CHARLOTTE — Surrounded by two dozen reporters on the second floor of the Ritz-Carlton in Charlotte on Wednesday, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski didn’t deflect questions about the high expectations surrounding his team.
After all, when it comes to the Blue Devils, those expectations are a regular occurrence.
“You’ll probably never write an article about us exceeding expectations,” Krzyzewski said at the ACC’s preseason media day. “… .This group has never been picked No. 1, but our school has, our program has, and you have to remember that nobody has seen anybody yet (this season).”
Loaded with a mix of veteran and freshmen talent, the Blue Devils enter the season as the top-ranked team in the nation — and the favorites to win the ACC ahead of North Carolina and Virginia. Duke earned 85 of 91 first-place votes in voting by league media members.
Boasting the top recruiting class in the country, including Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Frank Jackson and Marques Bolden, the Blue Devils bring back a solid group of returners in Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones and preseason player of the year Grayson Allen.
And Krzyzewski knows those veterans will teach the highly-touted youngsters how the Blue Devils deal with the national title chatter.
“I’d rather deal with the end of the journey, see if we can get there, and not worry about all these things,” Krzyzewski said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t want to win. We want to win everything. We want to be great. But we really want to be worthy of winning at the end. To me, it’s plain as day. And I’m hungry to do it with my group — I’ve got a great group of kids. Let’s go.”
North Carolina, who swept the league’s regular-season and tournament titles last year, earned six first-place votes to finish ahead of Virginia in the voting. Louisville was picked to finish fourth, followed by Syracuse, N.C. State, Notre Dame, Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Boston College.
Welcoming back six contributors from last season’s national runner-up squad, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams looks for that group to respond to the challenge of stepping in as the main contributors this season in the absence of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson.
Point guard Joel Berry II, selected to the preseason all-ACC first team, figures to lead that group of returners.
“It’s a good group I’m working with,” Williams said. “I stole (Louisville coach) Rick Pitino’s line and said, ‘Guys, Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige are not going to walk through that door. You’ve got to do it.’
“That’s the whole thing about our team. We had six guys that played a lot of basketball for us last year that were complementary players. …every game we played last year, everybody was focused on Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, and can Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, Nate Britt and all those guys handle it when the attention is focused on them.”
Theo Pinson, another returner expected to play a key role for the Tar Heels, had foot surgery on Wednesday, but Williams didn’t have a timetable for the swingman’s return. The school announced last week that Pinson was out indefinitely after suffering a broken bone in his right foot in practice.
For N.C. State, head coach Mark Gottfried quietly assembled one of the most talented rosters in the league, led by preseason rookie of the year Dennis Smith Jr., who Gottfried called “the face of the team this year.” The freshman point guard, along with forward Abdul-Malik Abu headline a group looking to get back to the NCAA tournament.
“This group is pretty hungry,” Gottfried said. “I think our practices every day have been great. We have more depth right now than we’ve had, which means our practices are more competitive. I think our guys are fighting for playing time a little bit more than they have in the past. I think that’s always a good thing for players.”
As the team projected to finish fourth out of the “Big Four” in the state, Wake Forest will also be looking for new faces to help its chances of making greater strides in coach Danny Manning’s third season. Manning said he plans to “incorporate six new players” into the mix. Sophomore Bryant Crawford, the team’s top returner, along with transfer Keyshawn Woods look to lead Wake Forest in a positive direction.
“We’re excited about bringing in this new blood,” Manning said. “. …we’re excited about this team. We feel like this is the most skilled players we’ve had in our three years, and we’re looking forward to taking some steps forward in our journey.”
Virginia’s London Perrantes and Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame joined Allen, Berry II and Smith Jr. on the preseason all-ACC first team. The second team consisted of Tatum, UNC’s Justin Jackson, Syracuse’s Tyler Lydon, FSU’s Dwayne Bacon and Pitt’s Michael Young.
“I was an assistant coach in the ACC when it was seven (teams). This is a whole different ballgame out there right now.” — UNC coach Roy Williams on the strength of the ACC.
“It’s like internet dating or something. Until you see the real person, you know, we can create a big, nice picture of who we’re supposed to be.” — Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski on preseason predictions.
“(Virginia Tech coach) Buzz (Williams) has helped me realize that in seven months, eight months, I’m going to need a job.” — Virginia Tech guard Seth Allen on his maturity as a student-athlete
“I think it will be an exceptional experience for our fans. …I think it will be outstanding. But it will be different for people because it’s a first.” — ACC Commissioner John Swofford on New York City hosting the 2017 and 2018 ACC Tournaments.
“I don’t like the fact right now that there’s some sort of negative connotation about North Carolina, and people speak about it in a negative way because of that rule, so I’d like to see it changed.” — N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried on HB2
Rodd Baxley can be reached on Twitter @RoddBaxley.