Conventional wisdom dictates that Duke and Maryland will continue to dominate the ACC this year, given the talent each team returns and the new stars they’ve added -- and in this case, the conventional wisdom is correct.
The Devils and Terps might not lose to another ACC opponent this season, as both rosters are stacked with high school all-Americans and All-ACC candidates. This is not to say that the league won't be interesting and what will be most intriguing is that last year's bottom-feeders (Boston College, Virginia Tech and Clemson) are all considerably improved. The gap between the fifth place team and the 12th place team might not be very wide, especially when one considers that teams like Miami, Virginia, UNC and N.C. State have all taken serious roster hits. Miami will have the steepest fall, given the loss of two All-Americans in Shenise Johnson and Riquna Williams, but the Heels lost three seniors, Virginia lost its starting backcourt (Arianna Moorer to graduation and Lexie Gerson to injury) and State lost its workhorse forward Bonae Holston.
There are changes on the sidelines too, as the ACC will see some coaches coming home this year. After Sylvia Crawley unexpectedly stepped down after last season, citing medical issues, Boston College hired Denver head coach Erik Johnson, who was a member of Cathy Inglese's staff at BC and recruited some of the current members of the team. He's someone who knows the school, and more importantly, knows the recruiting area.
After Mike Petersen jumped to the North Texas job, Wake Forest snapped up High Point coach Jen Hoover, who happened to lead Wake to their only NCAA berth in 1988 as a player. Hoover just won the Maggie Dixon award for best first-year coach after leading High Point to a 20-win season and a berth in the Big South title game. This came after successful stints as an assistant to Debbie Ryan at Virginia and Joanne Boyle at Cal. Both of these hires seem to be of the "right place, right time" variety, though Johnson has much more work to do than Hoover.
Expect to see Duke and Maryland in the top ten for most of the season and perhaps battle it out for the No. 1 seed in the Norfolk Regional. Georgia Tech will have to replace a lot of experience, but I think the ‘Jackets have, overall, the most talented roster in team history, especially in terms of being able to score. Florida State should bounce back after a rare off year and I expect both of those teams to gain entrance to the NCAA tournament without much worry.
I expect Virginia and UNC to make it in as well, but their margin of error is much narrower. If young talent and key players emerge for the league's lower echelon clubs, don't be shocked to see the likes of Clemson making a postseason run of some kind.
This season would well turn out to be a preview of a dominant ACC season in 2014, when a number of teams will be jammed with senior talent and this year's frosh will make a league-wide impact. But even the best of teams have questions to answer for this season, and so this year's preview foucs on three key questions tailored to each program. Teams are presented in my predicted order of finish.
1. Duke (2012 record: 27-6, 15-1 ACC)
a. Can the team get healthy enough to keep up the profile of a No. 1 seed? Duke has gobs of talent, experience, size, shooting and skill. What they don't have is enough players to hold a scrimmage, at least at the moment. Frosh Katie Heckman tore her ACL and is out for the year. Richa Jackson and Amber Henson are still rehabbing from offseason surgery and are expected to return in December. Chloe Wells has been reinstated after being suspended for half a season but is recovering from a stress fracture in her foot. Most importantly, Elizabeth Williams is still healing from a stress fracture in her leg but is due back in November. Duke is in no hurry to rush anyone into the lineup, but the Devils have a string of tough games in early December (Cal, Michigan, Georgia Tech) and can't afford to drop any of them if they want that No. 1 seed in Norfolk.
b. Will Duke get down and dirty on defense? Coach Joanne P. McCallie was quite pleased with the team's performance on offense last year, but she voiced her dissatisfaction with Duke's defense and rebounding. Against elite opponents, Duke didn't play with the sort of aggression and precision needed to shut them down. The ACC tournament loss to NC State exposed Duke's frequently lackadaisical approach at the defensive end, something that was exacerbated by foul trouble removing some of Duke's better offensive players from the floor. If the Blue Devils can get back to that physical, nasty style of defense, they'll be tough to handle.
c. What's the ceiling for Elizabeth Williams? At this point, Williams could win up as Duke's best player ever -- she has that much talent, skill, drive and athleticism. Of course, she has a lot to do before she gets there. She has to become a more efficient player on offense. She needs a go-to counter-move, needs to improve her handle, bring up her free-throw percentage and extend the consistent range on her jump shot. Defensively, she needs to foul a little less and get stronger so she's harder to move out of the post. Duke is actively recruiting post players to allow Williams to move to power forward but no matter what the position, as long as she stays healthy, gets in slightly better shape and keeps developing her skills, she has a chance to do great things in Durham.
