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Great Expectations

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By Al Featherston

Every new basketball season is a mystery, its secrets gradually revealed over the four and a half months between the first tipoff in mid-November and the national championship game in early April.

Who are the best rookies? Which returnees have vastly improved their games? Which veterans have progressed to the next level? Which teams are going to gel? And which are going to be torn apart by internal bickering and selfishness? Which teams are going to be wracked by injuries and which will stay healthy?

And above all, who is going to win it all?

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We can guess at many of the answers (except maybe the injury thing), but a large percentage of our guess are wrong. A year ago, many experts correctly thought John Wall of Kentucky would be a premier rookie … and he was. But many of the same experts thought John Henson would be an impact player at UNC … and he wasn't. There were quite a few ACC observers who correctly guessed that Nolan Smith would elevate his game going into his senior season, but who predicted that Brian Zoubek would emerge in the last six weeks of his college career as a dominant player?

A year ago, many experts expected UNC coach Roy Williams could pull off the same kind of instant rebuilding job that he did in 2006 (after losing the top seven players off the 2005 national title team). We were wondering if Kyle Singler could make the switch to wing forward after playing in the post his first two years. I think most of us were fascinated by mercurial Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez, wondering whether he was going to shoot the Terps into more wins than losses?

But I doubt that there were very many Duke and ACC - and certainly not any national - observers who guessed that when the season ended, the Blue Devils would cut down the nets. I'd
have predicted Colonel Mustard in the library with a candlestick before picking Duke in Indianapolis with a pair of net-cutting scissors.

That's just my way of saying that I'm excited the see this year's mystery unfold.

And even though my focus will be on Duke, I'm less curious about the Blue Devils than I am about another couple of ACC teams.

That's not to suggest I'm uninterested in Blue Devil fortunes. It will be interesting to watch Coach Mike Krzyzewski pursue his fifth national title (breaking his tie with Adolph Rupp and moving him into second place on the championship list) and his 903rd career win (moving him past Rupp, Dean Smith and Bobby Knight to the top of the alltime NCAA Division 1 win list).

It's just that the Blue Devils are … how should I say it? - predictable.

No, that doesn't mean they are a lock to repeat as national champs or even to finish No. 1 in the final AP poll. But their excellence is a given. I feel very confident in saying (and I'm sure most basketball experts would agree with me) that barring a run of catastrophic injuries, Duke will be a very good team in 2010-11. I'm not suggesting they'll win every game (they won't), but given reasonable good health, I have little doubt that they'll finish at or very near the top of the final AP poll. I think their odds of winning the ACC regular season and clinching a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed are very favorable.

Beyond that, I won't guess - it's ridiculous to project a one-and-done tournament five months in advance. I suspect Duke will enter the 2011 NCAA event as a favorite (or at least one of the favorites), but the favorites don't always win. If somebody offers you the choice
of Duke or the field, be smart, set your loyalty aside, and take the field.

But you knew all that. EVERYBODY knows that - even the two most skeptical voters on the AP poll voted Duke third. On the other hand, 29 of the 31 coaches voting in the USA Today/ESPN poll picked Duke first … and 55 of 65 writers voting in the AP poll.

Far more interesting to me - and far less predictable - are the relative fortunes of the two teams that shape up as Duke's strongest challengers in the ACC:

Virginia Tech and UNC.

Or maybe it should be UNC and Virginia Tech?

When the ACC media gathered in a Charlotte hotel Oct. 20 to listen to the league's 12 coaches and a couple of players from each team, the 62 voters picked Virginia Tech just ahead of UNC in their preseason poll. But when the two major national polls were released, North Carolina was ranked higher - much higher - than the Hokies in each of them.

Hmm, as Poirot would tell Major Harding, that's a curious circumstance.

Let's examine the evidence a bit more closely.

In the ACC media preseason poll, the vote for second place was extremely close - Virginia Tech winning second place with 632 votes, UNC finishing third with 622 votes - although that was artificially inflated by one vote by the bumbling Roanoke TV personality who "accidently" picked UNC first (the only one of the 62 first-place votes that didn't go to Duke). Even taking that into account, the separation between Virginia Tech and UNC is very narrow - and in contrast to the 111 vote gap between first and second and the 96-vote gap between third and fourth-place N.C. State.

Clearly, the ACC media sees Virginia Tech and UNC as the second and third best teams in the league … but the group is sharply divided over which is second and which is third.

