UNC picked to finish first in ACC race

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- It didn't take much coaxing to get Rashanda McCants to flash her familiar smile -- only a simple question about her new role as the top scoring threat at up-tempo North Carolina.

"We're going to be a fast-breaking team," McCants said Wednesday, "so hopefully all my shots are layups."

Yes, North Carolina's leading scorer was relaxed and right at home in Greensboro, and for good reason: Lately, the Tar Heels have been impossible to beat here, winning four straight ACC tournaments at the arena across town.

Now, after their perfect year in league play, they're the favorites to keep it up.

North Carolina was the preseason pick to claim its fifth straight league title, receiving 15 of 42 first-place votes by the ACC's panel of reporters and school representatives in voting results released during the league's media day.

And although Erlana Larkins and LaToya Pringle have moved on, the Tar Heels don't expect much of a dropoff. One year after she averaged a team-best 15.8 points, the sister of NBA guard Rashad McCants is ready to keep making a name for herself.

"I don't think it's any pressure, because I've been preparing for it for four years," McCants said. "I've had advice from Camille (Little), Ivory (Latta), Erlana and LaToya. It's kind of a passing of the torch. You learn from the others, and you take what they've given you and you run with it. What I'm trying to do now is embrace our freshmen and sophomores so we can pass the torch to the next person."

North Carolina went 14-0 in league play, hasn't lost to an ACC team since March 2007 and is coming off an upset loss to LSU as a No. 1 seed in the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament that left the Tar Heels 33-3.

This season, coach Sylvia Hatchell's team was chosen first again, followed by Maryland and Duke -- making it five straight years in which these group of those schools were 1-2-3 in the preseason poll.

"The conference this season has a lot of depth, when you look at the success that we've been having in the postseason," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "You look at the teams like Virginia and Florida State and Georgia Tech, I do feel like we're continuing to have even more and more parity within the conference."

While those names haven't changed, some of the more visible faces have.

Four all-ACC players are gone -- Crystal Langhorne of Maryland, NC State's Khadijah Whittington, and Larkins and Pringle -- while preseason player of the year Kristi Toliver of Maryland is the only returning all-conference first-teamer. Toliver joined teammate Marissa Coleman on the preseason all-ACC team, along with McCants, Duke's Chante Black and Virginia's Monica Wright.

"There is a little bit of a changing of the guard in terms of the feature players -- the front of the conference media guide, those players," said coach Mike Petersen, whose Wake Forest team was picked to finish last.

"Whether there's a changing of the guard in terms of the top and the middle and the bottom of the conference … those are hindsight things. I think that there's an opportunity for that. Now who's going to take advantage of that opportunity? That's a whole different deal."