2. Maryland (2012 record: 31-4, 12-4 ACC)
a. Who's playing point guard? This is a situation that just got stickier for the Terps when it was announced that Brene Mosely, who was expected to take over for Anjale Barrett this season, is out for the season with a torn ACL. This means that combo guard Lauren Mincy will take over the lead guard spot, something the Terps wanted to avoid so as to allow her to pursue her own offense more freely. Look for Alyssa Thomas to assume some ballhandling duties as well. There are a couple of other players who might help in a pinch, like frosh Chloe Pavlech, but she's probably not ready to play real minutes against real teams.
b. Are the frosh ready for big minutes? Top recruit Malina Howard will have the luxury of coming off the bench, but she should still expect to get starter's minutes in the post. Coach Brenda Frese seems to think she's ready to make a big difference right away, if her outstanding physical conditioning is any indication. Wing Tierney Pfirman must also be ready to step in at the wing if Thomas gets major backcourt minutes. Maryland's secret weapon is Xavier transfer Katie Rutan, a sharpshooter who will stretch the floor for a post-oriented team.
c. What's the next step for Alyssa Thomas? Thomas really put it all together last year, leading her team to the ACC tournament title. Her duel with Georgia Tech's Ty Marshall in the finals was absolutely thrilling. There's plenty more she improve upon however: her three point shooting (just 27%), her ballhandling/decision-making and her will to dominate at all times. What's scary is that she still has two years to figure this all out. As long as Thomas is in the game, the Terps have a chance to beat anyone, anytime.
3. Georgia Tech (2012 record: 26-9, 12-4 ACC)
a. Who's playing in the post? Coming off the best season in program history, Georgia Tech's most pressing concern is how to replace the production that Sasha Goodlett gave them in the paint. Goodlett finally lived up to her considerable potential last season as a scorer, rebounder and defender, but she was also aided by the toughness of post reserves Chelsea Regins and LaQuananisha Adams. That latter duo wasn't especially skilled, but they weren't afraid to bust heads and make things chippy. Coach MaChelle Joseph said that Shayla Bivins will be returning from injury and Dani Hamilton-Carter will still be around, but that just won't cut it in the ACC, especially since frosh post Tjasa Gortnar is out for the season with an injury. She will be relying on frosh posts Je Zhe Newton and Nariah Taylor to give the team what it needs in the post, and Joseph said that Taylor has looked excellent in the preseason. Don't be surprised to see Tech exploit its perimeter depth and run a lot of four-out, one-in offense.
b. Is Sydney Wallace ready to become consistent? Wallace stunned observers by dropping 30 on national champ Baylor in the NCAA tournament. Those who saw her play a number times knew that she was capable of doing this at any time, but hadn't yet developed enough maturity and consistency. With Metra Walthour and Mo Bennett both graduating, there's a space in the rotation for her to step in and be the long-range shooting complement that star guard Ty Marshall needs. Marshall is a very good player, but not good enough to carry her team to a championship by herself.
c. What does G.Tech need to do to beat Duke? The Jackets' last victory over Duke came in 1994, and Tech has rarely come close to defeating the Devils in the Joseph era. Given that GT has beaten every other team in the league, it's not simply a matter of talent. Part of it is a similarity in style: grind-it-out, physical, with an emphasis on defense. The problem is that Tech hasn't had enough creative scorers to match the likes of Jasmine Thomas or Chelsea Gray. What's interesting about this year's matchup is that it will take place in early December, at a time when many of Duke's players might still be out nursing offseason injuries and operations or just coming back to practice. If Elizabeth Williams isn't playing, then Duke's post advantage will be nullified and the Jackets would have a great chance to pull off the upset.
