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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

ACC preview: Duke, UNC on top -- the way it's meant to be

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This season will be the type of season that makes the ACC interesting.

It'll be Duke and North Carolina on top.

And that's the way I like it.

Sure, I enjoy watching second-tier ACC programs do well, whether it's Clemson or FSU. But in the same way the American League East is more fascinating when the Yankees and Red Sox battle for first, the ACC is more compelling when the Blue Devils and Tar Heels sit atop the ACC standings. So that's my hope -- specifically that Duke and North Carolina close the regular season by playing for the ACC title in a primetime game on CBS.

Rest assured, I'd be at the Dean Smith Center for that.

(Note: I'll be there anyway, I guess. But you get my point.)

Here's a look at the Atlantic Coast Conference:

(Schools listed in predicted order of finish.)

1. Duke

Because upsets can and do happen in the NCAA tournament, there's no guarantee Duke will win another national title. But it should be the favorite, and the Blue Devils are probably better equipped to do it this season than they were last season. Kyrie Irving is a one-and-done point guard (if he wants to be), and Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler return as CBSSports.com First Team All-Americans. Duke will play faster, be more explosive and almost certainly win the ACC again, though, I believe North Carolina has the talent to push the Blue Devils.
NCAA tournament? Yes

2. North Carolina

UNC's season just kind of slipped away last year because the Tar Heels had too many injuries and not enough confidence. Either of those things could plague them again, of course. But the prediction here is that Roy Williams will use three frontcourt pros -- CBSSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year Harrison Barnes, plus John Henson and Tyler Zeller -- to keep the Heels in the top 10 most of the year and help fans forget last season's debacle that led to a humiliating trip to the NIT.
NCAA tournament? Yes

2011 Tournament:
March 10-13 -- Greensboro, N.C.
Quick facts
Defending regular-season champions:
Duke, Maryland
Defending tournament champion:
Duke
Top returning scorer:
Malcolm Delaney (Virginia Tech), 20.2 ppg
Top returning rebounder:
Jordan Williams (Maryland), 8.6 rpg
Accolades
First team
G - Kyrie Irving, Duke
G - Nolan Smith, Duke
G - Malcolm Delaney, Virginia Tech
F - Harrison Barnes, North Carolina
F - Kyle Singler, Duke
Second team
G - Reggie Jackson, Boston College
G - Durand Scott, Miami (Fla.)
F - Chris Singleton, Florida State
F - John Henson, North Carolina
F - Jordan Williams, Maryland
Player of the year
Harrison Barnes, North Carolina
Newcomer of the year
Harrison Barnes, North Carolina
Breakthrough player
John Henson, North Carolina
Coach on the hot seat
Sidney Lowe, N.C. State
Click here for more
conference previews

3. Virginia Tech

A core of Malcolm Delaney, Dorenzo Hudson and Jeff Allen won't have Seth Greenberg disappointed on Selection Sunday again. Virginia Tech will make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007, and the Hokies will make it with plenty of room to spare thanks to the aggressive non-league schedule Greenberg assembled featuring games against Kansas State, Mississippi State and Purdue, plus possible games against Oklahoma State and either Murray State or UNLV in the 76 Classic.
NCAA tournament? Yes

4. North Carolina State

Sidney Lowe has never finished better than ninth in the ACC, and he might have been pushed out after last season if not for the top five recruiting class he assembled. In other words, C.J. Leslie, Ryan Harrow and Lorenzo Brown bought Lowe a fifth season, and now they're expected to team with Tracy Smith and deliver immediate results. Will they? Yes, I suspect they will. But if they don't, the N.C. State job will open in March.
NCAA tournament? Yes

5. Maryland

Jordan Williams averaged 9.6 points and 8.6 rebounds last season, had 18 points and seven rebounds (in 22 minutes) in Monday's exhibition, and could have a huge sophomore season that could make him a legitimate NBA prospect. But will it be enough to keep the Terps near the top of the ACC? Honestly, probably not. They lost their top three scorers -- Greivis Vasquez, Landon Milbourne and Eric Hayes -- off a roster that tied Duke for the ACC title, and that's difficult to replace. But Maryland will be a little better than most expect (once again) and make the NCAA tournament (once again).
NCAA tournament? Yes

