The ACC has long played in the shadow of powerhouse leagues such as the Big East, Big 12 and SEC -- but with the addition of Notre Dame this year and the future arrival of Louisville, along with a solid program like Syracuse, this will no longer be the case.
Duke, Notre Dame and Maryland are likely to be top ten teams all season, and all three have a legitimate shot at the Final Four. UNC has a chance to be a top ten team as well, but the Tar Heels will have to cope with the news of coach Sylvia Hatchell battling leukemia and possibly missing a number of games. On top of that, they will try to integrate a dynamic freshman class into an already quality team.
The league is looking to get as many as eight or nine teams into the NCAA tournament, in part by cutting their conference games back from 18 to 16. The idea is that ACC teams will beat each other up less while getting a chance to grab a couple of more quality non-conference wins.
This year will also be the swan song for Maryland, which will be denied home games with rivals Duke and UNC as a lovely departing gift on their way out the door to the Big Ten. Given that this is a team built and speed and athleticism, look for the new ten-second backcourt rule to be used effectively by the many squads that love to press and trap.
1. Duke (33-3, 17-1 ACC)
The Blue Devils have quality experience and depth, and have been the most consistently dominant team in the ACC over the past four years. They've won or shared four consecutive regular season championships and have won three ACC tournaments. The Devils have stood on the precipice of the Final Four in each of the past four seasons, losing each time in the Elite Eight.
Any number of factors have prevented Duke from getting over the hump: injuries, bad matchups, and a lack of in-game coaching adjustments, to name three. There's no question that this season marks the Blue Devils' best chance to make the Final Four and compete for the national title in the Joanne P. McCallie era.
Their five returning seniors include All-America point guard Chelsea Gray (now nearly fully healthy after a knee injury), sharpshooter Tricia Liston, workhorse forward Haley Peters, powerful wing Richa Jackson and backup guard Chloe Wells. In the pivot is a fully healthy Elizabeth Williams, a junior who played in pain for much of last year and was never able to get in ideal shape. She's another likely All-America. Starting next to Gray will be sophomore Alexis Jones, who took over for Gray after her injury and led her team to the ACC championship, earning the tournament MVP title in the process.
On top of all that, Duke will bolster its frontcourt with top recruits Oderah Chidom and Kendall McCravey-Cooper. Another high school star, Becca Greenwell, might wind up sitting out this season to recover from knee surgery. The only losses for this loaded Duke squad are backup center Allison Vernerey and little-used wing Sierra Moore (the latter of whom transferred). Duke's expectations are championships or bust, but they'll find the ACC to be a far greater challenge this year than last.
All-American Alyssa Thomas will be surrounded by a full and healthy roster this season (photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics)
2. Maryland (26-8, 14-4 ACC)
While coach Brenda Frese was in the enviable position of having two-time ACC player of the year Alyssa Thomas on her team, she otherwise had to hold together her roster with spit and bailing wire. She lost guard after guard to injury or transfer, until her starting backcourt was Xavier transfer Katie Rutan and lightly-recruited frosh Chloe Pavlech.
Behind the all-around brilliance of Thomas and a powerful frontcourt, the Terps did well to win 26 games and make the Sweet 16. The Terps will get guards Brene Moseley and Laurin Mincy (last year's projected starters) back from injury and also add the services of exciting frosh point guard Lexie Brown. She may not start from day one, but Brown certainly seems to be the long-term answer at point for Maryland.
While the rest of the freshman class will add depth, the team will rely on veterans for the most part. Center Alicia DeVaughn and forward Malina Howard will be an intriguing frontcourt duo, thanks to DeVaughn's defense and screen setting and Howard's ability to pop out and hit jump shots as well as score down low. Maryland will miss low-post dominator Tianna Hawkins and her remarkable quickness, but the Terps are hoping that frosh like A'Lexus Harrison and Brionna Jones can step in and provide some minutes in relief.
Still, the team will go as far as Thomas will take them, and a rested Thomas who gets more help throughout the season will mean a player who can get hot in tournament settings and take her team a long way. Just look at the 2012 ACC tournament, for example, where her remarkable offensive performance carried the Terps to the title. Maryland also has the added incentive of giving the ACC a raspberry on its way out by winning a league championship, though the league certainly isn't making that easy. While they don't have to play Duke or UNC twice, they do have to play them on the road.
