If N.C. State's going to jump from the bottom of the ACC basketball standings to the top, the Wolfpack will have to do so against the toughest conference schedule.
The details — dates and order of opponents — have yet to be finalized, but under the three-year schedule rotation, the Wolfpack has two games each against Duke, Florida State and Clemson during the 2010-11 season, in addition to the annual home-and-home games with rivals North Carolina and Wake Forest.
At 5-11 in the ACC last season, N.C. State finished in 11th place. With an influx of new talent — three five-star recruits — the Wolfpack is expected to make a significant jump in coach Sidney Lowe's fifth season. State will have to do so with eight games against four teams expected to be in the top half of the league. The Wolfpack is the only ACC team that has to play both UNC and Duke twice.
Duke, national champions in 2010, will be the prohibitive favorite to repeat as ACC champions with the return of stars Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and the addition of guards Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry.
By virtue, the five ACC teams that face the Blue Devils twice, have a tougher schedule than the other six conference teams. State did beat Duke in their only meeting this season, an 88-74 win in Raleigh, but the schools have played twice in the same season only once in Lowe's first four seasons, a Duke sweep in 2007-08.
State also has to play four games against two teams that have owned Lowe in his first four seasons. Clemson, under first-year coach Brad Brownell, will look to continue its recent mastery of the Wolfpack (5-1 since 2006-07).
UNC only won five ACC games last year but two were at the Wolfpack's expense. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams is 14-1 against State, with an 8-1 mark against Lowe.
On the flip side, State doesn't get many games against the teams projected to be at the bottom of the ACC. Virginia, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest all figure to be in transitional or rebuilding seasons and State only gets to face one team (Wake) from that group twice.
Even worse, the only time State will face UVa or BC — a pair of teams that enter the summer with 12 scholarship players between them — is on the road. On paper, the only good news is State doesn't have to play Maryland twice. Terps coach Gary Williams is 7-0 against Lowe.
There will be surprise teams, and surprise results, in the 2010-11 season — no one predicted UNC's collapse a summer ago — but in general, the less you see Duke, FSU and Virginia Tech, the better the schedule. The more you see UVa, Wake, GT or BC, the better the schedule.
The big winner in the schedule model figures to be Virginia Tech. The Hokies, with five starters back from a 10-6 ACC team, get two games each with UVa, BC, Georgia Tech and Wake. Plus, the Hokies don't have to travel to Duke or Florida State (and don't have to worry about stopping Malcolm Delaney).
Georgia Tech, a poor man's version of UNC without its two best players and zero post depth, and FSU, which returns eight of its top 10 scorers, also have favorable schedules on paper.
Virginia, with five returning scholarship players, and Wake Forest, which has a new coach and overhauled roster, also have tougher schedules.
Here's how each team's ACC schedule breaks down (with potential ACC wins in parenthesis):
Duke (14 to 16)
Twice: UNC, Md, Miami, State, UVa
Home only: BC, Clem, GT
Road only: FSU, VT, Wake
Bottom line: Between the road games at FSU and VT, there's likely a stumble and you figure Carolina will be motivated (at least once) to pay back the humiliation of a 32-point beatdown. Given the Blue Devils' depth, experience and talent — and the problems with the rest of the league — an unbeaten record is not out of the question.
Virginia Tech (11 or 12)
Twice: UVa, BC, GT, Md, Wake
Home only: Duke, FSU, Miami
Road only: Clem, UNC, State
Bottom line: If Seth Greenberg goes less than 8-2 against the teams VT plays twice, he should call St. John's and beg for a job as a janitor. A 3-3 split with the other six games puts the Hokies at 11-5.
Twice: Miami, Clem, UNC, State, Wake
Home only: BC, Duke, UVa
Road only: GT, Md, VT
Bottom line: The Noles have posted back-to-back 10 win seasons. Leonard Hamilton will find six losses in this group, even though the talent exceeds the challenges on the schedule.
Maryland (8 to 10)
Twice: Duke, UVa, BC, VT, Wake
Home only: Clem, FSU, State
Road only: GT, Miami, UNC
Bottom line: If last season taught us anything it's don't sell Gary Williams short. If another coach lost the ACC player of the year and three senior starters, they'd sink but Williams continues to make chicken salad out of lightly regarded rosters (see last year's 13-3 record).
UNC (8 to 10)
Twice: Duke, N.C. State, BC, Clem, FSU
Home only: Md, VT, Wake
Road only: GT, Miami, UVa
Bottom line: After last year's disaster, the only safe assumption is to take the one guaranteed win on this schedule (I'm confident you'll find it) and split the other 15 games — giving the hall-of-fame coach with the No. 1 recruit in the country the benefit of the doubt. That adds up to a 9-7 mark.
N.C. State (8 to 10)
Twice: UNC, Wake, Clem, Duke, FSU
Home only: GT, Miami, VT
Road only: BC, Md, UVa
Bottom line: Even with an heroic 5-5 split against the first group, it would take a sweep of Maryland and Virginia Tech, which won by 20 at the RBC Center last season, to get past the 10-win barrier. C.J. Leslie, Ryan Harrow and Lorenzo Brown would need to be Wall-Bledsoe-Cousins, Part II to win more than 10 ACC games.
Clemson (7 or 8)
Twice: GT, FSU, Miami, UNC, N.C. State
Home only: BC, VT, Wake
Road only: Duke, Md, UVa
Bottom line: New coaches usually out-kick their coverage in the first season but most take over a program below Clemson's current level. Clemson won nine games with Trevor Booker last season. The big man was worth at least one win.
Miami (7 to 9)
Twice: BC, FSU, Clem, Duke, GT
Home only: Md, UNC, UVa
Road only: State, VT, Wake
Bottom line: The Canes found a star at the ACC tournament in sophomore guard Durand Scott and have enough quality role players to double last year's four-win total. The schedule won't make that easy, though.
GT (5 to 7)
Twice: Clem, Wake, Miami, UVa, VT
Home only: FSU, Md, UNC
Road only: BC, Duke, State
Bottom line: That Paul Hewitt won only seven ACC games with Derrick Favors is criminal. With a guard-heavy, and what surely will be the league's most annoying lineup, he could illogically match that total this season because of this schedule — which Gary Williams would win 12 games against with Sean Mosley, Jordan Williams and a box of crayons.
BC (4 to 6)
Twice: Miami, VT, Md, UNC, UVa
Home only: GT, State, Wake
Road only: Clem, Duke, FSU
Bottom line: The Eagles are going to play up-tempo and shoot a ton of 3-pointers under coach Steve Donahue. That's going to work in the long run for the Eagles but not this season with limited outside options (and limited inside ones, too).
Virginia (4 to 6)
Twice: VT, Md, BC, Duke, GT
Home only: Clem, UNC, State
Road only: FSU, Miami, Wake
Bottom line: Tony Bennett's second season is his first with his players but unless freshmen K.T. Harrell and James Johnson are clones of Derrick Low and Aron Baynes, the type of success Bennett experienced with those players at Washington State, will have to wait.
Wake Forest (3 to 5)
Twice: GT, State, FSU, Md, VT
Home only: Duke, Miami, UVa
Road only: BC, Clem, UNC
Bottom line: Jeff Bzdelik took over a rebuilding project at Colorado in 2007 and won three games. Jeff Bzdelik takes over a rebuilding project at Wake in 2010 and ...