6. Florida State

Chris Singleton is a versatile wing whose long arms allowed him to lead the ACC in steals last season. He put off the NBA Draft, at least for a year, and now the Seminoles have a chance to make the NCAA tournament for the third straight year for just the second time in school history. Whether it happens will likely depend on how Leonard Hamilton deals with the loss of his two best frontcourt players, namely Solomon Alabi and Ryan Reid, both of whom were second-round picks in last June's NBA Draft. But one way or another, it should happen.
NCAA tournament? Yes

7. Clemson

The hiring of Brad Brownell eventually will be viewed as one of the best hires this offseason even if it lacked the pizzazz fans often desire. He's a smart and good basketball coach, a man who has taken both UNC-Wilmington and Wright State to the NCAA tournament. Now Brownell has an opportunity to lead Clemson there, too, though the prediction here is that the loss of Trevor Booker will have the Tigers just on the wrong side of the bubble come Selection Sunday.
NCAA tournament? No

8. Boston College

Steve Donahue will pay the price for Al Skinner's subpar recruiting in recent years and struggle to win more ACC games than he loses in his first season at Boston College. Three double-digit scorers in Joe Trapani, Reggie Jackson and Corey Raji are back, and that's OK. But the Eagles have a size problem and a depth problem, and those two things will be difficult to overcome over the course of the ACC schedule.
NCAA tournament? No

9. Georgia Tech

There's no good way to replace Gani Lawal, Derrick Favors and Zach Peacock. So while Paul Hewitt would like nothing more than to stick it to the fans and reporters who have questioned him lately and take this roster to the NCAA tournament, the reality is that Georgia Tech has a frontcourt filled with question marks and a backcourt that's been too inconsistent to inspire much confidence (though Iman Shumpert and Mfon Udofia clearly are talented).
NCAA tournament? No

10. Miami (Fla.)

The Hurricanes looked and were terrible last season until they upset Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and played Duke to a one-possession game in the ACC tournament. What Miami fans hope is that the final three games were an indication of what's to come, but I'm not sure that's true. Frank Haith's team will be better -- and Durand Scott will have a breakthrough season -- but a jump from the bottom of the ACC to the middle of the ACC seems like too much to ask.
NCAA tournament? No

11. Virginia

Tony Bennett's seven-player freshman class can serve as a foundation, but it won't help the Cavaliers get many wins this season. There are no program-changers in the group, nobody who figures to immediately make a huge impact on the league this season. So while Virginia's second-year coach has proved he's capable of doing more with less, there's too little in the program right now to get much of anything accomplished.
NCAA tournament? No

12. Wake Forest

I love that Ron Wellman hired a coach -- Jeff Bzdelik -- who compiled a 10-38 record in Big 12 games at Colorado. Will it work? Who knows? But you must have a conviction to make that hire, and I can appreciate a man who's confident enough to do something that'll be publicly unpopular when he believes it's right. That said, Bzdelik's first year will at Wake Forest will surely be difficult because three of the top four scorers are gone from last season's team (including lottery pick Al-Farouq Aminu), and one of the reserves who was supposed to play a major role this season (Tony Woods) was nudged from the program because of an offseason domestic dispute.
NCAA tournament? No

2010-11 Season Preview/Conference Countdown Schedule
DateFeatureDateFeature
Fri., Oct. 15Preseason Top 25 (and one) Fri., Oct. 29Conference No. 6: Pac-10
Mon., Oct. 18Preseason All-Americans Mon., Nov. 1Conference No. 5: SEC
Wed., Oct. 20Player rankings: Points/Combos Tues., Nov. 2Conference No. 4: ACC
Thurs., Oct. 21Player rankings: Wings Wed., Nov. 3Conference No. 3: Big East
Fri., Oct. 22Player rankings: Big men Thurs., Nov. 4Conference No. 2: Big 12
Mon., Oct. 25Coaches on the Hot Seat Fri., Nov. 5Conference No. 1: Big Ten
Wed., Oct. 27Best of the non-BCS Mon., Nov. 8Projections: Parrish | Palm

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.
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