Elite freshman class helps Duke rebound from rare defections

Devils drop-off unlikely

UNC, Maryland, Wake loaded with talent, too

ACC men's preview

November 16, 1999|By Paul McMullen | By Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

The opinion that Duke's three-year run atop the regular-season standings in the Atlantic Coast Conference will end got louder when the Blue Devils matched last season's total of two losses at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic last week.

The Blue Devils went 31-1 in the ACC over the last two seasons. They lost Elton Brand and Trajan Langdon as expected, but coach Mike Krzyzewski fumed when Corey Maggette, William Avery and Chris Burgess also left. North Carolina's first undisputed regular-season title since 1993 is not a given, as Duke will not disappear.

Here's The Sun's predicted order of finish, with last season's records in parentheses:

1. Duke (37-2, 16-0): The freshman class of point guard Jason Williams, forward Carlos Boozer, center Casey Sanders and wing Mike Dunleavy Jr. is the nation's best, and nearly as good as the crop that came to Durham two years ago. Junior forward Shane Battier gave Terence Morris fits last season, and Chris Carrawell relishes his leadership role. Nate James (St. John's Prospect Hall), another wing, is the other veteran.

2. North Carolina (24-10, 10-6) : Bill Guthridge returns four starters - point guard Ed Cota, wing Jason Capel, forward Kris Lang and center Brendan Haywood -- from a team that beat Maryland in the ACC tournament semifinals. The Tar Heels also lost to Weber State in the first round of the NCAAs. Academic casualty Jason Parker was supposed to make North Carolina tougher, but the Tar Heels can use the shooting of freshman Joe Forte (De Matha).

3. Maryland (28-6, 13-3): It's a good year to reload in the ACC.

4. Wake Forest (17-14, 7-9): Dave Odom should not have to complain about being excluded from the NCAA tournament come March. He has the deepest team in the ACC and returns 94 percent of his scoring and 93 percent of his rebounding. Odom argues that guard Robert O'Kelley had a bigger impact on the conference over the past two seasons than any other junior including Morris. Center Rafael Vidaurreta, forward Darius Songaila and wing Criag Dawson are returning starters, and forward Niki Arinze's return from a medical redshirt will help.

5. N.C. State (19-14, 6-10): The Wolfpack keeps bringing in gaudy talent, and continues to search for a consistent pulse. This year's recruiting catch is Damien Wilkins, a 6-6 wing who had a controversial junior season before leaving St. John's Prospect Hall. Senior guard Justin Gainey is glad to see bomber Archie Miller return from back surgery. If Herb Sendek can get more out of his inside players, he might get State its first NCAA bid since 1991.

6. Georgia Tech (15-16, 6-10): Bobby Cremins is on the hot seat in Atlanta, where the Yellow Jackets have one NCAA tournament appearance to show for the past six seasons. He has an intriguing pair of big men in 6-11 Alvin Jones, who's developed an offensive game to go with his shot-blocking, and 7-footer Jason Collier, who averaged 17.2 points. Who's going to get them the ball? Sophomore Tony Akins has to show that he's an ACC-caliber point guard.

7. Virginia (14-16, 4-12): Can Pete Gillen take the Cavaliers from the cellar to the NCAA tournament? After Duke, he's got the second-best freshman class in the conference, and point guard Majestic Mapp and power forward Travis Watson must contribute immediately. Junior-college transfer Stephane Dondon can shoot, and sophomore forward Chris Williams and junior guard Donald Hand exceeded expectations last season.

8. Florida State (13-17, 5-11): The Seminoles have a gem in senior forward Ron Hale, and little else. Coach Steve Robinson has added David Anderson, a 7-foot transfer from Brigham Young, and Nigel Dixon, all 6-10 and more than 350 pounds of him. The problem here is the same at Georgia Tech: no guards.

9. Clemson (20-15, 5-11): The Tigers have to replace four starters, including solid guard Terrell McIntyre, who set a school record for assists and finished second in career scoring. His projected replacement, Ed Scott, broke a bone in his right foot in an early practice, and will not be available until December. It could be another long year for Larry Shyatt.

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