On the other hand, there's little division of opinion when it comes to the national polls.

North Carolina was picked No. 8 nationally by the writers, while Virginia Tech came in at No. 21. The Tar Heels got 1,034 votes - more than three times as many as the Hokies (288).

It was much the same in the coaches' poll - North Carolina was picked No. 9 with 467 votes - more than four times as many as No. 23 Virginia Tech (97 votes).

The conflicting results have left many fans baffled. They should be delighted - we have a mystery to unravel as the season goes on!

UNRAVELING THE MYSTERY

Obviously, the solution to our mystery will be revealed over the course of the season.

But the fun of any Agatha Christie or Dashiell Hammet story is trying to guess the ending in advance - no fair turning to the back of the book!

So let's try and guess which side of the debate we should come down on - North Carolina or Virginia Tech?

I've heard fans - on talk radio, on message boards and in person -- complain about the high national projection for a North Carolina team that flopped so badly last season. The Tar Heels entered the NIT with a 16-16 record and finished 5-11 in the ACC. UNC lost its best player (Ed Davis) off that team to the NBA and maybe its steadiest player (Deon Thompson) to graduation. The Heels also lost underachieving wing Marcus Ginyard and developing big men David and Travis Wear.

How, critics wonder, can that team be in the preseason top 10?

Virginia Tech, on the other hand, returns all five starters off a team that tied for third in the ACC regular season standings - well ahead of the Tar Heels. The Hokies have a preseason ACC player of the year candidate returning in senior guard Malcolm Delaney (he finished second to Kyle Singler in the preseason media poll) and two more all-star candidates in senior guard Dorenzo Hudson and senior forward Jeff Allen.

How can that team NOT be picked ahead of the Tar Heels?

That was the debate we had late last summer while trying to rank the ACC (and the nation) for the Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook. Several contributors to the annual preseason magazine joined the debate, but it basically broke down to two opposing views - Brett Friedlander, a knowledgeable and informed ACC writer (and a friend-we shared a van ride to the Final Four last spring, along with two other writers) pushed strongly to rank Virginia Tech ahead of UNC. I pushed the Tar Heels, eventually convincing Blue Ribbon editor Chris Dortch (who had the final call) to rank UNC second in the ACC and ahead of Virginia Tech in his national prediction.

He ended up putting UNC at No. 8 and Virginia Tech No. 21 in his national poll - exactly how the first AP poll came out (which makes me wonder how many writers do regard the Blue Ribbon Yearbook as their basketball Bible?).

I'm not sure if I swayed Chris with my logic or if he was merely reacting to what happened a year ago. When we were working on the 2009-10 Yearbook, I argued as passionately as I could that Duke would be better than UNC that season. I'm not claiming any great insight - although I was shocked that the ACC media voted the veteran Blue Devils and the rebuilding favorites in a dead heat for the top spot in their preseason poll. I suggested to Chris that Duke should be around No. 5 in his preseason poll … that UNC should be a borderline top 10 team. He didn't take my advice, picking UNC to finish 5th, while picking Duke No. 9.

Obviously, I overrated UNC like everyone else … but not as badly as Blue Ribbon. Maybe that's why Chris took my side over Brett in this year's UNC/Virginia Tech debate. If that one blows up too, blame me - and not Chris or Brett.

I guess I should explain the reasoning behind my opinion.

The simple answer is that it's a matter of talent vs. experience.

Writers love to ask coaches which they prefer - talent or experience. Coaches almost always give the same answer: they want both. But usually, when forced to choose, coaches will admit that talent trumps experience.

I understand that last year's national championship game featured two very experienced teams. Duke started three seniors and two juniors … Butler started two sophomores, but three upperclassmen. The Blue Devils and Bulldogs both lasted far beyond a freshman-dominated Kentucky team that was ranked higher than either.

But I would argue that those two teams combined talent AND experience - the ideal combination. Experience helped transform Lance Thomas, Brian Zoubek and Willie Veasley into superior college players, but talent made Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith, Gordon Hayward and Shevin Mack impact guys. Both of those teams started with a superior talent base, then grew up together - with the proper mixture of team chemistry and excellent coaching.