How well the Terps can transfer this chip on their shoulder into game play, as well as how long they can remain healthy, will determine if they can win the ACC.
3. Notre Dame (35-2, 16-0 Big East)
The Irish will enter the ACC minus one of their all-time greats in All-American Skylar Diggins, but they will still have plenty of talent as well as one of the best coaches in the business in Muffet McGraw.
With Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd leading the way, Notre Dame will instantly have the best backcourt in the ACC outside of Duke. Natalie Achonwa is a rugged post who will back down to no one, while Markisha Wright provided toughness and scoring up front. While no single player can replace the game-changing brilliance of Diggins, the Irish are bringing in a top-notch recruiting class, led by forward Taya Reimer, point guard Lindsay Allen and post Kristina Nelson. McGraw said that Allen will start and that Reimer will provide the kind of inside-outside versatility that will make Notre Dame's offense tough to stop. Indeed, McGraw said that she is firmly committed to running 4-out, 1-in motion with multiple guards, and that if two bigs are in the game that one will be used on the perimeter.
It will take the Irish a while to adjust to losing a player who meant so much to them and bailed them out of so many tough spots, but the reality is that McBride was a dominant scorer and Loyd steadily became more confident as the season went on. The only thing that separates the Irish from Duke and Maryland (for now) is that lack of a sure-fire player of the year candidate. McBride and Loyd could step up to become that player, but the edge in preseason goes to the teams that are experienced both in terms of personnel and understanding the league.
4. North Carolina (29-7, 14-4 ACC)
The dominant narrative surrounding the Tar Heels this season was supposed to be their dynamic freshman class. Now that narrative has unfortunately shifted to coach Sylvia Hatchell and the uncertainty regarding her treatment for leukemia. Long-time assistant Andrew Calder will take over the coaching reins while Hatchell is sidelined for treatment. What brings uncertainty is that no one knows how she'll cope with the frequently debilitating side effects of cancer therapies. She certainly has a chance to come back at some point in the season if she's doing well, but there's also the possibility that she might have to sit out large portions of the season.
This only adds to the confusion regarding how one should assess the Heels in preseason, given that they lost their two leading scorers in do-it-all guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and space-eating center Waltiea Rolle, along with rebounding sparkplug Krista Gross.
On the other hand, adding superfrosh Diamond DeShields, Alisha Gray, Stephanie Mavunga and Jessica Washington instantly gives them three or four quality starters, depending on who's ready to contribute. Forward Xylina McDaniel is the best of the holdovers as an aggressive, physical forward while Megan Buckland and Brittany Rountree both proved they could shoot but were otherwise limited. Guard Latifah Coleman and forward Danielle Butts will undoubtedly also contribute minutes for a team that will get back to running and pressing.
They'll have to, because this year's team will lack the kind of low-post scoring presence that's made UNC tough to face in recent years. Indeed, the Heels will have to compensate for their lack of size by pressuring the ball and hoping that Mavunga can be the kind of low-ego but high-impact forward who quietly does her job in the mold of LaToya Pringle or Erlana Larkins.
The Heels will be one of the younger squads in the ACC with just a single senior, and their chaotic style of play combined with that youth means that I can't see them finishing above the equally talented but far more experienced squads above them. Still, this team will be one that no one will want to play in March, and I could easily see the Heels make a run for the ACC tournament championship.
5. Georgia Tech (14-16, 7-11 ACC)
When asked about the potential impact of highly-touted frosh guard Kaela Davis, coach MaChelle Joseph replied "Now I know how the other half lives."
Joseph has made a career of slowly building up the Jackets into a relevant program on a league and national basis. Two seasons ago, her team went to the Sweet 16 for only the second time and battled Maryland to the wire for the ACC tournament title. That was a part of a program-record 26 wins. However, things for Joseph have never been easy, as her recruiting strategy has always had to rely on finding diamonds in the rough in addition to the occasional top 30 or 40 recruit.
