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Familiar territory
UNC-Chapel Hill
Those who see Republican control of the federal government stretching to an endless horizon need only recall the example of North Carolina's Tar Heels, once synonymous with sustained excellence and a sense of inevitable success in men's basketball. Following decades of national prominence and primacy in the ACC, UNC fell on hard times, bottoming out with a last-place finish in 2002 and a forced coaching change in 2003. (Readers are encouraged to fill in their favorite cliche on the transitory nature of things to finish this thought.)

Now fortune has shifted again, and the Heels are ranked among the top teams in the ACC and the country. "I want to leave here on a good note, having this program on a good note," says senior Jackie Manuel. "I think we're on the right path."

The UNC squad is bursting with seasoned players. There is a trio of complementary seniors in Manuel, Melvin Scott and Jawad Williams, and a trio of junior stars in big man Sean May, playmaker Raymond Felton and second guard Rashad McCants. May led the ACC in rebounding in 2004 (9.8 per game) and Felton led in assists (7.1 average). McCants, who recently caused a stir by unadvisedly using a prison analogy to describe being a big-time college athlete, paced the conference in scoring (20.0 points).

Mix in holdovers David Noel and Reyshawn Terry, and the Heels return their top eight players. Moreover, they added the ACC's premier freshman in powerful 6-9 forward Marvin Williams of Bremerton, Wash. "He's capable of making a tremendous impact," says North Carolina coach Roy Williams. Manuel says the freshman is physical, aggressive and relentless in attacking the basket. May says his new frontcourt mate "will demand respect from the beginning."

Coach Williams was similarly demanding last season, with positive if uneven results. UNC wound up fifth in the ACC, 19-11 overall, and lasted to the second round in the NCAA tournament. Greater familiarity on both sides should yield better results. Williams, who relishes an uptempo pace, says with satisfaction, "We can definitely go faster than we did last year."

Slowing down playmaker Ivory Latta may actually help UNC's women top the ACC standings for the first time since 1997. Last season, Latta's fleet forays sometimes made her an unwitting army of one. Latta's improved control and court intelligence, along with the constellation of talent arrayed around her, translates into primacy for the Heels.

"I don't know if I've been any more excited than I am this year with our team," says Sylvia Hatchell, the 19-year North Carolina coach. Hatchell, recently inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, is the only ACC women's coach with a national title, achieved in 1994.

There's plenty of depth, talent and experience. The upperclass leaders are seniors Leah Metcalf and Nikita Bell and versatile junior La'Tangela Atkinson, the ACC's top rebounder in 2004 (8.1 average) and a player described by Hatchell as unselfish to a fault. The team's best player may be Camille Little, a 6-1 wing from Winston-Salem. Little led the Heels in scoring as a freshman (14.3) and was named both first team All-ACC and '04 ACC rookie of the year, an uncommon double. Her formidable repertoire now includes a reliable 3-pointer.

Three freshmen join the frontline, including long-armed LaToya Pringle and 6-2 forward Erlana Larkins. Quick and competitive, Larkins figures to fill the void left by Candace Sutton's graduation. "Erlana can play any position on the floor, except maybe point guard," Hatchell says. "She's good. She's major, big-time."

The coach also expects to return to the physical brand of play from which her team strayed last year. That suits Bell. "If the game's not physical, it's not fun for me," she says.

Unfamiliar territory
Women or men, Duke players expect to compete for, and capture, championships. "That's the difference between us and other schools," senior Daniel Ewing says. But Gail Goestenkors' women are not the preseason pick to win the ACC for the first time in five years, and the men project to finish lower than in any season since 1996.

Picking the men fourth is less a comment on available players than a reflection of a season in which other ACC clubs are equally gifted and deeper and more balanced overall. Besides replacing graduated floor leader Chris Duhon, the Blue Devils must adjust to the unexpected loss of Luol Deng, gone to the pros following his freshman year, and Shaun Livingston, a premier point prospect who jumped directly from high school to the NBA. That leaves a squad lacking depth and a proven playmaker. (UNC recruit J.R. Smith likewise went from prep senior to instant millionaire.)

The Devils do retain a half-dozen prep All-Americans, including perimeter starters Ewing and J.J. Redick, the ACC's best foul shooter ever with 93.9 percent accuracy for his career. "How am I going to use Daniel Ewing?" Mike Krzyzewski asks rhetorically. "Every way possible." Ewing and Redick, whom the coach calls a "natural leader," are the team captains. Redick's production dropped precipitously late last season. At times he was a defensive liability. Krzyzewski expects improved conditioning will address Redick's shortcomings.

Burly, shotblocking Shelden Williams and 6-10 Shavlik Randolph potentially give Duke as good an inside tandem as any in the country. The duo must avoid the fouls that limited them last season, however. Williams' foul trouble probably cost Duke a Final Four win over Connecticut. Randolph, a mobile revelation at season's end, admits the pair must reduce "stupid fouls" by becoming less aggressive. "That sounds like an oxymoron, being too aggressive," Randolph says. "But you've got to be smart."

