The old ACC has disappeared into a maze of Big East and football schools, but every year we’re reminded that at its soul, the league is about basketball.

We endure football – apologies to our friends in Clemson. But we live basketball. And the beginning of each season brings memories of the way we were and the promise of the way we’ll always be.

Once again, at the top of the conference, are old-school giants Duke, North Carolina and Virginia. Put them in any order you like, but that’s the new reality and another reminder that the old ACC was the best ACC.

We’ll see the top three teams take on the entire nation while the vast middle of the footprint fights to keep from sinking out of contention. The middle is always where the ACC gets its true identity.

While the rest of the country focuses on the top three schools, and for good reason, here in the heart of college basketball, we watch the vast middle where N.C. State, Syracuse, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and Miami all have a legitimate shot at joining Louisville as the fourth-best team in the league and an equal shot of falling through to the dark bottom of the standings.

In a 15-team league playing a 20-game conference schedule, someone has to fall. In the ACC, the fall is more predictable than a team rising from the rubble. There’s simply no room at the top.

So we head out into another season, with the league's Operation Basketball scheduled for Tuesday in Charlotte and an ACC Tournament in Greensboro awaiting everyone except Georgia Tech and an NCAA Tournament invitation awaiting any number of schools that manage to avoid the gravitational pull of the bottom of the standings.

We crown our champion at the end of the tournament, but the long fight to get there is the fun part. The standings are fluid, and there’s a banner for someone at the end of the regular-season schedule.

The banner is meaningless to old-school ACC fans. The journey is worth more than the laundry.

It’s almost basketball season again, and the weather’s finally turned. It’s been a year since we last saw the confetti fall, and Virginia has come out of the shadows.

The top of the ACC has been restored. And the vast middle wanders in the maze.

Predictions for the order of finish – in reverse order – with ACC records:

Contact Ed Hardin at 336-373-7069, and follow @Ed_Hardin on Twitter.

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