With league play beginning this weekend, the ACC is a league looking for a team to challenge the Duke Blue Devils.
Duke has separated itself from the rest of the league not only by playing the toughest schedule, but by winning. But as I wrote Thursday, as good as the Blue Devils have been, they still have some remaining questions -- which makes the search for the league's No. 2 team and top challenger to Duke that much more intriguing.
The Maryland Terrapins look like they have a chance to be special, as Alex Len and Dez Wells give them a dynamic two-man combination. But their soft schedule still leaves plenty of questions as they enter conference play. The Miami (FL) Hurricanes still have the potential to compete for an upper-division finish, but they've struggled with injuries. The North Carolina Tar Heels showed promise in beating UNLV, and are very talented, but they've had issues on defense and lack a dominant post presence. The Florida State Seminoles have had a hard time replacing the physical play of Bernard James and consistent guard play of Luke Loucks.
This process of elimination leads to a team that is on the rise, and now playing at an elite level: the North Carolina State Wolfpack. Based on how they've played their past five games, I think the Wolfpack are a legitimate challenger to Duke in the ACC.
I had concerns about NC State coming into the season, despite the fact it ended the season on a high note with a Sweet 16 run, and signed three McDonald's All-Americans en route to becoming the preseason pick to win the league. They justified my skepticism when they struggling out of the gate, exhibiting suspect shot selection and disinterested defensive play.
Team chemistry is built on trust, and the loss of three important role players who both embraced and championed their roles was harder for NC State to overcome than most realized. It took a disappointing loss to Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico and a dysfunctional first half against an elite Michigan team to wake up the Wolfpack, but Mark Gottfried once again has a tight seven-man rotation and a team poised to challenge for the conference title.
As league play begins, the Pack are playing their best basketball of the season. Their celebrated freshman class has a better understanding of the difference between playing hard and competing, and their upperclassmen are leading the way by playing at an elite level.
C.J. Leslie is averaging 20 points in the past five games, and once again leading the Wolfpack in scoring. That's a good thing, because the more engaged he is offensively, the more alert he is defensively. Lorenzo Brown struggled shooting the ball early in the season, which affected his floor game. But in the past five games, he is 28-for-46, and more importantly, has 35 assists to only 13 turnovers.
Scott Wood has averaged 14.4 points in his past five games, while making 15 of 33 3-pointers. He is catching the ball in rhythm and in the flow of the offense. Richard Howell has been the most consistent member of the upperclassmen, recording the best season of his career as the anchor of the frontcourt.
The only concerns I have for NC State is whether it can play through frontcourt foul trouble, and if the team will be committed on the defensive end for a full 40 minutes each game. But compared to how things looked when they left Puerto Rico, the Wolfpack are in a very good place -- in position to make a run at Duke for ACC supremacy.