4. Florida State (2012 record: 14-17, 6-10 ACC)
a. Is the program's culture fixed? At Media Day, coach Sue Semrau and her players waxed philosophical about last year's surprisingly poor showing for the Seminoles. Semrau said "The hungry lion hunts best", while wing Chasity Clayton and guard Alexa Deluzio repeatedly made mention that the culture of the team "wasn't right". Everyone tiptoed around the issue that Tay'ler Mingo was a disaster at point guard (she was later dismissed from the team) and Cierra Bravard did not fit in with the rest of the players in any phase of the game. What the experience brought home was that the players truly understand that they are not entitled to anything, and that NCAA tournament success doesn’t just happen. Having five seniors will go a long way in getting FSU back to the postseason, but it remains to be seen if this is a temporary fix or if this year's frosh and sophs will buy in.
b. Will point guard go from a weakness to a strength? The graduation of Courtney Ward had a much bigger impact than expected. With Mingo a flop, the Seminoles had no one left to play point, so they had to throw Deluzio in there to stop the bleeding. The result stabilized the position but at the cost of hampering Deluzio's own offense. Without a reliable shooter, the ‘Noles became predictable and easy to guard. This year, Auburn transfer Morgan Toles is finally fully healed from a series of scary concussions and ready to lead the team. She led the SEC in assists before she left and will make the team's intriguing pieces much better. Just in case, JuCo star Yashira "Cheetah" Delgado, a 5-2 dynamo, will be there to back up the position. Semrau acknowledged that she plans to go to an up-tempo system this year but warned that it will take time for her players to learn how to adjust on defensive rotations, switch screens and other things that will eventually let them take advantage of their quickness.
c. Can this team guard anyone in the post? Senior Chelsea Davis moved ahead of Bravard in the starting lineup precisely because of her defense and ability to better mesh with the other players. Beyond her, there are a lot of questions for FSU. Soph Kristi Mokube and redshirt frosh Ebony Wells will both get a crack at more playing time if they can prove that they're ready to rebound and defend, but this looks like this could be something that troubles the ‘Noles the whole season against teams with great front lines. Semrau plans to get a little unconventional at times, like using quick and strong wing Clayton to guard certain power forwards and disrupt opposing offenses before they can get the ball inside. Again, that won't work against elite opponents.
IF China Crosby #1 of the University of Virginia can stay healthy, she has the capability to be one of the best point guards in the ACC. (Photo courtesy of the University of Virginia)
5. Virginia (2012 record: 25-11, 9-7 ACC)
a. Can the team play lockdown defense without Lexie Gerson? Gerson was a revelation for new coach Joanne Boyle last season, flying around the floor as she disrupted opposing offenses. She generated her fair share of steals, but it was her ability to harass opposing wings and guards that made Virginia into the ACC's top defensive team. Simply put, there's no one quite like her on the roster at the moment, and Virginia will have to play defense very differently.
b. Will Sarah Imovbioh provide much-needed offensive rebounding? Of course, the Hoos played a contained, compact style of halfcourst defense in part because they had trouble protecting the rim. The perimeter-oriented UVa team had no one who could go after the ball and get stickbacks. That will change with the presence of Imovbioh, a rebounder that Boyle describes as "very raw" whose main job will be going after offensive rebounds.
c. What is China Crosby capable of at point guard? Crosby has suffered two season-ending injuries but is back for more. She is a pass-first point guard who can hit the mid-range jumper, something badly needed on last year's team. If her knee holds up, she could be a big part of revitalizing Virginia's offense, which was ninth in the league. High school all-American Faith Randolph could become the team's starting off-guard, and Kelsey Wolfe could surprise some with her off-season improvements but Crosby needs to keep them on the same page and positive. If she succeeds, there's no question the Hoos can be a top-echelon ACC team.