Last season, her luck ran out as she couldn't find a suitable replacement for space-eating center Sasha Goodlett, and the result was the program's first losing season since 2006. There were other problems, such as the overlapping skill sets and inconsistency of wings Aaliyah Whiteside, Sydney Wallace and Brittany Jackson. Though all three players are relatively quick, they all tend to want to chuck and duck, and there are only so many basketballs to go around.
Perhaps as a result of this, Jackson left the program after just one season, though on the other hand, lightly-recruited forward Roddreka Rogers made a big impact as a relentless, springy player whose mission in life was to get all the rebounds. Joseph expects her to improve her shaky offense skills this season and expects the same for bespectacled center Nariah Taylor, who had her moments a year ago.
However, there's no doubt that this team will revolve around the 1-2 punch of Davis and Ty Marshall. In an effort to improve the efficiency of her team's offense, Marshall moved to point guard during the summer's overseas tour. With Davis a capable three point shooter, the expectation is that Marshall will have a perfect running partner for her penetration and mid-range game. Wallace and last year's starting point guard Dawnn Maye will come off the bench, along with stretch four frosh Katarina Vuckovic and power wing Donnaizha Fountain.
I expect the Jackets to win 10 or 11 league games and stay just a bit ahead of Florida State. They should be a solid bet for the NCAA tournament.
6. Florida State (23-10, 11-7 ACC)
The Seminoles had a bounce-back season after a rare tournament whiff the year before, but coach Sue Semrau now has the task of building an entirely new team.
Five of the top six scorers are gone, including versatile guard Alexa Deluzio and shooter Leo Rodriguez. This new squad will be built around unselfish forward Natasha Howard, who excels at getting to the basket, rebounding and playing defense. At point will be sparkplug Yashira "Cheetah" Delgado, a superb passer with quick hands but a shaky outside shot.
All told, the Noles are currently playing with eight players, with Iowa State transfer guard Emiah Bingley eligible to play in January. The team's primary perimeter scorer will be crafty guard Morgan Jones, a transfer from Northwestern. In the post, highly rated frosh post Kai James will start; she's a space-eater with great hands and feet. Fellow frosh Brittany Brown was described by Semrau as "strong as an ox" at guard, while versatile forward Ivy Slaughter was described as "the second coming of Brooke Wyckoff", an all-time FSU great.
There's no question that Florida State has a great deal of talent, but the margin of error is exceedingly thin. Any major injuries could cripple the season. However, the frontcourt of James and Howard will give most teams in the league fits -- Jones' size (6-2) gives her a big advantage at guard, and Delgado is a disruptive force who will make things easier for the team's many frosh.
In the end, talent almost always beats experience, which is why FSU should make it to the NCAA tournament.
7. North Carolina State (17-17, 7-11 ACC)
The Wolfpack Women were one of the most disappointing teams in the ACC a season ago, and coach Kellie Harper got cashiered as a result.
There were any number of reasons why Harper struggled, with recruiting being the most obvious. State's ancient facilities certainly had something to do with that, but it was also clear that many of her players were out of shape, undisciplined on the floor and prone to mental errors. The Pack hired Tennessee-Chattanooga's Wes Moore, a former assistant at N.C. State. At UTC, Moore led his team to 13 20-win seasons in 15 years, including multiple trips to the NCAA tournament.
From the very beginning, Moore is going to put as many shooters on the floor as possible in a 4-out, 1-in offense. That "1-in" will likely be 6-5 center Markeisha Gatling or 6-4 center Lakeesa Daniel, but don't be surprised if returning leading scorer Kody Burke plays the five at times as a roving shooter on offense and shot-blocker on defense. Burke is one of the most talented players in the ACC but is maddeningly inconsistent in terms of her aggressiveness. Former point guard (and occasional ball-stopper) Myisha Goodwin-Coleman will move over to off guard, allowing the quicker Len'Nique Brown to start at point.
The team will miss the intensity of guard Marissa Kastanek, one of the finest student-athletes who ever played at State. I expect guard Krystal Barrett to be a third starter as Moore will prefer to go small with plenty of shooters. Burke said that Moore told her "If you can't shoot the three, you can't play with me", and so we should expect the Pack to shoot first and ask questions later. I sense Moore is going to bring out the best in Burke and get Gatling in better shape (along with the other players), and while it might take him a while to match personnel up to his style, he should have an immediate impact in Raleigh.
