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November 4, 2008

Rivals.com Atlantic Coast Conference preview

ACC picks
1. North Carolina*
2. Duke*
3. Wake Forest*
4. Miami*
5. Clemson*
6. Virginia Tech*
7. Maryland#
8. Boston College#
9. Florida State#
10. N.C. State
11. Georgia Tech
12. Virginia
* - NCAA tournament team
# - NIT team

This season, the ACC is viewed as North Carolina and everyone else and rightfully so.

With the return of five starters including big man Tyler Hansbrough, the first AP national player of the year to stay in college since Shaquille O'Neal in 1991-92 from a team that won 36 games and reached the Final Four, UNC enters the 2008-09 season as one of the biggest national title favorites since the dominating UCLA teams of the 1960s and 1970s. The Tar Heels are the first unanimous No. 1 in the history of the coaches' preseason top 25.

But that doesn't mean UNC's chief competition hasn't improved either. A year after sending four teams a relatively low number by ACC standards to the NCAA tournament, the 12-team league has a chance to send at least six to the field of 65.

Thanks largely to the return of a wealth of experience, five other ACC teams were ranked among the top 40 in the Rivals.com Top 65 Countdown: Duke (No. 6), Wake Forest (No. 18), Miami (No. 27), Clemson (No. 35) and Virginia Tech (No. 38). Maryland (No. 61) also was ranked.

Wake Forest, which finished in a tie for seventh last season, returns every scholarship player. Duke has four starters back, including 2007-08 ACC Rookie of the Year Kyle Singler. The same goes for Miami, which reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, and Virginia Tech - which was one of the last teams left out of the field of 65. Clemson returns three starters from a team that was a No. 5 seed in the 2008 NCAA tournament.

The ACC also is adding an extraordinary amount of talent. Four of the five selections to Rivals.com's preseason All-ACC freshman team are five-star prospects. Wake Forest signed three five-star prospects and two did not make the freshman team.

Rivals.com Preseason All-ACC Teams
North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough is our preseason ACC Player of the Year.

First Team
G Ty Lawson, North Carolina, Jr., 5-11/195
G Tyrese Rice, Boston College, Sr., 6-1/190
G Jack McClinton, Miami, Sr., 6-1/185
F K.C. Rivers, Clemson, Jr., 6-5/215
F Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina, Sr., 6-9/250
Second Team
G Greivis Vasquez, Maryland, Jr., 6-6/190
G Wayne Ellington, North Carolina, Jr., 6-4/200
G A.D. Vassallo, Virginia Tech, Sr., 6-6/215
G Gerald Henderson, Duke, Jr., 6-4/215
F James Johnson, Wake Forest, So., 6-9/245
All-Freshman Team
G Elliot Williams, Duke, Fr., 6-4/180
G Iman Shumpert, Georgia Tech, 6-5/200
F DeQuan Jones, Miami, 6-6/217
F Chris Singleton, Florida State, 6-9, 220
F Al-Farouq Aminu, Wake Forest, 6-9/215
Team on the rise: Wake Forest
No team in the league has a bigger collection of young talent. Wake welcomes three five-star prospects: 6-9 forward Al-Farouq Aminu (older brother Alade Aminu plays for Georgia Tech), 6-11 center Tony Woods and 7-foot center Ty Walker. Every starter and 11 lettermen return from a team that finished in a tie for seventh last season. That includes sophomores Jeff Teague and James Johnson, both All-ACC-caliber players. The rotation will be at least 10 deep. If the newcomers develop quickly, the Deacons could finish as high as second.

Team on the decline: Virginia
Two seasons ago, Virginia was a basket away from reaching the Sweet 16; Tennessee edged the Cavaliers 77-74 in the second round of the 2007 NCAA tournament. Last season, the Cavaliers were a basket away from a last-place finish in the ACC, using a win over Maryland in the regular-season finale to finish ahead of Boston College and North Carolina State. Escaping the absolute bottom of the standings will be even more difficult. No player in the league may have been more valuable than second-round pick Sean Singletary, who led the team in scoring, assists and steals.

