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Oct. 21, 2011
By Bill Hass
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (theACC.com) - North Carolina is ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press and the coaches' USAToday/ESPN preseason basketball polls and by most everyone else who ranks teams.
So how good are they going to be?
"I think we're going to win a few games," said sophomore Harrison Barnes, eliciting laughter at ACC Operation Basketball on Wednesday. "If we band together and get that chemistry down we'll be all right, we'll be all right."
But seriously, folks...
"We realized last year that (a preseason ranking) doesn't really have too much impact on how you play," Barnes said. "It's more about what happens when you're 15 games in, if you're still No. 1. Then maybe you do deserve this ranking.
"Last year after the Illinois game, after the Puerto Rico trip, we looked like a team that was going to be a 16 seed almost, and we wound up going to the Elite Eight. It's really a long season and you have to just take it as it comes. It's not about being the best team for the first three weeks, it's about being the best team in the last (week)."
The Tar Heels open the season on Nov. 11 with a game against Michigan State on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in San Diego.
"I'm hoping it won't be windy so it won't throw off the jump shot," Barnes joked.
"The more we talk about it, it's more about the (military personnel) and paying tribute to them rather UNC against Michigan State."
UNC had three players named to the preseason All-ACC first team - Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson, last year's defensive player of the year in the league. Henson has worked to make his shot-blocking even better.
"One thing I've developed in the off-season is I've learned how to stay down until the right time," he said. "That's something I'm a lot better at right now.
"Challenging myself defensively is something that I try to do every game. It's what's going to help me impact the team and help us win."
MORE LEADERS FOR THE BLUE DEVILS: Without four-year mainstays Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, Duke will be looking to develop leaders across the board.
"We lost our proven players," said junior forward Ryan Kelly. "We have really talented players but they're unproven. If we approach every day knowing that we're unproven and we compete every day, we can be really good.
"When you're expected to be a leader, you have more of a voice on the floor and you have an inner voice and an inner belief in yourself in what you're saying. When we have a lot of guys who are leaders, everybody believes in themselves and can give advice and help each other out and it makes for a good team. Not to say as great a team as last year, but it's just a different approach."
Senior center Miles Plumlee said players will have to develop their basketball "egos" and must do more than they've ever done.
"I feel like it will be more collective than in the past," he said. "We won't have just Kyle and Nolan doing their thing, or Jon (Scheyer) running the show, but I'm excited to take part of that role. We have the talent; guys just have to step up and do more than they have in the past."
SEMINOLES CONCENTRATE ON LITTLE THINGS: Florida State has a lot to improve from last year. Senior guard Michael Snaer ticked off better free throw shooting, better defense in transition, running the offense more crisply and finishing with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio among the goals.
But the biggest lesson was learned in the Seminoles' NCAA game against VCU, which they lost when they couldn't execute a play on their final possession.
"It was nobody's fault but our own," Snaer said. "Now we know that you've got to give everything that you have, you've got to get those extra shots up, you've got to pay attention to scouting reports, you've got to do all the little things.
"That's what we lacked last year. The little drills that you might think are silly in practice and you just go through the motions, now you work hard doing those. Those are the little things that take you over the top."
GETTING USED TO NEW DIRECTION: There are four new coaches in the ACC - Mark Turgeon at Maryland, Mark Gottfried at NC State, Jim Larranaga at Miami and Brian Gregory at Georgia Tech.
Naturally, players from those teams fielded a barrage of questions about how they're adjusting to new styles, new terminology, new offenses and defenses, new ways to practice. At Maryland, senior Sean Mosley said it's still hard not to instinctively run the flex offense he played for three years under Gary Williams.
"He's great," Mosley said of Turgeon. "He's very patient (but) he's snappy at times after he tells you more than once. You can tell he's got the other side to him; that discipline side is going to come out if you don't box out or do something else. You're going to get in line and run sprints."
