CHARLOTTE, N.C.—With five starters back from a team that came within minutes of reaching the Final Four, North Carolina is starting a season of high expectations as a big favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Tar Heels were picked to finish first on 57 of 59 ballots from media members during Wednesday's ACC Operation Basketball event and had the top three vote-getters on the all-ACC preseason team, including unanimous pick and ACC player of the year Harrison Barnes.
It wasn't a surprise that the Tar Heels were such a big favorite. They won 29 games and the ACC regular-season title before falling a game short of the Final Four by losing to Kentucky in a game that was tied less than 3 1/2 minutes left. Barnes opted to return to school for his sophomore season over becoming a high first-round NBA draft pick, while fellow all-ACC picks John Henson and Tyler Zeller also passed on an early jump to the NBA in favor of another run at the national championship.
North Carolina is the first team to have three players chosen to the preseason all-ACC squad since Duke with Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy before the 2001-02 season. It also marked the fifth time in six years the Tar Heels were at least tied for first in the preseason ballot.
"We should be good this year. I have no problem with saying that," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "I'd rather be picked No. 1 than I had 346th."
Barnes struggled to live up to high expectations early in his freshman season, getting off to a slow start as the Tar Heels looked lost in January. But Barnes got rolling with a series of clutch late-game shooting performances as the Tar Heels won 17 of 19 to end the regular season and chase down Duke for the ACC crown.
Barnes, a 6-foot-8 forward, finished a point behind Zeller for the team scoring lead and averaged 15.7 points. He seems far more relaxed with all the attention and expectations a year later.
"My biggest thing is just going out there and playing consistently," Barnes said. "I definitely have a bigger chip on my shoulder after last year, losing to Kentucky and being so close to the Final Four. Right now I'm just hungry and ready to go."
Duke was picked to finish second and received the other two first-place votes despite losing veteran scorers Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler as well as Kyrie Irving, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft despite playing just one injury-shortened season for Mike Krzyzewski. Junior guard Seth Curry was also voted to the all-ACC team while freshman guard Austin Rivers was voted rookie of the year for the Blue Devils, who beat the Tar Heels in last year's ACC tournament final to win the event for the 10th time in 13 years.
When asked about UNC, Krzyzewski said, "Quite frankly I don't look at other teams right now. I haven't studied UNC. And I don't make comparisons between past teams. I don't do that to my own teams. I know who UNC is returning. We're trying to build our team right now, how I think we can be best."
Krzyzewski enters the season with 900 career victories, three shy of passing Bobby Knight for the all-time men's Division I record.
"That's a great thing that we know coach has gone through just about everything," Duke junior forward Ryan Kelly said. "So why not listen to what he says? There's no reason not to hear what he says and believe it."
Florida State was picked third, which is where the Seminoles have finished in each of the past two seasons. Next came Virginia, Miami, Virginia Tech, Clemson, North Carolina State, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Boston College.
Miami's Malcolm Grant and Virginia's Mike Scott also made the all-ACC team. Curry and Scott tied for the final spot.