Most of the key players who helped UNC win the national title last season now are in the NBA. Tyler Hansbrough, the ACC's leading career scorer, went to the Indiana Pacers with the 13th overall pick. Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington were taken later in the first round, while Danny Green was picked in the second round.
But the Tar Heels still boast plenty of talent, particularly in the frontcourt. Sophomore forward Ed Davis has made just two career starts, yet he already is considered a sure-fire 2010 lottery pick. North Carolina's lone returning starter, senior forward Deon Thompson, was the U.S. team's second-leading scorer and rebounder in the World University Games this summer. The backcourt is more of a concern. The departure of Lawson leaves Larry Drew II as the Tar Heels' only experienced point guard.
"This is the least experience and least depth I've ever had on the perimeter," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "It's a huge area of concern for us."
UNC isn't alone in that regard. The ACC was overflowing with talented guards last season, but many of them have moved on. Florida State lost Toney Douglas. Miami must replace Jack McClinton. Boston College is adapting to life without Tyrese Rice. Wake Forest's Jeff Teague left early for the NBA. Duke's chances of challenging North Carolina's ACC reign took a hit when Gerald Henderson left for the NBA and Elliot Williams transferred to Memphis.
Whichever team solves its backcourt problems best likely will have the most reason to celebrate in March.
PROGRAM ON THE RISEGeorgia Tech: The team that finished in the ACC basement last season should move into the upper half of the conference standings this season. Tech returns six of its top eight scorers and welcomes the nation's fourth-ranked recruiting class. Derrick Favors, the No. 3 prospect in the nation, should team with 2008-09 third-team All-ACC selection Gani Lawal to give Georgia Tech one of the ACC's most imposing frontcourts. Disregard Georgia Tech's dismal record last season; this team has top-20 potential.
PROGRAM ON THE DECLINEMiami: The Hurricanes looked like a program on the rise two years ago when they advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, but they had to settle for an NIT berth last season and likely will get left out of the dance again this season. Miami returns only two starters and must find a way to replace McClinton, arguably the conference's best outside shooter the past two seasons. The good news for Miami is that five of its nine conference losses last season were by five or fewer points. All those close losses indicate Miami could make a quick turnaround. Then again, if the Hurricanes couldn't win those nail-biters with McClinton, how will they pull those games out without him?
COACH ON THE HOT SEATSidney Lowe, N.C. State: Lowe's status as a key component of North Carolina State's 1983 national championship team has earned him plenty of capital, but he needs to start winning in a hurry. North Carolina State has earned no NCAA tournament bids and is a combined 15-33 in the ACC in Lowe's three seasons. The Wolfpack were a combined 29-19 in ACC competition and had reached the NCAA tournament in each of the three seasons before Lowe's arrival. It's hard to imagine NCSU finishing any higher than 10th in the ACC this season. And if the Wolfpack fail to exceed expectations, will Lowe be back on the bench next season?
BIGGEST SNEAKERS TO FILLGuard Ty Lawson, North Carolina: The Tar Heels won the national championship last season in large part because opposing point guards couldn't handle Lawson's speed. Now that Lawson has sprinted to the NBA, North Carolina's chances of getting back to the Final Four could depend on how capably Drew II replaces Lawson. Drew took care of the ball last season, but he played less than 10 minutes per game. He also lacks Lawson's explosiveness. But the Tar Heels don't have anyone else with college experience at the position.
MOST OVERRATED PLAYERGuard Marcus Ginyard, North Carolina: Ginyard went from being underrated to overrated last season through absolutely no fault of his own. Ginyard played only three games before a foot injury knocked him out for the rest of the Tar Heels' run to the national championship. For the rest of the season, Ginyard's absence was offered as an excuse on each of the rare occasions when North Carolina struggled. Ginyard is a wonderful teammate and a terrific perimeter defender, but he also is a fifth-year senior who has scored more than 14 points in a game just twice in his career. After being overshadowed by the star power on UNC's roster for most of his career, Ginyard finally gained some overdue attention only after he got sidelined. And if he really were as valuable as North Carolina backers liked to say, how did the Tar Heels breeze to the national title without him? Now that Ginyard has regained his health, he likely will go back to doing all the little things for North Carolina while regaining his former status as one of the conference's most underrated performers.
MOST UNDERRATED PLAYERGuard Malcolm Delaney, Virginia Tech: The ACC features so many quality guards that it's easy for guys such as Delaney to get lost in the shuffle. Delaney ranked fifth in the conference in assists (4.5), sixth in scoring (18.1) and first in minutes (36.9 per game) last season, yet he was overshadowed by Lawson, Douglas, Teague and other quality guards. Douglas, Lawson and Teague are gone; so is A.D. Vassallo, the swingman who led Virginia Tech in scoring each of the past two seasons. That means Delaney should inherit even more responsibilities. And he also finally should grab a bit of the spotlight.