GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) -North Carolina, Duke and N.C. State are used to living together in each other's backyards. But now those Tobacco Road neighbors must learn to share a different kind of space - the top tier of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The three schools located within 30 miles of each other have combined to win nine NCAA championships and make 32 trips to the Final Four, but nearly two decades have passed since they've been this good at the same time.
Picked 1-2-3 in the league's preseason poll, the Tar Heels, Blue Devils and Wolfpack are bracing to spend much of the season bunched near the top of the ACC race.
``It speaks volumes for the three schools,'' Duke captain DeMarcus Nelson said Sunday during the league's annual media day.
The schools in the east-central North Carolina Triangle seem positioned to take advantage of a conference that returns only five of the 15 players named to the league's first, second and third teams after last season. The key returnees include preseason league player of the year Tyler Hansbrough of North Carolina and fellow all-ACC picks Sean Singletary of Virginia, Brandon Costner of N.C. State and Tyrese Rice of Boston College.
Still, it's been nearly 20 years since the last time Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State claimed the top three spots - in any order - in the final conference standings. In 1988, the Tar Heels won and were followed by the Wolfpack and Blue Devils.
Now, the preseason honor belongs to North Carolina for a second straight year after coach Roy Williams' team was the unanimous favorite in voting by 64 media members.
``I think it makes you prepare more, because with that added pressure, you kind of expect every team to be going at you harder, so that makes you practice harder and kind of do all the little things right,'' Hansbrough said.
Duke, the preseason favorite five times between 2001-06, boasts preseason rookie of the year Kyle Singler. And N.C. State looks to follow up Sidney Lowe's encouraging first season in which the Wolfpack were picked to finish last in the 12-team league but knocked off both the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, swept Virginia Tech and advanced to the championship game of the ACC tournament.
``It's always great to finally get some respect and that people are talking about us because I think that we deserve to be talked about,'' N.C. State forward Ben McCauley said. ``We've got a guy who's been coached by the famous Jim Valvano. That's tradition in itself, and I think it's good to have that back here, because that's going to bring a little bit more to this program. And you'll definitely see a lot more people in these next couple of years talking about N.C. State.''
Lowe generated plenty of buzz last season by pulling exactly the kind of upsets the former N.C. State point guard was hired to produce - an 83-79 win against North Carolina in Raleigh, and an 85-80 victory over Duke in the opening round of the ACC tournament. His predecessor, Herb Sendek, was a combined 8-38 against Duke and North Carolina in 10 seasons leading the Wolfpack.
``I think State winning last year will kind of add to the rivalry,'' Hansbrough said. ``Duke and Carolina, they've always been big. Especially when (all three) are at the top, it's going to be really, really big.''
But on the eve of a season in which supremacy in the Raleigh-Durham metropolitan area could lead to the top spot in the conference race and a favorable seed in the NCAA tournament, Nelson is approaching those goals in a different order.
``When we think about what we want to do, we say we want to be the best team in the country. We say we want to be ACC champions, national champions,'' Nelson said. ``Those are the type of goals that we set. If we are those things, then we'll be the best team in the Triangle.''

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