Junior Sean Dockery, a superior on-the-ball defender, and 6-4 freshman guard DeMarcus Nelson add ballhandling and athleticism. Nelson can score. Dockery is learning to shoot outside well enough to draw defensive attention, a problem also faced by UNC's Felton. Reggie Love, the former football receiver, returns to the interior mix after two years away from basketball. Lee Melchioni bolsters the perimeter corps.

Krzyzewski, who flirted with the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers last July, has 10 Final Four trips, 10 first-place ACC finishes, eight ACC Tournament championships and three national titles to his credit in 24 years at Duke. Given that tradition, he refuses to concede reduced expectations for his '05 squad. "There'll never be low expectations for a Duke team," he says. "Everyone's going to show up to play Duke, just like they have for most of the time I've been here."

Goestenkors' program has been comparably prominent nationally and as dominant in the league. The Duke women won the last five ACC Tournament titles, finished first in six of the past seven seasons, and reached the Final Four in 1999, 2002, and 2003. Since 2001, the Devils have lost four games to ACC rivals. "Hopefully the winning will remain the same," Goestenkors says.

Any perceived slide in prowess this season reflects the graduation of Alana Beard, Duke's greatest player and among the best in ACC history, as well as the loss of sharpshooter Vicki Krapohl and starter Iciss Tillis. Six-foot-three Brittany Hunter also transferred following her freshman year. Making matters worse, junior Lindsay Harding was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules on the eve of the season. The playmaker was last year's ACC leader with 2.2 assists for every turnover, and stood sixth with a pair of steals per game.

The top returnees are juniors--forward Monique Currie, guard Jessice Foley and post player Mistie Williams. Currie, assertive and well-rounded, is the top returning scorer and a vocal leader. Foley, whose 3-pointer capped a tremendous comeback victory last year at UConn, is more confident and consistent. Freshmen Wanisha Smith, physical and strong at 5-11, and shooter Laura Kurz add depth.

Williams, the former Mistie Bass, got married during the off-season. She, 6-7 sophomore Alison Bales and freshmen Chante Black comprise a post assemblage from which their coach wants 70 percent of her team's scoring. Borrowing a favorite Krzyzewski word, Goestenkors calls Black a "special" player. "She's got to be a great, great player for us," the coach says. "She's going to become a dominant post player in this league, and this country."

Middle of the pack
N.C. State
The ACC's founders considered omitting N.C. State from their new league because it had a weak football program and a small home stadium. But the basketball powerhouse built by Everett Case won them over, and basketball remained the school's signature sport over most of the ensuing half-century.

That balance of power shifted a bit recently as Chuck Amato's football teams generated great excitement and media attention despite finishing no better than fourth in the middling ACC. As if responding to the intramural challenge, Herb Sendek's program made a quiet return to prominence. The Wolfpack finished in the upper division in each of the past three seasons, capped by three straight NCAA visits after an 11-year absence. Last season, employing tough defense and an opportunistic offense, N.C. State finished second during the ACC regular season, its best showing in 15 years.

Julius Hodge has been the central figure in basketball's resurgence. The 6-7 New Yorker is a unique blend of moxie and magnetism, cockiness and charm. "Julius has fun playing the game," Sendek says. "I think people may misinterpret his love of playing the game as flamboyance or some other kind of emotion. He's someone who just loves basketball."

Hodge made first team All-ACC in each of the past two seasons, and in 2004 won All-America honors and recognition as ACC player of the year. Claiming his career won't be complete without an NCAA title, a physically stronger Hodge returned for his senior season.

He leads a talented squad that must replace Marcus Melvin and Scooter Sherrill, two of the Wolfpack's top four scorers. Both were excellent free-throw shooters on a squad that set an ACC record last season with 79.9 percent accuracy. Fortunately, the team returns well-rounded juniors Ilian Evtimov and Cameron Benneman, and sophomore Engin Atsur, a steady guard from Turkey who was a pleasant surprise at point. Atsur will be supplanted as playmaker by Georgetown transfer Tony Bethel, but will find time in an impressive perimeter troupe that added freshman wing Gavin Grant.

Inside, senior holdovers Levi Watkins and Jordan Collins are joined by 6-10 newcomers Cedric Simmons, a long-armed shot-blocker, and polished Andrew Brackman.

Sendek's program has been haunted for years by untimely injuries, and recently so have N.C. State's women. Last season was the first since 2001 that Kay Yow's squad even posted a winning record (17-15).

Yow lost three of last year's starters, among them Kaayla Chones, the team's leading scorer and rebounder. Yet the 30-year N.C. State coach is strikingly upbeat about a group that is healthy, cohesive and talented. "I'm really looking forward to seeing just what this team can do," she said. "I think this is one of the most aggressive teams I've had, from top to bottom."

