CHARLOTTE — The Duke men’s basketball team will enter the season as the preseason favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference as voted on at the ACC’s Operation Basketball in Charlotte on Wednesday.
Duke received 54 of the 69 first-place votes and was picked over UNC at No. 2 and Notre Dame at No. 3. Wake Forest was picked 11th and N.C. State was predicted to finish 12th in the conference.
With eight freshmen joining the program that returns one starter, getting to win the conference regular-season title for the first time in seven years will be the tall task that coach Mike Krzyzewski has ahead of him. Among that youth, there is height for the Blue Devils that welcome Wendell Carter Jr., and Marvin Bagley III.
“We’re the youngest team we have had since the early 80’s but we are big,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s a big team. Like, when we play Friday night, four of our top seven guys that will be playing will be 6-foot-9 and above.”
That one starter, senior Grayson Allen, knows the obligations that come leading a team of freshmen. After all, the last two seasons he has been one of the few returners each season as the Blue Devils brought in one-and-done talent in that time span. Both teams have drawn high expectations, and this one is no different.
“It’s a lot of attention and hype. It can be a lot of pressure, but as a Duke basketball player they equip us to deal with it and deal with all the attention that comes,” Allen said. “A lot of it is the freshmen that we have are extremely talented guys so there’s naturally going to be a lot of attention and we are learning to deal with that.”
While he has had to grow as a player with his skill set, the 6-foot-5 senior has had to grow in other ways as well. Times of visual frustration in his past in games that involved tripping players and meltdowns on the sidelines have led him to where he is now, a place he is comfortable with himself and has learned to deal with the intensity of his game.
“I think emotion is an important thing in basketball. More guys need to play wit, but for me its important to get to that point and I need to focus my emotions to me and my guys,” Allen said.
Allen and Bagley were both named to the preseason all-conference team, and Bagley was voted preseason rookie of the year.
North Carolina is coming off its national title last season, but personnel changes is main the story line coming in for the Tar Heels, especially in the post with only one player returning.
“The way I believe the easiest way to be successful is to get more rebounds than you get. You get the ball, I get the ball. You get the ball, I get the ball. So the only way to change that, if I get some offensive rebounds and don’t allow you to get any,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get some rebounds. And the other thing, I believe in getting the ball inside so you get fouled.”
Junior forward Luke Maye returns and is the only frontcourt player with any in-game experience. He said that the adjustments for him and the young big guys, like three in-coming post players that will see significant minutes, has gone smoothly. Maye joins Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman and Sterling Manley.
“It’s put a little more pressure on me to make sure that the other guys learn and get in place as quickly as possible. I’ve enjoyed it and embraced it,” Maye said. “Coach (Williams) has checked with me and made sure that the younger guys are assimilated really well and are getting acclimated.”
The Tar Heels are believed to go small with their lineup this year, more than years past, and senior Theo Pinson’s versatility will be the cornerstone for how UNC’s small lineup will go. The 6-foot-6 wing said he feels comfortable playing the point guard position all the way to playing in the post.
“He (Williams) understands the type of players that he has and he understands and trusts me playing at the four. I’m the only one he trusts at the four,” Pinson said. “That’s the biggest thing, that he trusts me in that position and I believe we will play a lot of it this year.”
Senior guard Joel Berry II was also picked to the preseason all-conference team.
At N.C. State, the sound of grunting and yelling coming from the team’s game lounge has been something that transfer guard Allerik Freeman has heard several times this preseason, but the sport the players and coaches were yelling about was not basketball.
“You walk in there and it’s like watching pros play a pick-up game,” he said of the ping pong matches in the team’s game room.
With the coaching staff changes at N.C. State, the change in dynamic has been the biggest impression for the new athletes that coach Kevin Keatts has brought with him since taking over after coaching at UNCW for the past three seasons. The main dynamic is the competitive energy.
“It’s very competitive. Everything we do from the beginning of practice to the end of practice, you are competing,” senior Lennard Freeman said. “He forces players to be competitive, but also reminds us that we are still a team.”
The competitiveness was there during Mark Gottfried’s tenure in Raleigh, but the battles on the ping pong table have trickled onto the hardwood as well, which was the goal. Keatts probably the most competitive, and arguably the best, among the group with the paddle in his hand says it pays off in all aspects.
“I think it’s an icebreaker for our guys. I may be on the floor as the coach, but when I walk into the player’s lounge we start hitting the ball and break the ice,” Keatts said. “I’m not telling you the group I inherited was not competitive, but I want them to compete at everything.”
Wake Forest will have a different look with forward John Collins departing to go to the NBA, the Demon Deacons know that they have to “scrap” to earn wins this season with no go-to player in the post for consistent offense.
“We are smaller than other teams so you have got to be scrappy and compete harder and willing to get stops,” guard Mitchell Wilbekin said. “Last year, we had a lot of great offensive threats so we would win having shootouts with other teams. We can’t do that this year.”
Fourth-year coach Danny Manning knows that a lot will come from the experienced backcourt of Wilbekin and Bryant Crawford, who averaged over 16 points a game last year.
“We’ll be a very guard-dominated team just in terms of the locomotive, engine for us this year. Those guys have to go out and they have to perform at a high level for us,” Manning said. “We feel very confident about our front court players. We just don’t have a lot of guys that have played big minutes or established themselves. But we have a lot of guys who are ready to make contributions. And for us, it’s going to be big guy by committee.”
Last season Wake Forest went to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2010 season, losing in the first four to Kansas State. For Wilbekin, the mindset changes now.
“We’ve got a small taste and we are looking forward to not just getting there and being complacent, but we want to win some ball games,” Wilbekin said.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.