When we apply the talent vs. experience metric to North Carolina and Virginia Tech, it's clear that while North Carolina has some experience (three players with measurable starting experience), the Tar Heels will rely on talent - seven McDonald's All-Americans and at least four future NBA players. Virginia Tech has its share of talent (Delaney is likely to get a shot at the NBA), but is relying on massive amounts of experience - its core group has basically been together forever. Delaney, Hudson and Allen all played big roles in the 2008 ACC Tournament semifinals, when the young Hokies came within a last-second Tyler Hansbrough field goal of upsetting the Heels.

LAST YEAR - THE STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE

Before we can accurately assess how good UNC and Virginia Tech are going to be this season, we need to take a close look at how good they were last year, especially relative to each other.

On the surface, Virginia Tech was MUCH better - 25-9 and 10-6 in the ACC vs. UNC's 20-17 and 5-11 in the ACC.

But all is not as it seems, Dr. Watson.

Let me point out a few other clues:

-- The two teams split head to head, UNC winning by 14 in Chapel Hill; the Hokies winning by four in Blacksburg.

-- Both were bounced in their ACC Tournament debut, UNC losing to No. 7 seeded Georgia Tech; Virginia Tech losing to No. 12 seed Miami.

-- Both were shunned by the NCAA and played in the NIT. North Carolina won four games and lost to Dayton in the finals. Virginia Tech won two games and lost to Rhode Island in the semifinals. Interesting note: six days after the Hokies lost to Rhode Island in Blacksburg, UNC edged the Rams in overtime in the NIT semifinals in Madison Square Garden.

So which was the better team?

Let's take a closer look at Virginia Tech's 2009-10 schedule. There's a reason that the NCAA passed up on the Hokies. It caused great outrage at the time, although sources on the selection committee suggest that Virginia Tech was not one of the final teams cut, despite their 23-8 record on Selection Sunday.

The reason is simple - the Hokies played one of the weakest schedules it is possible for a team from a BCS conference to play.

Try to find an impressive non-conference win. I'm not blaming Seth Greenberg - when he scheduled Iowa (actually the ACC did as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge), Georgia, Seton Hall and Penn State, the Virginia Tech coach couldn't know that all would have down years. On the other hand, run down the rest of the out-of-conference slate he lined up and it's embarrassing. There are plenty of good in-state teams to play - but rather than tangle with Richmond or George Mason or VCU, he elected to play Longwood and VMI.

Now, everybody has their share of patsies, but when you schedule nine teams that have almost no chance to crack the top 150 on the RPI, it's tough to whine about Iowa and Seton Hall having down years.

Yet, that horrific non-conference schedule - the 307th toughest in Division 1 - wasn't what killed the Hokies' NCAA chances - it was the unbalanced ACC schedule.

Bear with me a moment. The old Southern Conference used to use a postseason tournament to determine its champion because the league was too big to play a fair non-conference schedule. But when the ACC was formed, the eight-team league imposed a full home-and-home schedule. The ACC kept its tournament because it was popular (and profitable), but for decades coaches argued that the regular season was a better, fairer way to determine a champion.

And, you know what, they were right.

However, ACC expansion changed that. Once again - as in the old Southern Conference days - the league is too big to play a complete home-and-home schedule. The new unbalanced schedule makes a mockery of the regular season standings.

Look at Virginia Tech's 10-6 ACC record last season more closely. Under the current format, teams play five league opponents twice (home and home) and six opponents once each (three at home; three on the road). Note that the five ACC teams that Virginia played twice happened to finish as the ACC's bottom five teams - Miami, UNC, Virginia, N.C. State and Boston College.

Virginia Tech went 7-3 against the ACC's five worst teams (7-4 if you count the Miami loss in the ACC Tournament). By contrast, the Hokies were 0-3 against the league's five best teams. Their most credible performances were
home court wins over Wake Forest and Clemson, which tied for fifth, and a victory in Atlanta over sixth-place Georgia Tech.

By contrast, North Carolina had just five games against the ACC's bottom five (although to be fair, they couldn't play themselves). They went 3-2 against the other bottom feeders. They were 1-5 against the top three (counting the split with Virginia Tech, which tied for third). They lost to Wake and Clemson, but unlike the Hokies, who got the Deacons and the Tigers in Blacksburg, UNC had to play both midlevel teams on the road. The only ACC team that Virginia Tech clearly played better than UNC was Georgia Tech, which beat the Heels twice (three times if you count the ACC Tournament), while losing at home to the Hokies.