6. North Carolina (2012 record: 20-11, 9-7 ACC)
a. Can the senior class finally make an impact? Recruiting rankings don't always pan out. This year's seniors were part of a five-woman class that was considered to be one of the best in the country. Two players transferred while Tierra Ruffin-Pratt has had an injury-plagued career, Walteia Rolle got pregnant and Krista Gross emerged as a complementary player. With Ruffin-Pratt and Rolle healthy, the time is now for this group to lead the team, because the Heels are otherwise painfully inexperienced. Ruffin-Pratt will be the starting point guard, a position she has not played since high school but there simply aren't many other experienced options.
b. Is there a go-to player on this team? At the moment, this is a team of complementary players with no stars. However, that might change. Soph guard Brittany Rountree proved to be a deadeye shooter and has a chance to be a big-time scorer. Frosh forward Xylina McDaniel (daughter of the X-Man himself) was described by coach Sylvia Hatchell as "a beast"; she's a strong, physical player who will live on stickbacks. It's also possible that Rolle or Ruffin-Pratt could have a breakout year in the same way that Chay Shegog did last season.
c. Are the Heels ready to back to the rough stuff? It's always fun to hear a reporter bait Hatchell into talking about how much she hates physical play, which is amusing considering how feared many of her teams were in the past. The Heels of the ‘90s and mid-’00s intimidated opponents with rough play along with the program's trademark athleticism. The unspoken problem here is that this team isn't physical enough, and the result is UNC backing down in big games. McDaniel will certainly help to alleviate this problem, but time will tell if the rest of her teammates follow suit.
7. Miami (2012 record: 26-6, 14-2 ACC)
a. Did Katie Meier build a team or a program? This is a pivotal moment in Meier's career as the Hurricanes must find a way to replace two all-Americans in Shenise Johnson and Riquna Williams. Meier said that those two covered up a lot of other problems, and the fact is that the U's bench never really developed last year. That was made all too apparent when Morgan Stroman went down midway through the year. Instead of a key reserve stepping up in her place, it was the team's starters who had to adjust. With Stroman and guard Stefanie Yderstrom, the Canes have a nice foundation to build on, but there has to be improvement from its young role players or Miami will fade from the national scene.
b. Who's going to be point guard? Suriya McGuire, whom Meier described as "freakishly athletic", is the obvious choice here. However, there are other candidates and McGuire has to be more than just a scoring point guard. She needs to defend and get the ball to Stroman and Yderstrom as much as possible. If she's too wild, Michelle Woods or even frosh Caprice Dennis could get the call. Like every other position on the team, there's a lot of depth at point guard. Meier can afford to be hard on her players because there's so much competition at almost every position.
c. What can we expect from Morgan Stroman after coming back from injury? When she went down last year, she was quietly headed toward an All-ACC season as a complementary player who nonetheless scored in double figures in every game. Stroman is in shape and ready to go, and I think her stern leadership style will mimic that of Meier, thus forcing her younger teammates to get on the same page. I'm not sure she's capable of being a dominant scorer, especially coming back from a serious injury, and much will depend on others getting her the ball in the right spot. If she demonstrates that her ballhandling and shooting have improved, then Miami could really surprise some people. If she's not ready to be a star, then Miami will have to fight hard for every win.
8. North Carolina State (2012 record: 19-16, 5-11 ACC)
a. Can Markeisha Gatling be an impact player? The answer to this question will determine whether the Wolfpack are a contender or an also-ran this season. Coach Kellie Harper thinks that the 6-5 post can take over at both ends, thanks to her sheer size as well as skill. The Pack were not a great rebounding or defensive team last year, and with Bonae Holston graduating, it's critical that Gatling be able to fill up the stat sheet from day one. All she needs to do is score around the basket, rebound and alter shots; there are other players who can score in different ways. I'm skeptical that she can put it all together in just one year, and I'd guess that the junior college star will make a bigger impact next season.
