989.
There are two other situations that bear watching. One is Virginia Tech's transition after the late, awkward departure of Seth Greenberg and the hiring of former assistant James Johnson, who had left the program weeks earlier. Between that shift on the bench and losing both prized recruit Montrezl Harris and blossoming sophomore Dorian Finney-Smith (to a transfer to Florida), the Hokies will be very thin (eight scholarship players) and inexperienced this year.
The other is the conference's move, ahead of Pitt and Syracuse joining the league in 2013-14, to an 18-game league schedule. Each team will play seven other league opponents home-and-home, and the other four once each. There could be some significant variance in schedule strength given the separation between the expected upper and lower divisions. For example, NC State draws home-and-homes with Duke, UNC and Florida State, but also plays Clemson, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Boston College twice each, and only plays Miami (and VT) at home and Virginia and Maryland away. North Carolina's single-game matchups are VT, Wake, BC and Clemson, so the Heels have a tougher schedule.
When looking at which teams can "win" the league (with the unbalanced schedules not being 100 percent comparable), the home-and-home series and who plays where in the one-off games will be a factor.
While Duke and North Carolina continue to recruit nationally, Mark Gottfried and NC State successfully fenced in its own state border, landing three highly-touted preps to form the core of a top-10 recruiting class. The biggest catch is hometown shooting guard Rodney Purvis, who as of this writing remains in NCAA eligibility limbo. Assuming he's eligible, he'll combine with small forward T.J. Warren and point guard Tyler Lewis to add a significant boost to a strong returning core that includes future NBA power forward C.J. Leslie.
While the Blue Devils and Tar Heels are both in various stages of transition, they both still pulled in some significant freshmen talent, as well. Duke's late grab of forward Amile Jefferson to go with shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon helped reinforce this Class of 2012 and should ease the pain of several departures via graduation and redshirt. North Carolina has plenty of minutes available, so expect point guard Marcus Paige, power forward Brice Johnson and others to figure heavily into the Heels' plans.
Elsewhere, Maryland brought in massive big man Shaquille Cleare and guard Sam Cassell Jr. as the anchors of a strong class that should help push Mark Turgeon's rebuilding project to the next phase. Florida State added guards Montay Brandon and Aaron Thomas to a strong returning roster. Georgia Tech landed in-state power forward Robert Carter.
While they may have exceeded modest expectations last season, when Mark Turgeon was hired, everything was pointing toward 2012-13 as the year Maryland began its reascent. There's a lot of reason for optimism. They may end up being better off without guard Terrell Stoglin, who launched an unfathomable 37.8 percent of Maryland's shots when he was on the floor last season (the third-highest rate in Division I, per KenPom.com). Now there can be more balance, more like a typical Turgeon team, and more emphasis on inside play with the development of Alex Len and incoming freshman Shaq Cleare.
I'm a bit nervous about this pick. Going from 9-7 to winning the league outright is a sizable step in production amidst significant expectations pressure. NC State was terrible against the RPI top 50 last season before the NCAA tournament. Does the Sweet 16 run, influx of freshman talent (pending Purvis' eligibility issues) and some weakness at the traditional powers add up to that kind of leap? We'll find out, but a complete NC State roster has the most talent in the league.
The late freshmen pickups helped reinforce the frontcourt, but the perimeter defense is still extremely questionable and scoring distribution may be a bit lopsided, especially if Seth Curry can't deliver regularly. That said, the Devils still are extremely tough to beat at home and also have the most decorated coach in the game. Experience matters and these Devils have that, both positive and negative. I'd imagine the Lehigh game and the preseason media poll will be fine motivators.
The 'Noles still have Michael Snaer and they're still going to defend the heck out of you and that's a nice starting combination. North Carolina may have more upside if things break right, but I like what FSU brings to the table. They're annually sloppy with the basketball, but the departed seniors were