8. Virginia (16-14, 8-10 ACC)
When coach Joanne Boyle is given a healthy roster, she's proven that she's a tremendous coach who's a great defensive teacher. She unfortunately hasn't had that opportunity at Virginia.
Last year, leading scorer Ataira Franklin played on one leg, second-leading scorer Kelsey Wolfe tore her ACL with four games left in the regular season, posts Telia McCall and Simone Egwu combined to miss eight games, and defensive leader Lexie Gerson missed the entire season with a torn ACL.
Franklin and Gerson are back and in good health, but Wolfe likely won't return until January. Boyle expects redshirt frosh Rae Gaffney (who missed her first season with an injury) to make a significant impact as part of an attack that will be more athletic overall. Boyle said that frosh Breyana Mason and Tiffany Suarez will be significant contributors, as will highly-touted forward Sydney Umeri.
Still, the team will revolve around Franklin's shooting, Gerson's defensive intensity and intelligence and Sarah Imovbioh's defense and rebounding in the post. Imovbioh will need to make herself more of a consistent target on offense for Virginia to crack the top half of the league. Like the other teams ranked in the middle portion of the league, I could easily see the Hoos moving up or down a couple of spots, which could mean the difference between an NCAA appearance and a WNIT berth. If Virginia performs well against a difficult non-conference schedule, I could see the Cavaliers being the ACC's eighth and final NCAA tournament team in 2014.
9. Miami (21-11, 11-7 ACC)
Last year, coach Katie Meier proved that she could win without her program changing stars Shenise Johnson and Riquna Williams. This year, she's starting from scratch without her three leading scorers.
Forward Morgan Stroman, guard Stefanie Yderstrom and post Pepper Wilson accounted for 1,100 of Miami's 2,081 points a year ago and nearly half its rebounds. Meier will rebuild around guards Suriya McGuire and Krystal Saunders, using a variation on John Calipari's dribble-drive offense. The small Canes won't feature a player taller than 6-2, so we'll see plenty of four-guard lineups, 4-out/1-in motion and even 5-out motion.
McGuire's game was always better suited for an unstructured, read-and-react offensive system, though the two seasons she spent in a more patterned system no doubt will provide her with a sense of discipline and overall understanding of fundamentals. Still, it was no coincidence that she was the player Miami turned to last year when the offense broke down and the team absolutely needed a bucket with time winding down. Look for guard Michelle Woods to provide a similar service as another player capable of breaking down a defense. Both players will both need to improve their overall shooting percentage, which languished in the 30s.
In the post, forwards Maria Brown, Jassany Williams and Keyona Hayes will be asked to concentrate on rebounding above all else. Meier said that's what her team is practicing most at the moment and what she is most concerned about for this season. Look for Miami to press and trap and then immediately slide into a zone. With no one to protect the rim, Meier hopes her players can be quick enough to slide into proper position to contest jump shots and prevent players from driving to the hoop. Miami has two talented frosh guards entering the program in Nigia Green and Adrienne Motley, and I expect them to immediately be key parts of the overall rotation as Miami commits to an uptempo style. I think McGuire is headed to a breakout season and will make the Canes a tougher out than one might think.
Given their ACC schedule, they have a good shot at winning eight or nine league games, which would probably put them at 18-19 wins overall. That's certainly good enough to get into the WNIT.
10. Syracuse (24-8, 11-5 Big East)
The question for Orange coach Quentin "Coach Q" Hillsman is "rebuild or reload?"
Syracuse lost its top three scorers in post Kayla Alexander, wing Carmen Tyson-Thomas and forward Elashier Hall. That trio accounted for 1,200 points last season, more than half of the entire team's total. Hillsman is quite confident that sophs Brittney Sykes and Brianna Butler will be ready to pick up that scoring slack, especially since both started nearly every game last year. Combine that with the stability afforded to the team by the return of its point guard duo of Rachel Coffey and Cornelia Fondren, and Hillsman believes that his team should be able to score plenty of points.