My point is not that UNC had as good an ACC season last year as the Hokies - they didn't. But a huge part of the difference in their records was due to the ACC's unbalanced schedule, which broke entirely in Virginia Tech's favor last season. While Virginia Tech had a better season in 2010, I don't believe they were a significantly better team than the Tar Heels.

VIRGINIA TECH THIS YEAR

Interesting that UNC and Virginia Tech should both suffer major preseason losses.

When we were debating our Blue Ribbon rankings, we didn't know that Virginia Tech would be without senior sixth man J.T. Thompson, lost last month with a season-ending injury, or that UNC would be without senior Will Graves, dismissed from the Tar Heel team for undisclosed reasons.

I'd argue that the two losses cancel each other out in the UNC vs. VPI debate.

That leaves the question, is there any reason to think UNC - with all its losses -- will improve more from last season to this than Virginia Tech, which returns its starting five intact?

My answer - and the reason I argued so strongly to rank the Heels higher - was yes.

It's just my opinion, but I suspect that Virginia Tech has come close to maxing out. That's not to say that Delaney, Hudson and Allen can't improve - Zoubek is recent proof that it's never too late to blossom - but on the whole, the players who take a step up late in their careers are those whose early careers are stunted by something like injuries (as in Zoubek's case) or by role changes (as Chris Carrawell went from supporting player to leader in his senior season).

In the case of Virginia Tech's senior starters, they've had plenty of chances to show off their games. Hudson did take a big step last season as a junior. Is it realistic for him to take another? Allen has been a regular for three seasons … I'm sure Greenberg would love to see more consistency from him this season, but how far can he elevate the game we've watched since 2008?

There is the chance that sophomores Erick Green or Ben Boggs could blow up and the Hokies are excited about freshman Jarrell Eddie, but the physical problems which are hampering sophomore Cadarian Raines and Florida transfer Allan Chaney are very dangerous signs. I know critics of UNC have questioned the depth of their front line, but Virginia Tech might be even thinner up front - 6-8 Victor Davila and the 6-7 Allen have bulk, but not a lot of height - behind them it comes down to getting Raines and/or Chaney (both 6-9) in the rotation.

I do expect Virginia Tech to be better this season - a likely NCAA team and a borderline top 20 club. The non-conference schedule is better with marquee games against No. 3 Kansas State on the road and No. 14 Purdue at home (as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge). The Hokes are part of a decent field for the ESPN 76 Classic in Anaheim, along with UNLV, Oklahoma State, Stanford and Murray State, They play Mississippi State in the Bahamas and Penn State (which should be better this year) at home.

Unfortunately, that's balanced by another ridiculously easy unbalanced schedule. Of course, we won't know for sure until the season plays out, but based on the media's preseason projections, the Hokies get home-and-home games with the ACC's four worst teams (Wake, Virginia, Boston College and Georgia Tech) and just one game apiece against the top four teams (other than themselves).

That could help the Hokies in their battle with UNC for second place in the standings … but it could also come back to haunt them if they stumble out of conference.

NORTH CAROLINA THIS YEAR

Does anybody remember what happened to Duke in 2007?

Coach K was forced to field a very young team after graduating four seniors (including two first-team All-Americans) off a 32-win team in 2006.

The '07 season got off to a bad start when Greg Paulus, the returning starter at point guard (and such an important player in Coach K's plans that he was elected a captain as a sophomore) broke his foot in the second practice and was hobbled all preseason. Minor injuries bothered a number of other players. David McClure, back after sitting out the 2006 season after double knee surgery, didn't miss a game, but appeared to be a different player after re-injuring a knee midway through the season. DeMarcus Nelson also played through injuries, while health concerns slowed the development of Duke's most highly touted freshman, Gerald Henderson.

The season was a struggle. It was a credit to Coach K that he massaged that team to 22 wins and an NCAA bid. Although Duke started the year ranked No. 12 in the AP's preseason poll (and got as high as No. 5 at midseason), the Devils finished out of the AP poll for the only time since 1996 and made first-round exits from the ACC and NCAA Tournament.

During the season, highly touted California prospect Jamal Boykin transferred back to the West Coast. After the season, the team's best player - second-team All-ACC pick Josh McRoberts - jumped to the NBA.

Anybody else think what happened to Duke in '07 was similar to what happened to UNC last year?

