CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Armed with a talented freshman class, Duke is the preseason favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils received 41 of 65 first-place votes from media members at Wednesday’s league media day, outdistancing North Carolina, ACC newcomer Louisville and reigning champion Virginia atop the standings.
Duke returns upperclassmen Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson and Rasheed Sulaimon while adding a stellar recruiting class led by big man Jahlil Okafor, the preseason pick for rookie of the year.
That group will chase Duke’s first ACC regular-season or tournament title since 2011.
“I think we do have the ability” to win the ACC, Cook said, “but we had the ability last year and we had the ability my freshman year and sophomore year. … Our young guys have got to step up because they’re good enough to have an immediate impact and we need them to grow up fast.”
The Blue Devils were picked first for the second straight season and 14th time under Krzyzewski.
The Tar Heels were second with 12 first-place votes and have the league preseason player of the year in junior guard Marcus Paige, who made a habit of coming up with big second-half performances last season and averaged 17.5 points per game.
“I hope that means it can translate to wins,” Paige said of his honor. “I see that they picked us second in the conference and we have goals of finishing higher than that.”
Syracuse was picked fifth, followed by Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Florida State, North Carolina State, Miami, Clemson, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Boston College and Virginia Tech.
Paige led the five-man preseason all-ACC team and was joined by Okafor. The rest of that group was Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell, Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon and Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant.
For years, the Atlantic Coast Conference built its basketball reputation on nearly annual appearances in the Final Four.
Now, as the league is adding another marquee program and touting itself as the best in the country, it’s trying to snap a four-year Final Four drought. That is an unusually long dry spell for the tradition-rich league boasting Hall of Fame coaches and plenty of national championships.
“I think the league prepares you for that, but you still have to do it,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said Wednesday during the league’s preseason media day. “I’m not speaking against the ACC but there’s parity in college basketball. … And just because we come from the ACC doesn’t guarantee us to steamroll three teams into the Elite Eight. You’ve got to play.”
No ACC team has reached the Final Four since Duke won Mike Krzyzewski’s fourth NCAA championship in 2010. That matches the league’s longest drought, though the last time was from 1958-61, according to STATS.
Now the ACC is stronger on paper through realignment, first by adding Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame last year and with the latest addition: Rick Pitino’s Louisville squad.
The question now is whether that group of ACC and former Big East schools can produce a Final Four team to help the league live up to its claim as the nation’s best.
“Based on past successes, this may be the strongest collection of basketball programs in history,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said. “I think historically it certainly falls into that category. Obviously we need on the court to live up to that.”
The league’s postseason success has long focused on traditional powers Duke and North Carolina, who have combined to win nine NCAA titles. But the league’s top teams have been tripped up by underdogs, tough matchups or key injuries at the wrong time in the past four years.
North Carolina lost in a regional final in 2011 and 2012, the second coming when the preseason No. 1-ranked team lost point guard Kendall Marshall to a broken wrist during the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament.
A year later, Duke pushed to a regional final before falling to Pitino’s Cardinals, who went on to win the national championship.
The Blue Devils have twice gone one-and-out in the past three tournaments, including last year against Mercer despite playing a short drive from campus, while the Tar Heels have failed to make it out of the tournament’s opening weekend for two straight years.
Last year, the Cavaliers won their first outright regular-season title in 33 years then followed with their first ACC tournament title since winning their only other one in 1976. That sent Virginia into the tournament with a No. 1 seed for the first time since the days of Ralph Sampson, but that team fell in the round of 16 to Michigan State.
“It’s just a testament to how brutal March is,” Duke junior Amile Jefferson said. “That’s just the nature of the beast. I think we have teams that will definitely be in the Elite Eight and the Final Four in the upcoming years.”
The silver lining is that Louisville has twice reached the Final Four during the ACC’s drought while a member of the Big East, while Syracuse did it in 2013.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, a former assistant to Krzyzewski at Duke, said he thinks the better measure for the league’s strength is whether it regularly gets half its teams into the tournament.
Still, he said, getting to the Final Four or cutting down the nets won’t hurt, either.
“When you can get one to get to a Final Four, it’s such credibility,” Brey said. “When you get one there pretty regularly, that gives you great credibility. You can really hang your hat on that.”
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