The question with the Orange is in the frontcourt. Hillsman said that he expects senior Shakeya Leary to be able to score inside given the opportunity and he also expects frosh Briana Day to immediately step in and score. Hillsman said that he's actually happy to bring a relatively inexperienced team into a new league, because everyone will have to learn together, as opposed to trying to make a group of veterans do things in a new way.
The Orange will continue to run and press, putting that new ten-second backcourt rule to good use, but Hillsman is worried that his zone may have trouble contesting the extra pass or two that will result in having teams bring the ball up quicker.
This team has a lot of interesting parts, many of them quite young. There is plenty of potential here, to be sure, which makes Syracuse the toughest team to pick in the ACC. I thought the media and coaches tabbing them seventh was a generous assessment considering all that they've lost and thus have pushed them down to tenth. I do expect them to make the postseason and win somewhere between six and nine ACC games. If they win nine games, they'll likely finish seventh. If they don't take care of business against the other teams in the middle, then it will be tenth.
11. Boston College (12-19, 5-13 ACC)
The Eagles saw a slight uptick in 2013, thanks in part to fielding a more experienced squad as well as the system put into place by new coach Erik Johnson. Johnson was an assistant under Cathy Inglese, who led the Eagles to their finest seasons and who understood that with the kind of players available to her in terms of recruiting, a system built on precision, screen-setting and sharpshooting could compete with programs committed to up-tempo basketball.
The Eagles, though, will have to hope that UConn transfer Lauren Engeln can replace the shooting that Kerri Shields provided. Johnson also has to find someone who can compete at point guard in the absence of Tessah Holt, with holdover Shayra Brown getting first crack at the job. Post player Katie Zenevitch will continue to provide an inside-outside scoring presence, while wing Kristen Doherty has to continue to do a little of everything for her team in order to get by. Johnson indicated that she may well have to play significant minutes at the point.
The Eagles frequently went to an "iron five" line-up last year in the absence of quality depth, and many of their losses came thanks to foul trouble at key positions or tired mistakes at the end of games. BC tended to live and die by shooting, because their defense was porous, especially at the rim. With little post depth, Zenevitch had to be extra careful defending in the post. The good news for the Eagles is that post player Amber Cooper is healthy and expected to provide a physical presence off the bench and forward Karima Gabriel (a transfer from DePaul) is expected to be the post stopper they so desperately need.
I expect the new players to give the program a much-needed boost and for the Eagles to win as many as six ACC games and get close to .500 on the season.
12. Wake Forest (13-19, 5-13 ACC)
Every year, it seems, the Wake players talk about the noise they managed to make in the ACC tournament and bemoan that they weren't able to bring that kind of intensity to bear during the regular season. Every year, they vow to show that kind of determination, but the results have shown that the Deacs still lose a number of games each season to inferior opponents.
This year will be a particular challenge for second-year coach Jen Hoover, as she will lose five seniors, four of whom were regular rotation players. She does return gunslinging guard Chelsea Douglas, whose free and easy shooting made her one of the stars of the ACC tournament when Wake upset Georgia Tech and took Maryland to overtime. Also returning is forward Dearica Hamby, a slender forward whose quickness and size makes her a matchup problem for many.
After that, things get iffy for the Deacs. Hoover expects frosh Jill Brunori to make an impact in the post, along with senior Lindsy Wright. Millesa Callicott and redshirt frosh Kelilia Atkinson will need to be able to help Douglas score the ball. Douglas and Hamby are excellent players who could start for many ACC clubs, and that's the only thing that's keeping the Deacs ranked above the other lower-ranked league squads. Wake will not be a postseason team.
13. Clemson (9-21, 5-13 ACC)
The Itoro Coleman coaching experience was cut short after three disappointing seasons at the end of last year. Her team showed little sign of making substantial progress; more alarmingly, her best recruits transferred away early in the year. More often than not, the Tigers' offense was easily reduced to one-on-one moves and contested jump shots, playing entirely into the hands of their opponents.
The Clemson program has been in the dumps for nearly a decade after Jim Davis stepped down, leaving some to wonder if the administration was willing to spend the kind of money necessary to lure a big name. Their response was to hire Audra Smith away from UAB, whose record there was the essence of average, compiling a 138-138 record over nine seasons. The former Virginia assistant focuses on defense first and foremost, and she has some decent building blocks to work with in that regard.