The Tar Heels, picked No. 6 in the first AP poll, actually started the year strong - beating Ohio State and Final Four bound Michigan State early (interestingly, Duke beat Final Four bound Georgetown in '07) and taking Kentucky to the wire in Lexington. An early loss to unranked Syracuse looked bad at the time - only later did we learn how good the 'Cuse was last season. In contrast, a close loss to No. 2 Texas in Dallas didn't seem that bad - although like UNC, the Longhorns later collapsed.

The point is that going into a Jan. 4 game at the College of Charleston, UNC was about where most of us expected them to be - an 11-3 team against a hellacious schedule and No. 9 in the nation.

That's when everything started to go wrong for the Tar Heels. Roy Williams' young team blew the game against Charleston with some boneheaded plays down the stretch (along with a couple of near-miraculous plays by the Cougars). That started the Heels on a downward spiral. Injuries piled up and a couple of highly touted freshmen - Henson and Dexter Strickland, especially - failed to step up. First-year point guard Larry Drew was painfully erratic.

UNC made its last stand on the night of Feb. 10, when Duke came to Chapel Hill. For 35 minutes, UNC put all of its pride and effort on the line and battled the future ACC champs on even terms. But Duke took command late and Ed Davis, the team's best player, broke his wrist and was lost of the season. From that point, the Tar Heels packed it in, losing seven of their next nine games. The team made a modest recovery in the NIT Tournament, but victories at Mississippi State and in overtime over Rhode Island did little to salvage a miserable season.

Afterwards, Davis jumped to the NBA (as McRoberts did three years earlier) and the Wear twins transferred back to the West Coast (in imitation of Boykins' move from Duke to Cal).

The big difference between Duke in 2007 and UNC in 2010 was on the bench. I will argue that K did a masterful job of milking the most he could get from a fatally flawed team, while Roy joined his team in meltdown. It wasn't just the moments of embarrassing behavior - the ejection of the Presbyterian fan, the clumsy Haiti reference, the use of the F-word during a press conference. He also made a number of questionable developmental decisions - caught in a recruiting promise to develop the slender Henson as a wing player, it took more than half the season before he moved the natural post player back to the post; caught without a backup point guard, he tried to force-feed wing guard Dexter Strickland at the position, stunting his development.

To an outsider, it looked like Roy "lost" his team. He complained himself about how he wasn't getting through to his players, who continued to make the same mistakes over and over.

I do want to defend Williams from one ill-informed criticism that I've heard from many quarters - complaints about his stubborn insistence on playing a fast tempo with an erratic point guard. His failure to slow things down and play a halfcourt game to emphasize his strong frontline was, in his critics minds, a huge mistake.

I don't think so. What that overlooks is the fact that UNC simply didn't have any shooters on last year's team. Graves was the team's best outside gunner, but he was so immobile that he had trouble finding his shot - and for all his reputation as a shooter, his 3-point percentage was lower than Duke's top four gunners (Singler, Smith, Scheyer and Dawkins).

How was UNC supposed to score in the halfcourt? That talented front line wouldn't be worth much with opposing defenses pack in the lane. Roy's only chance was to push the tempo and try to get points in transition. It didn't work, but it was worth a try.

Let's be clear. While Roy Williams had a bad year, he's not a bad coach. His previous 21 years at Kansas and UNC proved that he can win with talent - win at a very high level.

And he'll have talent this season.

THE SAVIOR

The year after Duke slumped to 22-11 in 2007, there were a lot of skeptics about the Blue Devils' chances in 2007-08. After all, the Blue Devils had lost their top player (McRoberts) and while K was adding a promising three-man recruiting class - headed by top 10 prospect Kyle Singler and top 25 prospects Nolan Smith and Taylor King-was there any reason to think Duke would get a lot better overnight?

There were a lot of skeptics when Duke was picked No. 13 in the preseason AP poll. Just picked on reputation, right?

As it turned out, Duke WAS a lot better in 2008. Singler played a huge role, winning ACC rookie of the year, but what really made the Devils better was that senior DeMarcus Nelson enjoyed the first healthy year of his career and was first-team All-ACC. Greg Paulus was healthy and provided stability at the point, earning third-team All-ACC honors. Henderson blossomed as a sophomore, fulfilling those high expectations that he failed to meet as a freshman. Scheyer built on a solid freshman year with another strong season.