b. Will Kody Burke ever live up to her potential? Burke is a big, skilled, athletic forward who can nail jumpers out to three as well as block shots. She's never been able to be a consistent presence for the Pack, but they will not be successful this year if she isn't ready to score in double digits every night. It would be even better if she could move to the wing full time, because N.C. State doesn't have a lot of other viable options at small forward while they do have some bigs who can play. Harper said that her "only hurdle is mental", but junior year is when a lot of players really put it together.
c. Does this team have the heart to play great defense? Harper noted that "defense comes from the insides: your heart, your guts". Frankly, the Pack haven't shown that they have the desire to play great defense all the time. Harper said that last year's young players were "immature" and that she hopes she'll have more players on the same page. State's talent (led by outstanding guard Marissa Kastanek) and potential are what get them ranked ahead of Wake Forest, but this is very much a ranking in flux. State could finish as high as fifth or as low as tenth, depending on how players develop across the league. I suspect they'll be good enough to make the WNIT but not the NCAA tournament. If that's the case, expect Harper's seat to start to get warm in Raleigh.
Lakevia Boykin #22 of Wake Forest will be key to the Deacon's success this season (Photo courtesy of Wake Forest)
9. Wake Forest (2012 record: 20-14, 7-9 ACC)
a. Is Jen Hoover a good fit for this set of players? The Deacs are a pretty chippy bunch who don't mind getting physical. Hoover's style of play is a bit more fluid, and she wants her new team to "play fast, but under control". Wake has some solid athletes (leading scorer Lakevia Boykin and wiry forward DeArica Hamby come to mind), but this is a team that's used to walking, not running. It might take a season or two for Hoover to get the players she wants to run her more elegant style of play?
b. Who will deliver in the post? That said, Hoover was a dominant post player at Wake (back when she was Jenny Mitchell), and she said rebounding would be a big emphasis for her. Considering that the Deacs were ninth in rebounding margin last year, she will need some of the veterans to improve. In particular, senior Sandra Garcia has been an enigma throughout much of her career. An agile and mobile big with range out to three, Garcia came off the bench because she simply didn't play with a consistent amount of effort or concentration. If Hoover can combine Garcia's scoring touch with Lindsy Wright's defense and toughness, Wake has a chance to compete with the league's elite.
c. Who will be the point guard? Hoover mentioned Boykin and junior Chelsea Douglas as possibilities. Douglas was second on the team in assists last season, though she was mostly asked to serve as a scorer. With Brooke Thomas moving on, Wake's in a bit of a pickle because the two main perimeter guns might be asked to take on primary ballhandling responsibilities, something that would hamper either player. In the end, Wake would be better off going with Douglas because of the way she takes care of the ball as well as her court vision.
10. Clemson (2012 record: 6-23, 2-14 ACC)
a. How far can Jonquel Jones take this team? Jones blew up on the postseason all-star circuit last spring, displaying her exciting blend of offensive and defensive talents. Pairing her with last year's rookie find Nikki Dixon will give coach Itoro Coleman some real options on offense and defense. Coleman said that despite the fact that Jones is 6-3, she's "really a guard" who can "rebound and shoot off the dribble". If she can take the physical beating she's likely to receive at the hands of ACC defenses, she is an easy choice for ACC rookie of the year. She'll make a lot of mistakes as a young player, but there will be few frosh in the country as fun to watch as she will be.
b. Can the sophs figure out how to win on the fly? While the Tigers have some frosh who will compete and make a difference, it's the rising sophs who will be required to do the heavy lifting. Dixon proved she could score and defend, while Chelsea Lindsay had her moments at point guard. Kelly Gramlich came out of nowhere to provide some shooting. Natiece Ford was the highest-rated of the recruits but struggled to produce, but her sturdy body and some solid late-season play could represent an uptick for this season.
c. Can the Tigers bang in the post? Clemson did not have much talent last year, but the Tigers did have size and experience in the post. With both Shaniqua Pauldo and Lindsey Mason moving on, they are now extremely young and thin inside. Coleman named Nyilah Jamison-Myers as a frosh post who can rebound and block shots. If she's not ready to play, Jones might have to move inside, something that Coleman would prefer not to do. The Tigers will have junior forward Quinyotta Pettaway around to grab rebounds and score a bit in the post, but she's more of a springy player than a banger.
