As Part I of The Sports Blog's ACC preview—in coordination with the release of our mammoth ACC basketball supplement, which hits newstands today—The Chronicle breaks down the best teams outside the ACC, including the ones Duke will tangle with.
Contenders: Michigan State should remain among the Big Ten elite, and could be a legitimate Final Four contender if junior Raymar Morgan finally lives up to the hype. More important to their success, though, will be how the No. 6 Spartans deal with the departure of star guard Drew Neitzel.... Despite the loss of both Brian Butch and Michael Flowers, No. 25 Wisconsin is expected to challenge for the Big 10 crown, as well. Junior guard Trevon Hughes is the Badgers' top returning scorer.
Surprise: While it might be startling given their success last season, look for No. 11 Purdue to sneak up on teams this year, led by its sophomore core of E'Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel.
Duke Impact: The Blue Devils will face Purdue on the road for a tough early test. Duke also takes on a rebuilding Michigan team in the second year of the John Beilein era.
Contenders: Traditional power Connecticut, the No. 2 team in the country, will challenge for the national title this season behind senior guard A.J. Price and 7-foot-3 junior Hasheem Thabeet.... No. 3 Louisville will also contend for a No. 1 seed in the Tournament under head coach Rick Pitino and junior guard Edgar Sosa.... Keep an eye out for No. 5 Pittsburgh, No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 16 Marquette in this loaded conference.
Surprise: Despite the loss of Roy Hibbert, Georgetown has reloaded with freshman center Greg Monroe and sophomore guards Chris Wright and Austin Freeman. Junior DaJuan Summers led the No. 22 Hoyas with 11 points per game last season.
Duke Impact: Duke's matchup with Georgetown is one of the marquee games of the non-conference schedule, and could provide an early benchmark for the Blue Devils' national championship hopes.
Contenders: Sophomore Blake Griffin returns for No. 12 Oklahoma after averaging 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per game last season. Griffin was named to the preseason All-American squad, and he could be a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate. Freshman guard Willie Warren should provide the Sooners with a boost.... One might expect a drop-off at Texas after losing Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin in consecutive years, but the No. 7 Longhorns return a plethora of young talent on the wings. The frontcourt, led by senior Connor Atchley, could be a weakness.
Surprise: It may seem strange to label the defending national champions a surprise team, but after being decimated by the NBA draft, No. 24 Kansas should still compete in the Big 12 thanks to the return of junior Sherron Collins and sophomore Cole Aldrich, along with the infusion of a top recruiting class.
Contenders: No. 4 UCLA will have to overcome the loss of top-10 NBA draft picks Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook to remain atop the Pac-10, but the return of senior point guard Darren Collison, a potential All-American, should do the trick.... USC also has to replace a top draft pick in O.J. Mayo, but junior forward Taj Gibson provides a powerful presence down low, and newcomer DeMar DeRozan could make up for Mayo's lost offense for the No. 18 Trojans.
Surprise: After narrowly missing an NCAA Tournament berth, a motivated Arizona State team could make a run for the Pac-10 title this season. Sophomore guard James Harden could be one of the best players in the country after a strong summer, and the rest of last year's core returns to make another Tournament run for the No. 15 Sun Devils.
Contenders: Despite the loss of star Chris Lofton, No. 14 Tennessee still ranks among the SEC's best. The core of juniors Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince remains intact, and Smith could be an All-American candidate this season. A strong recruiting class could lead to a quick rebuilding process.... The biggest news for LSU this offseason was the addition of former Stanford head coach Trent Johnson, but the first-year leader will return a strong nucleus, including four starters from last year. Tasmin Mitchell and Chris Johnson should dominate the frontcourt for the Tigers.
Surprise: Part of the SEC's recent downturn can be attributed to the struggles of historical power Kentucky, but the Wildcats could contend for an NCAA Tournament bid this season. The team returns two of its top four scorers in sophomore Patrick Patterson and junior Jodie Meeks.
Contenders: After being seconds away from an NCAA title, No. 13 Memphis should easily remain atop Conference USA this season. The Tigers quickly replaced No. 1 pick Derrick Rose with another top freshman, Tyreke Evans, and return seniors Robert Dozier and Antonio Anderson to lead the attack this season.... Don't expect perennial Cinderella Gonzaga to sneak up on anyone anymore. The Bulldogs return their core from last season, including leading scorer Matt Bouldin. The key for the No. 9 Zags, though, will be how stars sophomore Austin Daye and senior Josh Heytvelt return from summer injuries.
Surprise: The return of sophomore point guard Patty Mills alone should propel Saint Mary's into the NCAA Tournament. Mills starred on the Australian Olympic team this summer, and was stellar against NBA point guards like Team USA's Chris Paul.
Duke Impact: A majority of Duke's non-conference schedule comes from teams outside the major conferences, but in no way did the Blue Devils take the easy way out. The biggest matchup will be against last year's NCAA Tournament darling, No. 20 Davidson and its star guard, Stephen Curry. Duke also will face a solid Xavier squad led by junior forward Derrick Brown in East Rutherford, N.J. Dec. 20.
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