Duke won 28 games, finished second in the ACC and No. 9 in the final AP poll. It was a great year, marred only by the sad fact that UNC was much better (winning the ACC and reaching the Final Four) and that it ended with a disappointing postseason performance (a loss to Clemson in the ACC semifinals and to West Virginia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament).

Still, it was a great recovery - and I expect UNC to make a similar recovery this season.

I expect last year's disappointing freshmen to make Henderson-like improvements. Henson showed flashes of his talent late last season, when he moved back to his natural position at power forward. He's still very slender and lacks an offensive game, but he's extremely quick and agile and can run the floor. He will be a beast as a shotblocker.

UNC is thin in the post, but I don't think it's fair to label Tyler Zeller as "injury-prone". He missed a good portion of his freshman season when he broke his wrist after being viciously floored by a tackle from behind while executing a breakaway layup. He did miss time with a stress fracture last year, but is that a chronic problem? The guy never missed a game or a practice in high school. Is he really injury prone or has he just had some bad luck in his first two years at UNC?

I expect Larry Drew II to be better at the point. He's still not a great player - but neither was Paulus and in his junior year, he became a far steadier force at the point. It helps that he has freshman Kendall Marshall to both push him and backstop him.

And the player that Marshall might help the most is Strickland, a talented wing guard (and a prep teammate of Duke's Kyrie Irving), who ought get to show that talent now that he doesn't have to spend most of his practice time in a futile attempt to learn the point. I know Williams has said that Strickland is his third option at point, but believe me, barring injuries to Drew and/or Marshall, when you see Strickland this year, it will be on the wing.

It's on the wing where this UNC team will be light years better than last year's team. Marcus Ginyard and Will Graves will be replaced by Reggie Bullock and (pause for dramatic effect) Harrison Barnes.

Look, I know that a lot of Duke fans were put off by Barnes' over-the-top Skype show last fall and by the way many Blue Devils feel they were played in recruitment. I'm not going to argue that. But whatever anger you feel toward him, you have to recognize that he's a great talent - an impact freshman on a par with John Wall or Kevin Durant … or at the least a Luol Deng.

In terms of his game, he's actually more like Grant Hill, but unlike Hill, he won't have the luxury of fitting in as the third wheel on a team with two other superstars. Barnes will have to be UNC's go-to guy from day one and as much as many Duke fans would like to believe that he'll crumple under the pressure, people I respect - people not connected to the UNC program - tell me he has the character and the maturity to handle the pressure.

And, maybe more importantly, after last year's disappointment, UNC's veterans seem willing to follow Barnes' lead.

Along with Bullock - think a taller Wayne Ellington - Barnes gives UNC the firepower on the wing that last year's team lacked. And his ballhandling skills and court sense should help take some of the burden off Drew at the point.

I thought that Seth Davis of CBS Sports made an interesting observation after his recent interview with Roy Williams. Davis noted that a year ago, Williams complained to anybody who would listen that his team was overrated because it lacked shooters. Those complaints were dismissed as coach-speak at the time, but in hindsight, Williams was being honest. Davis pointed out that Williams offered no such protestations this year - leading to the assumption that Williams does NOT think this year is being overrated.

"We will have a much better ability to score than we did last year," Williams told Davis. "Depth with the big guys is an issue, but I would not be afraid to put in any of our seven perimeter players. The key is for us to stay healthy."

Now, don't think my appreciation for the Tar Heels is over the top. I don't think they will be a Final Four team or nearly as good as Duke. There are question marks about UNC's frontline depth (that's where Graves would have helped as an extra "big" man) and about whether Drew and/or Marshall can execute Williams' high-powered offense.

And, even though I think they will be better than Virginia Tech and will earn a higher NCAA seed, because of the ACC's unbalanced schedule - which is very much in Virginia Tech's favor - it's possible that the Heels will end up behind the Hokies in the ACC standings, but ahead of them in the national polls.

Don't laugh - that happened in 2002, when No. 4 Maryland finished ahead of No. 1 Duke in the ACC regular season race AND in 2003, when No. 8 Wake Forest finished ahead of No. 7 Duke.

Wouldn't that be a surprise ending to our little mystery - kind of like in "Murder on the Orient Express" when everybody did it! Maybe in this case, both sets of voters will get it right, the ACC voters who picked Virginia Tech ahead of UNC and the national writers who picked the Tar Heels ahead of the Hokies.

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