Smith will at least be blessed with an experienced team, as the Tigers lost no one to graduation and will return six upperclassmen. In addition, point guard Chelsea Lindsay will return after leaving school last year. The team will be led by undersized post player Quinyotta Pettaway (a rebounding fiend) and versatile scorer Nikki Dixon. Point guard Aisha Turner is quick and has shown a knack for knocking down mid-range jump shots. The Tigers will also get a boost as Alabama transfer Aneesah Daniels will become eligible.
Clemson will run and play tough defense, but finding consistent scoring and outside shooting in particular will keep them from a winning season yet again. The Tigers are jammed with interesting hybrid players, but it's unclear if they have anyone who can handle and distribute the ball or score in the paint on a regular basis. There are enough bad teams in the ACC that Clemson could win four or five league games, but the Tigers seem certain to finish with a losing record yet again. With more experience, they should crack the ten win barrier, at least.
The good news on the horizon is that Clemson is about to build a new basketball arena, a clear sign that they're willing to invest in the future of basketball at the football-crazy school.
14. Pittsburgh (9-21, 0-16 Big East)
Suzie McConnell-Serio certainly has her work cut out for her at Pitt. After five consecutive 20-win seasons with Duquesne, McConnell-Serio opted to move a few blocks over and usher the Panthers into the ACC.
A once-promising program under Agnus Berenato, the Panthers lost talent and couldn't replace it fast enough to prevent their slide. The good news is that the Panthers return every significant player from last year's squad. McConnell-Serio noted that she plans to build around point guard Brianna Kiesel and play to the versatility of her other players, who include forward Asia Logan, wing Loliya Briggs and guard Ashlee Anderson. The most intriguing unknown is 6-11 center Marvadene "Bubbles" Anderson, a redshirt frosh. McConnell-Serio said that Anderson would give her team a different look in short spurts, but her lack of endurance means that she won't be the type of player who gets a lot of minutes. Kiesel's understudy will be Chelsea Welsh, a frosh with solid credentials.
With her sister Kathy in charge of recruiting, I expect McConnell-Serio to turn Pitt into a contender relatively quickly. The Panthers will be one of many ACC teams that have to find creative ways around the fact that they lack productive size, so expect to see plenty of three- and four-guard lineups that emphasize ballhandling and shooting. Eight of Pitt's losses in 2013 were by ten points or less, indicative of a young team that doesn't know how to close out games. A new coach, a new league and a year's worth of experience will make this team better, but not yet good enough to move up much in the standings.
15. Virginia Tech (10-20, 4-14 ACC)
The Hokies did well to make it to ten wins last season, considering their lack of size and talent. When a team averages under 50 ppg, they're just not likely to win many games.
They did have some experience and depth and were certainly bolstered when athletic forward Uju Ugoka became eligible. Ugoka was the low-post scorer and rebounder that coach Dennis Wolff had long been craving, and she helped make her team more competitive. Wing Monet Tellier was the other player who averaged in double digits, and it took her scoring 20 points or more to even give the Hokies a chance to win. That's a lot of pressure to put on two young players with many limitations, as good teams were able to find ways to limit them for easy victories.
There's a lot of turnover from last year's team, with forward Alyssa Fenyn being the biggest loss thanks to her ability to shoot. However, the Hokies will return promising post Taijah Campbell from injury and a solid veteran guard in Nia Evans, as well as wing Lauren Evans.
None of these players are starting-caliber material for the ACC, however, and their recruiting class is a mixed bag of foreign players and projects as prep star Breena Brown de-committed to the Hokies. The good news, at least, is that point guard Vanessa Panousis and Maddison Penn both played for Australia's fine Under-19 squad, while Samantha Hill played on Canada's team. Wolff noted that Penn has extremely deep range and that Panousis will likely be his starting point guard, but foreign players frequently require at least a year to adjust to the college style of play.
Virginia Tech simply doesn't have the talent or depth to merit putting them ahead of even the worst teams in the ACC, but at least Tellier and Ugoka give them a puncher's chance of pulling off an upset or two.