CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Heading into conference play and a new year, every team in the ACC needs to make a few resolutions if they hope to achieve success. Some teams don't have much work to do in terms of making a dramatic resolution, while others need to make drastic changes. In order of my current predictions, here's what each team needs to do in order to become the best it can be.
Tier 1 (How the best can get better)
Duke (10-0, 1-0 ACC)
1. Guard that corner three. In Duke's match-up zone, the corner three has been readily available all year. It's a hole in most zones, but Duke has done a poor job all year of fighting through baseline screens to get a hand in the face of the shooter or else simply hasn't rotated over quickly enough on the perimeter when the defense has made the extra pass. The Devils will be susceptible to any opponent who can drive deep into the lane and then kick out. Teams that love to shoot that shot will try to run that play over and over whenever Duke goes zone. Duke will need to be smarter about when to use that defense and realize that teams who are smart enough not to try to shoot over or drive through their zone (which is long and active) will need even more effort than usual to defend.
2. Keep expanding the bench, but slowly. Duke's bench was wafer-thin to start the season, playing just seven scholarship players in the exhibition games. Elizabeth Williams came back and has yet to miss a game, but quick turnarounds are going to be tough on her bad leg. Chloe Wells' return means the rotation is now nine, but Duke really needs Amber Henson and Richa Jackson to be able to play well, not just soak up minutes off the bench. It will be a project balancing chemistry and roles in the middle of ACC season, but Duke's far ahead enough of most of the league to be able to do that.
3. Don't overplay Elizabeth Williams. Williams is the one player that every opponent has to account for, one way or another. Many teams have no answer for her at all, which means that Williams just runs roughshod over them. Some teams can contain her with double-teams, which opens up the offense for Duke's shooters and penetrators. Coach Joanne P. McCallie has to walk a tightrope in knowing how to use her; she conceded that she played her too many minutes in Los Angeles in a rare back-to-back situation. She should consider sitting her out for a half or more in games with two-day turnarounds against lesser ACC teams. She needs Williams to be at her best against elite opponents and in March.
No. 25 Alyssa Thomas must continue to shoulder the responsibilies of being the star player if the Terps are to have success in Conference play (Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics)
Maryland (8-2, 1-0 ACC)
1. Give Chloe Pavlech confidence. This lightly recruited frosh was Maryland's third-string point guard before the season started. With injuries to Brene Moseley and Laurin Mincy as well as transfers over the past couple of seasons, Pavlech is all the Terps have left, apart from little-used Sequoia Austin. Fortunately, Brenda Frese excels at letting young players feel their way through mistakes at key positions. Pavlech has shown some moxie in her early starts, and all she really needs to do is manage the game, get the ball to the post players and hit the occasional open shot. As long as she's not turning the ball over at an alarming rate, the Terps will be fine with her.
2. Don't forget about Katie Rutan and Malina Howard. Guard Rutan is Maryland's best shooter by far at 43% from distance. She's only getting four attempts from long range a game, however; Maryland needs to work hard to get her open for more looks in order to help stretch defenses. Howard is not as efficient a finisher as starting posts Alicia DeVaughn or Tianna Hawkins, both of whom shoot in the 60% range. Howard isn't bad at 54%, though, and Maryland needs to get her going a bit more to help fortify her confidence and its bench.
3. Remind Alyssa Thomas that she's a superstar. Maryland is a team that's had success in recent years because of its tremendous balance in the post, in the backcourt and the wing. Regardless of its defensive or ballhandling issues, every good Maryland team has fielded five starters who can score and rebound. That said, the best players should get the ball in the tightest situations. There are some nights when star forward Thomas understands this and thrives, and there are other nights in her career where she's looked like an underclassman who wasn't quite sure what to do. This season, if Thomas is feeling it, then she needs to shoot as much as possible. If she's not hitting shots, then she needs to dominate with defense, rebounding and playmaking. Either way, she needs to dominate.
Florida State (10-1, 0-0 ACC)
1. Get the ball inside more now. FSU has had a great deal of success in rejuvenating itself after a down year, but the Seminoles have a small margin of error to work with. Only seven players are getting any real minutes and only one of them, Chelsea Davis, can be considered to be a conventional big. She's scoring 13 ppg, but FSU might need more production out of her when it has to slow the tempo down or get someone in foul trouble. Indeed, I'd look to Davis as my first option on offense at the start of games and force opponents to adjust, especially since Davis is an outstanding foul shooter (84%). If FSU relies too much on the running game or its shooters without keeping that balance up, the Seminoles could regress.
