CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- With a Hall of Fame coach, a returning Final Four MVP and one of the nation's top freshmen, defending national champion Duke was an easy pick as the preseason favorite in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Blue Devils earned 61 of a possible 62 first-place votes in ballots cast by media members at the league's Operation Basketball preseason event Wednesday. It marked the third time in six years and the 13th time overall that the Blue Devils were at least the co-favorite to win the league.
Duke figures to have a different look from the team that won 35 games and its ninth ACC tournament title in 12 years before edging Butler in the NCAA title game. The Blue Devils are replacing veteran leaders Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas with guys like freshman point guard Kyrie Irving and transfer Seth Curry, but the expectations are the same.
"Our program has had that," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It's not like you're moving from the basement to the penthouse. If it's a 19-floor building, you're on the 17th or 18th floor. You just have to enjoy being in that. ... Our program, our fans are accustomed to having the target on their backs. I'd rather have it there than not have it there."
The return of Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith are big reasons why the Blue Devils are such a favorite. Singler was most outstanding player at the Final Four before returning for his senior season instead of entering the NBA draft, while Smith averaged 17 points as part of the high-scoring "Big Three" along with Scheyer.
Singler was the preseason choice as ACC player of the year, while Smith joined Singler on the five-man all-ACC team with Virginia Tech's Malcolm Delaney,
North Carolina State Wolfpack's Tracy Smith and Florida State's Chris Singleton.
"I think this group is definitely ready to embrace" expectations, Duke's Smith said. "We have a very confident group that's ready to be in the spotlight and ... go after every team as if they're the defending champs. We want to attack other teams, not be attacked."
Yet, while the attention has typically focuses on Duke and rival North Carolina, Delaney and the Hokies were picked to finish second behind the Blue Devils. Virginia Tech (25-9) returns all five starters from a team that finished tied for third in the league last year, with Delaney leading the ACC in scoring at 20 points per game.
The lofty prediction comes despite losing valuable reserve J.T. Thompson to a season-ending knee injury, while Florida transfer Allan Chaney likely won't play as he's evaluated following a viral infection in his heart.
"We've been through a lot," Delaney said. "Once you look at what we've overcome and all that stuff, it makes you a stronger team. A lot of teams don't get to go through that kind of stuff, so we've kind of got an advantage."
North Carolina, coming off a 20-17 season that was its worst under Roy Williams, was picked to finish third and received the only other first-place vote. The Tar Heels also had the preseason rookie of the year in freshman forward Harrison Barnes, the nation's top recruit who chose North Carolina over Duke and other schools in a fierce recruiting fight.
Right behind the Tar Heels was North Carolina State, a program expected to contend for an NCAA tournament berth in its fifth season under Sidney Lowe thanks to Tracy Smith's return and the addition a top recruiting class.
But while the nearby "Triangle" rivals were all picked to finish in the top third of the league, Williams said there's a significant gap between Duke and the other two teams.
"Personally, I don't think that North Carolina or North Carolina State -- and this is no blow to Sidney -- are at the level where Duke is," Williams said. "I don't think there's anybody in the country now that's at the level where Duke is. They've got guys who have done it. How many times do you see the guy who wins MVP at the Final Four come back" to school?
Florida State was picked to finish fifth, followed by Maryland, Clemson, Miami, Georgia Tech, Boston College, Virginia and Wake Forest. Three of the schools in that bottom half have hired new coaches in Clemson's Brad Brownell (Wright State), Boston College's Steve Donahue (Cornell) and Wake Forest's Jeff Bzdelik (Colorado).
Donahue jokingly suggested that the rest of the league should take it easy on him this year.
"Be nice, right?" he said. "There's no hazing in this league for first-year guys. Let me get my feet under me."