College basketball season is almost here, and those who are starving for hoops will have their cravings satisfied in a few weeks.  As talking heads reveal their picks to make postseason runs into late March and early April, it’s fun to look at conferences as a whole and see how they’ll fit into the college basketball landscape come tournament time.

 
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Each league has its own story, and a group of teams can have success for a litany of reasons. The Big East, for instance, is not known for having flashy names. However, through veteran-laden lineups and solid head coaches, 60 percent of the conference made the NCAA tournament a year ago. The Big 12 had seven teams make the dance in 2014-15, tied for the most of any conference, and its squads had offensive firepower that made them an exhilarating watch night in, and night out.

And then there was the ACC, which served as your token ‘one size fits all’ as far as conferences go. Duke won the title with a few dominant freshmen and some veterans sprinkled in. North Carolina was young and talented, but lacked overwhelming star power. The Virginia Cavaliers were the resident ‘tough guys’ of the ACC, clowning opposing offenses and slowing the game down to fit their personnel.

Once again, the ACC looks like an outstanding league going to 2015-16, with three programs having legitimate title hopes and several others lurking in sleeper territory. Here are seven questions that will define the ACC this upcoming year.

Is this North Carolina’s year to usurp Duke in the standings?

North Carolina hasn’t finished ahead of Duke in the ACC standings since 2011-12, but they have a prime chance to buck that trend this season. Carolina returns its top four scorers from a year ago in Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Justin Jackson. Losing J.P. Tokoto hurts, but replacing him with Theo Pinson could end up being a net positive for the Tar Heels.

And then there’s Duke, who lost a whole lot of capable dudes to the NBA. Its top four scorers are all gone, but once again, Mike Krzyzewski has recruited a star-studded freshman class to fill important voids in the lineup. Freshman forward Brandon Ingram, specifically, might be the most talented player in the ACC.

Also, get excited for Grayson Allen doing this in 30-plus games this season; not just the two most important games of the season.

This should be the year Carolina beats Duke in the ACC. But if that doesn’t happen, would anyone be shocked?

Speaking of Duke, who emerges as the ‘go-to guy?’

Ingram is supremely talented, and at first glance, he would seem like a logical choice to become Duke’s alpha dog, as Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor were as freshmen.

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But Ingram’s value primarily comes on the defensive end of the floor, and he isn’t as much of a shot creator as someone like Parker. He’s certainly a capable offensive player; he has feathery touch on his jumper and elite athleticism. Proof:

With that said, Allen or freshman point guard Derryck Thornton could wind up leading the Blue Devils in scoring, with Ingram taking on more of a Justise Winslow role from last season.

Duke will likely hum on offense as they always do, but a low post hub like Okafor ‘ain’t walking through that door,’ as the saying goes. The Blue Devils will have to get creative if they want to be as efficient on offense as they were last season.

How will the 30-second shot clock affect Virginia?

The Cavaliers play at a snail’s pace, and they have been notorious in recent years for milking all 35 seconds of the shot clock to wear out opposing defenses.

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A common perception is that Virginia struggles to score, but that’s not necessarily true. Tony Bennett’s squad ranked 32nd in the country in offensive efficiency a year ago, and it's trendy to suggest that the shortened clock should hurt the Cavs. But is that really the case?

Virginia can score; they just choose to slow the game down as much as possible. The defense, led by backcourt pests London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon, should be even tougher to crack for foes with five less seconds to operate. Yes, adjusted pace helped Virginia’s total points allowed on defense last year (they allowed 51.5, the stingiest in the country), but not significantly. The Hoos still finished second in defensive efficiency. Bottom line: scoring on this team is a chore in any style of play. Expect to see some really ugly shots fired up against the Cavaliers this season.

Can Demetrius Jackson put up the numbers Jerian Grant did at Notre Dame?

On the surface, this seems like a ridiculous question. Grant averaged 16.5 points, 6.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game last season, and was probably the best all-around guard in the country. Meanwhile, Jackson was Notre Dame’s fourth-leading scorer.

But dig into the numbers a bit, and it’s not so crazy. Jackson will certainly have plenty of opportunities on offense this season with Grant and Pat Connaughton out of the picture, and he’s a wildly efficient offensive player. A quick exercise: which player would you rather have leading your team in field goal attempts?

Player A: 47.8 FG %, 31.6 3P FG %, 78.0 FT %
Player B: 50.8 FG %, 42.9 3P FG%, 74.5 FT %

Player A's stats are Grant's from 2014-15; Player B's are Jackson’s. The jet-quick point guard’s efficiency numbers will probably drop a bit this season, but if he has the ball in his hands as much as Grant did last year, don’t be surprised if Jackson puts up Grant-like numbers. If not better.

How many ACC squads will make the NCAA tournament?

As of now, five schools look like locks: Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Miami. North Carolina State probably belongs in that bunch, too, but losing Trevor Lacey is huge. Cat Barber should be able to shoulder the offensive load for the Wolfpack, but there is one major concern: his rapping skills are suboptimal at best. Thus, they are not considered a shoe-in.

In all seriousness, N.C. State looks like a good bet to make the tournament, but is a notch below those five teams at the moment. Elsewhere, Louisville loses virtually everyone from last year’s team, and Syracuse and Pitt have a wide range of possible outcomes. Expect one or two of those squads to go make the NCAA tournament, so seven or eight bids for the ACC sounds reasonable.

Who is a player from a lesser-known team that is a must-watch?

Florida State point guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, because wow:

With stud freshman Dwayne Bacon joining Rathan-Mayes in Tallahassee this season, the Seminoles should be awfully fun to watch.

Which point guard will separate himself from the pack?

The ACC is loaded with quality point guards. Jackson is a sneaky ACC Player of the Year candidate, and Paige is a, well, not-so-sneaky ACC Player of the Year candidate. Put Barber’s lackluster rapping skills aside, and it’s possible that he averages 15/5/5 this season.  Rathan-Mayes can absolutely fill it up, and though Perrantes will never put up the numbers that these guys will, he’s a defensive menace whose value is impossible to quantify.

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All of these guys are excellent point guards. But if one (or several) can take the proverbial ‘leap,’ it could do wonders for their team’s conference championship dreams.