2. Keep running. That said, this was a team built to push tempo. With two-headed point guard Morgan Toles and Yashira Delgado running the show, athletic players like Chasity Clayton and Natasha Howard can get out in transition and really do some damage. It also means that shooters like Leo Rodriguez and Alexa Deluzio are getting more open shots off the secondary break. If FSU's seven-woman rotation can withstand that many minutes over the course of a season, then they should continue to try to run opponents out of the gym.
3. Tighten up a little on defense. FSU is active on the wings but doesn't have a rim protector. With that aggressive style of defense, this will mean giving up some extra points. The ‘Noles will have to work that much harder in halfcourt situations by staying in front and closing out hard on (or jamming) shooters.
Tier 2 (How the up-and-coming can reach that next level)
UNC (11-1, 0-0 ACC)
1. Rely on experience, but keep it fresh with youth. The Heels have been carried by their senior trio of Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Waltiea Rolle and Krista Gross. The former two players have missed some games due to injury, and while that slowed down a very good UNC team in the short run, it forced coach Sylvia Hatchell to play more of her frosh. TRP is making a solid case for All-ACC as both a scorer and point guard; Rolle is scoring in the post and blocking shots; and Gross is doing the dirty work on the boards. However, when frosh Xylina McDaniel is healthy, she gives this sometimes low-energy squad a motor that doesn't quit. They've really missed that energy the past three games as the Heels have struggled against mediocre competition. Fellow frosh Antoinette Bannister has made some big shots in recent games, giving the Heels another option when their veterans go cold from the field. The Heels are at their best when they can shuffle players in and out of their helter-skelter attack plan, and they're very close to being able to field ten or 11 players in their extended rotation.
2. Vary the offensive attack. When the Heels get stuck jacking up threes in transition, they're fairly easy to defend, especially since they cough the ball up 23 times a game. When Rolle gets touches and McDaniel gets touches, then things get much easier for the UNC attack. That opens up opportunities for their shooters or for TRP to create. The Heels should also concentrate on trying to get to the line more, given their speed and strength. They're at 15 attempts per game at the moment, but their goal should be 20.
3. Stop second shots. The Heels give up 15 offensive rebounds a game right now, and that's just too many opportunities for good opponents to have. Once Rolle and McDaniel are back full time, the Heels hope to see that number decline, but they have to beware against ACC teams with great post players.
Georgia Tech (5-5, 0-1 ACC)
1. Win with speed, but get more efficient on offense. Georgia Tech's 5-5 start is only mildly alarming, given the level of competition: Duke (#4), Georgia (#6), Purdue (#11) and Tennessee (#13). What this has shown is that the Jackets are young and have a lot of work to do, but that there is talent and competitiveness. That said, no one on the team is shooting 50%, with only star guard Ty Marshall near that mark with 48% marksmanship. What's worse is that five other regulars are under 40%. This puts more pressure on the team to defend and get rebounds. The only solution is to ride it out and wait for a couple of players to get back from injury and for others to improve with experience; Tech's pretty much all-in regarding an aggressive approach to defense and pushing tempo.
2. Find a reliable third gun and stick with it. Coach MaChelle Joseph told me that wing Sydney Wallace, who had such a great NCAA tournament, has been underachieving (6 ppg, 29% FG, 13% 3FG) because she's putting way too much pressure on herself. Given that Wallace does little other than shoot, that's kept her out of the lineup, creating a negative feedback loop. That leaves frosh Aaliyah Whiteside as the most obvious candidate for the player who becomes the third reliable scorer for the Jackets, alongside Marshall and guard Dawnn Maye. Whiteside can rebound a bit, but Joseph needs to just let her go and take shots freely. It would also help if seniors Jasmine Blain and Dani Hamilton-Carter could contribute more, but at this stage of their careers, it's a bit much to ask beyond the 5 ppg and 5 rpg they both contribute.
3. Hit those free throws. Missing jump shots is one thing. Shooting 59.9% from the foul line is quite another, especially since Marshall is hitting just 57% of her freebies. Tech is also putting opponents on the line an average of 22 times a game (compared to 17 for the Jackets), which puts yet more pressure on the defense. That's a sign of playing defense with one's hands instead of one's feet, since being out of position most often leads to fouls. It's also a sign that Tech isn't afraid to hit people, but it comes at a cost. The Jackets have already piled up seven disqualifications this season, yet another factor that's stretched their already thin post game to the limit. If it wasn't for having a superstar like Marshall on their team, Tech would be in much tougher straits.
Miami (8-2, 1-0 ACC)
1. Keeping developing Michelle Woods and Suriya McGuire. Woods is averaging 10 ppg and McGuire 6 ppg. They're not making anyone forget Riquna Williams and Shenise Johnson just yet, but they've had some big games and made winning plays down the stretch. Coach Katie Meier needs to give those two a long leash while encouraging them to share the ball a bit more (they combine for just 4 apg). While Morgan Stroman and Stefanie Yderstrom are the team's stars, they're simply not good enough to make the team win without a lot of help.
