Duke is considered by many to be the favorites to win the improved ACC. Miami will take a step back, but new teams Pittsburg, Notre Dame and Syracuse will join a talented conference that already featured Duke, UNC, Virginia and Maryland. In my eyes, there are really only four teams with the chance to win the ACC title, even though the chances may be slim. The three teams, besides Duke, with a chance to win the ACC are Notre Dame, North Carolina and Syracuse.
Notre Dame has the chance to pull of a Miami-type season, due to their extremely talented backcourt of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant. Duke has struggled in the past against teams with talented backcourts and Notre Dame certainly has one (Scary game for Duke January 4th). For Notre Dame to become a true ACC title contender, their frontcourt will need to step up. They lose Jack Cooley from last years team, and players like Cameron Biedscheid, Garrick Sherman and Zach Auguste will need to fill the void. They do not have the senior big men that Miami had, but they have senior leadership in the starting guards. While Notre Dame may be a tough match up for Duke, they do not seem to have the consistency in the frontcourt to win consistently. While Notre Dame will have a good year, they need an unrealistic improvement from their frontcourt to win the ACC.
North Carolina also has a chance to win the ACC, but this is a team Duke matches up well against. UNC does not have a superior ball handler who can attack Duke's potentially poor perimeter defense. Marcus Paige is talented, but can not attack the rim with consistency. The play of James McAdoo and PJ Hairston will give UNC a chance in all games, but they will need other players to step up. Like Duke, UNC has no clear option at center. This is great for Duke, as UNC can not attack Duke's biggest two weaknesses. UNC has the talented to make a run at the ACC title, but they will need to beat Duke at least once to win it. While that may be possible, I do not think they have the type of talent to beat Duke.
The last and most likely team to beat Duke for the ACC title, is newcomer Syracuse. They lost three key pieces from last years Final Four team, Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche and James Southerland, but still field a talented team. Syracuse biggest strength is their frontcourt, which consists of talented forwards CJ Fair, Rakeem Christmas, and Jerami Grant. Their frontcourt will lead a very talented zone defense, but will rely on CJ Fair for offense. Their backcourt, a strength last season, is a little less secure. They will be forced to rely on unproven guards Tyler Ennis, Trevor Cooney, and Ex-Duke Michael Gbinije. Duke should be able to beat the zone, with shooting and Jabari Parker in the high post (more on this matchup in another article), but may have a tough time winning in the tough Carrier Dome. Syracuse is the team who will give Duke a serious run at the ACC title, and the race could come down to the finish.
In the end, I still expect Duke to win the ACC title. While Notre Dame or North Carolina could emerge, I expect it to come down to Duke and Syracuse. Unless Duke endures a serious injury, I believe they have the leg up to win the ACC, and anything less may be considered a disappointment. Expect February 1st at the Carrier Dome and February 22nd at Cameron Indoor to play huge roles in deciding the ACC Champion. Duke is extremely talented, but play in a very tough ACC that will make them work to win the league championship.