NC State junior Scott Wood said Gottfried has picked up the pace of practice and emphasized getting stops on defense and getting out in transition. And there are reminders of the Wolfpack's basketball past, which includes two national championships.
"We've got a lot of posters on the wall just letting us know about our history and every time we put on that jersey knowing who we represent," Wood said. "For recruits it lets them see the players who have been here and the history that NC State has."
One of the things junior guard Durand Scott of Miami likes about Larranaga is his style of man-to-man defense. That's a big change from the zones used by former coach Frank Haith.
"It was a transition from high school to coach Haith because I played man my whole life," Scott said. "It's something I've been preaching my whole life. You take more pride in keeping that player under a certain amount of points; you get so much of a better feeling."
Sophomore guard Jason Morris of Georgia Tech said it's a relief not to face the speculation about the fate of former coach Paul Hewitt.
"The kind of attention we were getting last year was almost a distraction," Morris said. "This year everybody's excited to get out there and shock the world, basically. Last year there was nothing we could do; there was no drowning out all those voices.
"We have this fresh start; it's up to us to go out there and make a statement and direct the program in the direction that Georgia Tech is known for."
CAVS' SCOTT PLAYING FREELY: Virginia center Mike Scott said he is doing fine after surgery to clean out bone spurs in an ankle. He played in nine games last season but the pain got to be so much he was unable to finish the season. He was granted another season of eligibility.
"Laterally I'm moving quicker, sliding quicker, more active, more explosive," he said. "There's no fear; I'm just playing freely."
Scott said he acted as a teacher as much as he could while on the sideline last season, but it wasn't easy.
"I wanted to be out there with them, especially when they struggled," he said. "It was a very humbling experience, I hated watching whether we were winning or losing. It was killing me inside."
Scott and point guard Jontel Evans have decided not to cut their hair during the season.
"I don't think that's a distraction, our hair," Scott said. "If our hair is a distraction, then we've got more problems than that."
Teammate Sammy Zeglinski, whose hair is closely cropped, said he won't be joining them.
"I like to keep a fresher look," he said.
FAST BREAKS: Boston College has 11 new players - nine freshmen plus a transfer and a graduate student. Said freshman center Dennis Clifford: "We're the underdog but that's kind of where I want to be right now. It really makes us work harder and a lot of the guys have a chip on their shoulder in practice. It makes a lot of us get better each and every day."
Junior guard C.J. Harris of Wake Forest has been to the NCAA Tournament and suffered through an 8-24 season. "I've been in the top half of the ACC, I've been in the bottom half of the ACC. So I know what to expect and what we need to do as a team to get to the top half. I can help them (freshmen) understand exactly how hard we have to work to get to that point."
Tanner Smith, senior guard at Clemson, said the Tigers reversed a trend last season. "We had kind of a `Clemson curse' on us where we would always start real strong and then we'd tank at the end. Last year it was the opposite - we were tanking at the beginning and took off at the end. This year hopefully we can improve through the year and have a really solid season."
Injuries cut Virginia Tech's roster down to seven healthy scholarship players at one point last season. Now the Hokies are back to full strength, and junior guard Erick Green said that makes practice better. "We have 11-12 players now. It feels way different than having seven players because you can practice and get after it. We couldn't go full contact because we were afraid somebody else was going to get hurt."
This is the senior season for Miami guard Malcolm Grant. "I want to go out with a bang, win as many games as possible, and I want to go to the (NCAA) tournament. I have high expectations for myself. Last year I was truly blessed to be third team All-ACC but this year I want to be first team, I want to be first team all-defense and I want to be player of the year. I know a lot of people might say that's a big statement but that's the pressure I put on myself and I'm going to push myself every day to do that."
North Carolina junior John Henson can't wait to watch his sister, 6-4 freshman Amber Henson, play basketball - even if it's for rival Duke. "She's playing in a scrimmage this weekend and I'm going to be over there, maybe wear a disguise. That works for a little bit and then people are like `who is that?' and they'll see my face. That's the best (place) for her, so I support it."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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