2. Get touches for Pepper Wilson. She's 6-6, is shooting 51% from the field and is somehow seventh in field goal attempts on her team. That's both on her for not demanding the ball enough and on her teammates for not trying to find her more often. Even if she doesn't look to score, Wilson needs to get more touches and then needs to make good decisions with the ball. With her 81% foul-shooting touch, she also needs to find ways to get to the line more often.
3. Get everyone to rebound. Stroman and Wilson account for more than a third of the team's rebounding totals. That's not good enough to get it done against teams with strong post play. Yderstrom is somehow averaging just a single board per game. The perimeter players and backup posts each half to try to get just one more board per game apiece, or this will be a real problem area down the line.
The Cavaliers need to continue to improve under second year coach Joanne Boyle if they hope to stay near the top of the ACC. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Athletics)
Virginia (6-4, 0-1 ACC)
1. Take better care of the ball. Apart from China Crosby, every other Virginia player has been a disaster handling the ball. The Hoos turn the ball over 21 times a game, and for a team without a lot of serious offensive firepower, this is an absolute killer. Faith Randolph and Kelsey Wolfe in particular need to improve in this area, so both have fairly high ball-usage rates.
2. Develop a more stable rotation. Virginia's had some injury issues here and there, but even in games where everyone's healthy, minutes of key players fluctuate a lot. Part of that is related to matchups, of course, but Virginia simply isn't deep enough to play that kind of numbers game. Coach Joanne Boyle needs to assemble an every-game and every-situation rotation and let it mesh.
3. Make defense the team's identity. The Hoos were a tough defensive team a year ago but have lost some of that in the early going, giving up 62 ppg. They played some good teams, but certainly not the level of competition that Wake has faced, for example. They're really missing Lexie Gerson's ability to play lockdown defense on the perimeter, and no one has really picked up her mantle. If the Hoos don't rally together at that end of the floor, they will be in danger of missing postseason play altogether.
Tier 3 (How struggling and less talented teams can make the most of their situations)
N.C. State (7-5, 0-1 ACC)
1. Start games with more intensity. It's no secret that coach Kellie Harper is on the hot seat. In the last year of her contract and with a new athletic director (Debbie Yow) with a history of having an itchy firing finger, there is cause for her to worry. Given that this team was supposed to be the one that was finally fully stocked with everything she needed, the fact that the Wolfpack have flopped to a 7-5 start is more than a little dispiriting. One of the problems has been flat starts for the Pack, as in their awful showing at home against Michigan State. I'm not sure if that's a lack of focus or a lack of motivation or some combination thereof, but this group is too old to play with that little fire.
2. Find ways to get easy baskets. State's offense is kind of awkward to watch. There are times when players are making the extra pass, but that mostly initiates from the actions of point guards Myisha Goodwin-Coleman or Len'Nique Brown. There's not enough movement or ball movement otherwise, especially from the wing into the post, or is there enough action out of the post. The team simply has to communicate better, though getting easy points will be aided if they could generate more turnovers while cutting down on their own.
3. Work harder to stop penetration and kick-outs for open shots. State frequently labors to get open looks for senior guard Marissa Kastanek. Despite opposing teams blanketing her, she's still managing to shoot 33% from distance. At the other end, State repeatedly gets sucked in by a penetrating guard, a simple screen and a player cutting to the wing or corner for an open three. This is again a matter of communication, and the team isn't working hard enough to prevent what should be fairly simple plays from working against it.
Virginia Tech (5-5, 1-0 ACC)
1. Make Uju Ugoka your anchor. I'm pretty sure I don't need to tell this to coach Dennis Wolff; the results of Ugoka's debut game (28 points, 8 rebounds) against Wake Forest speak for themselves. Ugoka has a chance to be a consistent force that all opponents must have a plan to counter, which is the first time Virginia Tech has had such a player in years. Wolff needs to remind every player to get the ball to Ugoka on every possession and then go from there; she may be a new player after sitting out nine games due to eligibility issues, but she has a mature post game and isn't afraid to body up other teams.
2. Free Monet Tellier. Tellier had 23 points in Ugoka's debut. She's been hot and cold all year, in part because good teams could simply key in on her and shut her down, forcing tough jump shots. With Ugoka occupying a lot of attention, Tellier needs to be given a green light to use her excellent body control, shot-making ability and knack for getting to the foul line. And if she's missing shots, she needs to continue to get the green light, so long as Ugoka's getting hers.
3. Close out on shooters. The Hokies are actually a pretty tough and scrappy team in the post. It's on the perimeter where they're weak. They're one of the worst teams against the three-point shot in the ACC, a function of a lack of team speed and a lack of communication in closing out on shooters. The Hokies have to work harder in calling out screens and jamming shooters.