Coach(es) on the rise: Miami's Frank Haith and Clemson's Oliver Purnell
Both enjoyed breakthrough years last season. Purnell guided Clemson to its first NCAA appearance since 1998, while Haith took Miami for the first time since 2002. Nobody should be surprised to see Purnell and Haith back in the Big Dance, either. Clemson returns three starters, and Miami brings back four. Both also are winning big recruiting battles. Miami welcomes five-star wing DeQuan Jones, while Clemson has a commitment from a five-star big man in the 2009 class (Milton Jennings).

Coach on the hot seat: Sidney Lowe, NC State
The job security of Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt and Maryland's Gary Williams also appears shaky, but Lowe doesn't have anywhere near their level of success to lean on. Outside of a shocking run to the 2007 ACC tournament final, Lowe's two seasons in Raleigh have been rocky. The Wolfpack has gone 9-23 in ACC play under his watch. Tying for last place last season was especially hard to accept: The Wolfpack returned four starters and were third in the league's preseason poll. Lowe lost control of the team down the stretch as NC State lost its final nine games, including seven by double-digits.

Best offensive player: North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough
Even with a shin injury that may keep Hansbrough down in the early stages of the season, it's impossible to pick anyone but him in this category. Hansbrough will be remembered as one of the greatest big men ever in the college ranks and quite possibly the best ever at any position at getting to the free-throw line. Hansbrough is on pace to become the ACC's leading career scorer (he needs 602 points to pass former Duke guard J.J. Redick's 2,769 points) and the NCAA's career leader in free throws made (he needs 173 to pass Wake Forest's Dickie Hemric's 905 free throws).

Best 3-point shooter: Miami's Jack McClinton
Ask any ACC coach about the league player he would want to shoot a 3-pointer in a clutch situation; if they don't answer McClinton, they're probably lying. He shoots with deadly accuracy and has tremendous range. He led the league in 3-pointers made (94) last season and shot 42.7 percent (94-of-220) from beyond the arc, which ranked second. He went 7-for-12 from 3-point range to propel the Hurricanes to a 95-93 win over Virginia.

Best defensive player: Florida State's Toney Douglas
He led the ACC with 90 steals last season, which was 21 more than the next-highest total. Forty-eight of those steals came in ACC games, which is the third-highest total in league history.

Best player you don't know yet: Clemson's Trevor Booker
Booker, a junior, may be the best big man in the league outside of Hansbrough. He was a force on a Clemson team that nabbed a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, leading the Tigers with 7.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. He was third on the team in scoring at 11.0 points per game, but is capable of being a go-to guy on offense. In back-to-back games last season, he scored 32 points in a loss to Charlotte and had 29 in a win over Florida State.

Deepest bench: Wake Forest
Playing an 11-man rotation is a real possibility for Wake coach Dino Gaudio. Eight players who averaged double-digit minutes per game are back, and the Deacons added three five-star recruits. The Demon Deacons have extraordinary depth on the inside with seven players at least 6-8, including 7-footers (Chas McFarland and Ty Walker).

Impact newcomer: Wake Forest's Al-Farouq Aminu
Of Wake's three top-25 prospects, Aminu (No. 7 overall in the 2008 class) is the highest-ranked and most ready. Long and athletic, he is an inside-outside scorer, but probably will make his biggest impact on the glass. He'll likely work his way into the starting lineup by midseason and will create matchup issues when playing with versatile forward James Johnson.

Freshman sleeper: Virginia Tech's Victor Davila
The Hokies are looking for help on the inside and believe Davila can provide it. Davila - a three-star prospect - isn't particularly athletic, but he's strong and has an ACC-ready frame at 6-8 and 245 pounds. That size will help him bang down low with the league's top big men. Expect him to earn a starting job by the time ACC play starts.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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