Poll has Cavs, Tech chasing big fish

Be the handicapping elementary or advanced, the places of Virginia and Virginia Tech in this season's ACC basketball food chain seem clear.

The Cavaliers are plankton, defenseless and short-lived. The Hokies are piscivores, vulnerable to big-fish predators but more than capable of handling themselves against most.

Media — the lowest form of life? — attending the conference's annual preseason gabfest Sunday concurred. They picked Virginia last, by a wide margin, and Virginia Tech solidly in the middle at sixth.

The good news for the Hokies is they've bettered preseason forecasts in four of coach Seth Greenberg's five years. The good news for the Cavaliers is that last year's 12th-place pick, Miami, tied for fifth and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

So much for our handicapping skills.

But even before the ballots were tallied, Virginia senior guard Mamadi Diane was resigned to the results.

"It's not like it's surprising," he said. "We just know in the back of our heads that's what's expected of us."

Indeed, the Cavaliers face myriad hurdles, including an ACC in which nine teams return at least one all-conference player. Then consider that from last season's 10th-place squad, Virginia loses the graduated Sean Singletary, merely the fifth-leading scorer in program history.

Moreover, the Cavaliers' most energetic inside presence, Laurynas Mikalauskas, was dismissed from the team during the offseason, while projected point guard Calvin Baker of Newport News is shelved indefinitely with a stress fracture in his left foot.

"My whole focus is on him emotionally," Virginia coach Dave Leitao said of Baker. "If it's going to cost him a whole year, how to manage that."

Leitao is unsure whether Baker will need surgery. There's a chance Baker could return sooner rather than later, but Leitao sounded pessimistic.

"Unfortunately ... the hot spot is a place where you don't get much blood supply," he said, "and that makes the healing process slow."

Absent Baker, a junior transfer from William and Mary, Leitao is left with two freshmen at the point: Sammy Zeglinski played eight games as a reserve last year before sustaining an ankle injury and receiving a medical hardship; Sylven Landesberg, a McDonald's All-American last season, is more comfortable playing the wing.

Tally it up and you have a team that is without four its top five scorers from 2007-08, not to mention its leading rebounder and two best passers.

"We've got to create our own expectations," Leitao said. "The most important ingredient to the whole thing is, and I don't know this yet, is what's in their minds and what's in their souls."

Virginia was picked last three years ago, Leitao's first in Charlottesville, and finished a respectable 7-9 in the conference. A repeat this season would be impressive, but also the program's seventh losing ACC season in the last eight years.

So fluid and competitive is the conference that only two programs have finished above .500 in league play each of the last two years. North Carolina you knew, Virginia Tech maybe not.

But it's true, and a third consecutive winning ACC record should be forthcoming. Pistons draft choice Deron Washington is the only significant departure for a team that returns 81 percent of its scoring and 80 percent of its rebounding.

A.D. Vassallo, second-team all-ACC last season, and Malcolm Delaney are dependable on the perimeter, and center Jeff Allen, arguably the program's most gifted player, spent the offseason redefining his pudgy body and adjusting his occasionally disagreeable attitude.

"Potentially, we can compete with anyone," Greenberg said.

The Hokies did just that in last year's ACC tournament semifinals, losing to No. 1 North Carolina 68-66. But non-league defeats to the likes of Penn State, Old Dominion and Richmond kept Tech out of the NCAA tournament despite a 9-7 conference record.

"Those are the games that really hurt us," Delaney said. "This year we're going (to approach) the first game like it's a championship game against Carolina. We've got the talent and the coaching staff to get it done. ... If we put everything together like we should, we should be real good."

As a cautionary tale, Greenberg cites North Carolina State, picked to finish third last season. Attempting to blend a solid core of returnees with touted freshman J.J. Hickson, the Wolfpack shared last place with Boston College.

"The greater the expectations, the greater the chance of having a chemistry problem," Greenberg said, "because everybody thinks they have to do more. ... Last year has nothing to do with this year, except maybe for Carolina. They came back to win the national championship."

National semifinalists last season, the Tar Heels were a unanimous choice Sunday to win the ACC. Duke was picked second.

In other news, a Democrat or Republican will win the White House next week.

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ACC men's poll TeamVotesNorth Carolina(40)-480Duke436Wake Forest354Miami344Clemson306Virginia Tech298Maryland192Georgia Tech186N.C. State179Florida State145Boston College123Virginia79
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com For more from Teel read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime

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