Boston College (6-4, 0-0 ACC)
1. Protect the rim and block out better. The Eagles are a terrible shot-blocking team and give up ten offensive rebounds a game. There's not much to be done about the former, other than perhaps dropping defenders down a bit more often to contest shots, but they have to get better at the latter. This is simply a matter of each player trying to get one more rebound a game, especially the guards. Improving the team's rebounding would give them a real chance to compete in the ACC.
2. Control tempo at all times. BC is the least athletic team in the ACC and runs the shortest rotation of active players.The five bench players combine for 9 ppg, 6.6 rpg and 4 turnovers a game--not exactly the most productive bunch. As such, new coach Erik Johnson has been wise to slow down tempo and do what this team does best: execute in the halfcourt, run clock and force the other team to run through dozens of screens. After a rough start, BC has upset BYU and Rutgers on the way to an impressive 6-4 record. This team will annoy many ACC teams, who prefer to run and hate halfcourt slogs. If the Eagles hit shots and execute, they will have a chance to steal many of those games, despite having considerably less talent than other ACC squads.
3. Find more ways to get to the foul line. The Eagles are an outstanding 77% from the foul line but only make it there 13 times a game. Their posts, Katie Zenevitch and Nicole Boudreau, shoot 94 and 91% respectively, but combine to go to the line just five times a game. Neither player is very big or physical, which means that the BC offense has to work even more efficiently to give them the ball in just the right spot so as to score or draw the foul. While there's no true point guard on this team (yet another flaw), every starter works hard and four of the five average at least two assists per game.
Wake Forest must get tougher and be more consistent. (Photo courtesy of Michael Crouse)
Wake Forest (5-6, 0-1 ACC)
1. Get tough at both ends. Wake won a lot of games last year because the Deacs weren't afraid to get a little chippy and physical -- they played with an attitude. After five dispiriting losses in a row to superior opponents, that attitude is all but absent. That was especially true in the beatdown they received at the hands of Virginia Tech, a team picked to finish below them in the ACC standings.
2. Use your size to better advantage. The Deacs have two skilled, big post players in Sandra Garcia and Lindsy Wright, who at this point are two of the most disappointing players in the ACC. There's no reason why Garcia shouldn't be averaging double-figures in points and eight or so rebounds a game. Instead, she's stuck at 8 ppg and 5 rpg, thanks to an indifferent and inconsistent approach to working hard in every game. Wright should be blocking shots and grabbing rebounds, but she disappears far too often. As a result, the Deacs have mostly been a chuck and duck team without the firepower to pull off that kind of approach. If new coach Jen Hoover can't motivate Garcia and Wright, then Wake could wind up in the ACC's basement.
3. Develop an identity as a team. This is the big problem. This combination of coach and players isn't working at the moment. Things could get worse before they get better for a Wake program that's met with vast indifference by its tiny fanbase but could be a sleeping giant given the right combination of academically-oriented players and a potential recruiting inroads in the DMV area. Wake's seniors need to take control of this team and bring a commitment to both toughness and teamwork right now, or else the Deacs will wind up as a punching bag for programs looking to climb over anyone else.
Clemson (4-7, 0-0 ACC)
1. Keep working that newfound great chemistry. The Tigers have been one of the weirder stories in the ACC so far. This year's team was supposed to be much improved thanks to a stellar recruiting class, including my choice for ACC rookie of the year in Jonquel Jones. Instead, the team stumbled badly to a 1-7 start, followed by the departure of Jones along with fellow frosh and leading scorer Daneejah Grant and starting point guard Chelsea Lindsay. With just seven players left, the Tigers rallied around each other and embattled coach Itoro Coleman, ripping off three straight wins by double-digit margins. Granted, the wins weren't against very good teams, but neither were their losses. The question is how long pure chemistry and players accepting their roles can hold out against very real talent and depth deficits against the rest of the ACC.
2. Work from the inside-out. One of the reasons Clemson started to win was that the Tigers have made sure to get touches for the team's post players: Quinyotta Pettaway, Nyilah Jamison-Myers and Natiece Ford. That trio currently combines for 18 ppg and 17 rpg, which isn't too shabby for a lower-division team. As long as the Tigers remember to look to them for easy scores first instead of going to a chuck-and-duck offense, the Tigers can be competitive.
3. Lean hard on Nikki Dixon. Dixon will never be the most efficient player in the world, but she has a relentless motor and desire to win. She's up to about 20 ppg in the last four or five games and she seems totally locked in now that whatever drama was surrounding the team has passed. Dixon is the only Tiger capable of getting her own shot at any time, and so Coleman must give her a green light from anywhere and encourage her to take 20+ shots a game.