Leading the way are guards and co-captains Kendra Bell and Rachel Stockdale. Both are adept 3-point shooters, as is gifted freshman Celanese Bozeman, one of five ACC women sharing first names with products. (Florida State's LaQuinta Neely, Maryland's Charmaine Carr, UNC's Ivory Latta, and Wake Forest's Porsche Jones are the others.) Additional perimeter punch is supplied by sophomore Marquetta Dickens, the top returning scorer (8.3), and returnees Ashley Key and Billie McDowell. Junior college transfer Tiffany McCollins, a hard-nosed defender and adept playmaker, rounds out the group.

Inside, Yow looks to Khadijah Whittington, a hustling, creative freshman forward, and J.C. transfer Tiffany Stansbury, an aggressive center.

The rest of the league
The 2004-05 season will be remembered for more than its heavyweight men's squads, elimination of the eminently equitable double round-robin schedule due to expansion, and the supplanting of Duke's men and women as rulers of the roost. This year the ACC boasts a rare collection of men's point guards, as good as any in at least a decade.

Not surprisingly, the teams apt to challenge for conference supremacy boast outstanding playmakers. In fact, Wake Forest's charismatic Chris Paul is the favorite for ACC player of the year.

Wake returns virtually everyone from last season, including healthy frontline players Vytus Danelius and Chris Ellis. There are six upperclassmen among the regulars, most notably Danelius, a huge disappointment last year; All-ACC guard Justin Gray, who's not shy to let shots fly, attempting nearly half of the team's 3-pointers; extraordinary defender and rebounder Jamaal Levy; formidable center Eric Williams, like Duke's big men still learning to be aggressive without fouling; and complementary guard Taron Downey, a quiet leader. Wing Trent Strickland and big man Kyle Visser see plenty of time as well.

Paul, called "poetry in motion" by one opposing coach, remains the key to everything. Coach George "Skip" Prosser wants Paul to be less deferential on offense and tougher on defense. Wake was among the ACC's weakest defensive teams last season. Prosser harps on the fact his team scored a handsome 80 points in its Sweet Sixteen match-up with St. Joseph's, only to yield 84 and go home. Bolster the defense, and the Deacs are the team to beat.

"Of the Big Four schools, Wake's the only team that never won" the national championship, Prosser says, referring to Duke, UNC and N.C. State. "I'd like for that to happen for Wake Forest."

That glorious fate nearly befell Georgia Tech last year. The Yellow Jackets surprisingly made their second Final Four appearance ever (1990 was the first), thanks in large part to improvement by poised 7-1 center Luke Schenscher and by Jarrett Jack, a fearless point guard. "I'm having a hard time finding bad things to say about him," a pleased coach Paul Hewitt says of Jack.

Hewitt returns virtually everyone from a perimeter-laden squad and added freshmen Anthony Morrow and Zam "Buck" Frederick to pick up the scoring slack now that Marvin Lewis has graduated.

Maryland, the ACC Tournament winner for the first time since 1984, likewise has an impressive playmaker in John Gilchrist, MVP of the '05 tournament. The Terrapins return most members of a team that earned the school's 11th straight NCAA appearance.

Nibbling at the edge of the ACC's upper reaches are Florida State, loaded with talent after consecutive superior recruiting efforts, and Virginia, its ranks bolstered by respected freshman playmaker Sean Singletary.

Expectations are considerably lower for Clemson, Virginia Tech and Miami, the latter two added this year. Blacksburg's Tech, shoehorned into the league after several previous rejections, is led by guards Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon.

Life on the women's side will actually become more competitive thanks to expansion. Both Miami and Virginia Tech were NCAA teams last season. The Hurricanes of coach Ferne Labati were 22-7 in 2004. Employing an uptempo style that thrives on steals and balanced scoring, Miami is led by forward Tamara James and guard Yalonda McCormick. Virginia Tech returns seven of its top eight scorers, but must adjust to a new coach, Beth Dunkenberger.

A rebound appears in the offing for Virginia, which saw streaks of 25 straight winning seasons and 20 straight NCAA berths come to an end in 2004. Most everyone returns for coach Debbie Ryan, and there's a promising group of freshmen that bolster athleticism on the perimeter. Maryland, back in the mix under third-year coach Brenda Frese, returns its top two scorers in sophomores Shay Doron and Kalika France.

Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest bring up the rear. Wake has a new coach, Mike Petersen, only the sixth male to coach an ACC women's team. The Deacons were competitive last season, but still posted their 11th losing record in a row. "I don't know how to rally the troops with a let's-come-in-fourth speech," says Petersen, most recently a men's assistant at Minnesota. "Our goal is to win the ACC."

Jacobs' Ladder

1. Wake Forest 1. North Carolina
2. North Carolina 2. Duke
3. Georgia Tech 3. Miami
4. Duke 4. Virginia
5. N.C. State 5. Maryland
6. Maryland 6. Virginia Tech
7. Virginia 7. N.C. State
8. Florida State 8. Florida State
9.Virginia Tech 9. Clemson
10. Clemson 10. Wake Forest
11. Miami 11. Georgia Tech


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