11. Virginia Tech (2012 record: 7-23, 3-13 ACC)
a. Can Uju Ugoka score enough in the post to help the team's perimeter players? Anyone who followed the Hokies and new coach Dennis Wolff last year knew that their puncher's chance of winning relied on the perimeter trio of Monet Tellier, Alyssa Fenyn and point guard Aerial Wilson. When all three were on, they had a chance to do things like upset Maryland. When any of the three had to sit out because of foul trouble or got fatigued, the Hokies inevitably faded. That's why 6-1 newcomer Ugoka is so intriguing. She's undersized for a post, but is simply an incredible leaper who has a nose for rebounds. What she'll need to prove is that she can score with her back to the basket as well as pass the ball out to open shooters. Still, the Hokies will go from hopeless in the post to having a legitimate option.
b. Does this team have enough depth to hang with other ACC teams? They certainly don't have experienced depth, and for a team that doesn't know how to win, that spells trouble. Two players transferred in the offseason from a program that wasn't deep to begin with. Some of the frosh show promise and should hopefully boost the team's anemic offense down the line, but they're competing with too many teams who have too much talent and experience.
c. What will Wolff do differently in his second year? Still relatively new to women's basketball, Wolff said that he threw too much, too soon at his players. This year, he plans to run a "prescribed motion" offense, with some one-in/four-out action that emphasizes Ugoka's mobility and the fact that he has a lot of shooters and slashers. He emphasized that his team must be better offensively in order to compete, and I think that's especially true with regard to efficiency. His team didn't have the depth to play pressure defense to get easy baskets, and the half-court sets tried too often to go to players who weren't capable of scoring no matter how well they were set up. The fact that his Hokies played hard for him a season ago shows that he may be the right man for the job, but he has a long way to go.
12. Boston College (2012 record: 7-23, 2-14 ACC)
a. Can Erik Johnson bring workhorse basketball back to Chestnut Hill? Sylvia Crawley never seemed comfortable coaching slow players who were clearly meant for a patterned offense. On the other hand, Johnson spoke wistfully of the Cathy Inglese era and the skilled players who befuddled opponents by outworking and outshooting them. At the very least, Johnson won't try to put square pegs into round holes. While getting high school All-Americas to come to BC might take a while, look for Johnson to unearth some solid local talent that executes his game plans to a T.
b. Can Kerri Shields regain her shooting touch? Playing with posts Carolyn Swords and Stefanie Murphy two seasons ago, Shields was one of the best three-point shooters in the ACC. Last year, she was pressed into handling the ball as well as taking big shots, and the result was her getting the ball in her hands with seconds left on the shot clock, being forced to take a tough shot. Naturally, her shooting percentages plummeted. Johnson plans to fix this by implementing the heavily screen-based offense that Inglese used to run to perfection, and he's hoping that Shields will thrive in such a scheme. The fact that center Katie Zenevitch was one of the few young Eagles with a breakout season in 2012 bodes well for this possibility, given her ability to pass, shoot the three and post up.
c. Can this team defend against ACC-level athletes? While Johnson acknowledged that his team wasn't quick or strong enough to get a lot of steals or push tempo, he did vow to improve on BC's field goal percentage on defense. Considering that the Eagles were the worst in the ACC last year, there's nowhere to go but up. The only capable defender on the team is wing Kristin Doherty, and she just won't be enough to stop the ACC's many creative guards and imposing post players. Expect the Eagles to continue to take their lumps and receive some hard lessons as Johnson takes a year to adjust to the current state of the ACC.
Alyssa Thomas, Maryland
Chelsea Gray, Duke
Elizabeth Williams, Duke
Ty Marshall, Georgia Tech
Natasha Howard, Florida State
Rookie of the Year: Jonquel Jones, Clemson
Player of the Year: Alyssa Thomas, Maryland
- It's Baylor on top, but the rest of the Big 12 is up in the air
- Don't sleep on these Mid-Major teams -- even if they're not from BCS conferences