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The Blue Devils remain the favorites to go the distance in the ACC Conference race, but they face stiffer competition than usual this season, with Notre Dame, Maryland and North Carolina all talented enough to take the league title and make a run for the Final Four, and several other up-and-coming programs capable of an upset on any given night. (Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke Photography)
The Blue Devils remain the favorites to go the distance in the ACC Conference race, but they face stiffer competition than usual this season, with Notre Dame, Maryland and North Carolina all talented enough to take the league title and make a run for the Final Four, and several other up-and-coming programs capable of an upset on any given night. (Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke Photography)

Reading the tea leaves for the 2014 ACC Conference race

Contributor
January 2, 2014 - 4:01am

With the non-conference portion of the ACC schedule drawing to a close, and league play about to tip off, certain trends have emerged. How is the league shaping up? What are the prospects for NCAA Tournament bids? Let's break down the conference into categories and ask the hard questions for each team.

Four For (the Final) Four?

Duke For the first time since 2006, multiple teams in the ACC have a legitimate shot at making it to the Final Four. Little has changed for ACC preseason favorite Duke. The Blue Devils scored impressive road wins against Cal, Oklahoma, Marquette and Kentucky and also defeated Purdue. They also once again showed that UConn has their number in a game that exposed this particular team's weaknesses. The Devils aren't especially laterally quick at any position, and that problem is compounded by a lack of communication on defense. Duke compensates with great size across the board and sticky-fingered guards flooding the passing lanes, but this is a team that mostly wins by overwhelming opponents with scorers at every position. Duke has never had this much experience or talent since Joanne P. McCallie took the helm as head coach, and there's a sense that if she can't get it done with this bunch, she might never get it done at all. Keep an eye on center Elizabeth Williams; she has underachieved to date this season and needs to be a bigger game-to-game presence at both ends if Duke is going to be great.

Notre Dame Meanwhile, Notre Dame has compensated for losing one of the all-time great college basketball players in Skylar Diggins by plugging in frosh Lindsay Allen at point and seeing every one of its remaining veterans step up. An early-season injury to center Natalie Achonwa might have spelled disaster, but instead simply meant extended playing time for versatile frosh forward Taya Reimer. The Irish match Duke's perimeter firepower with Jewel Loyd elevating her game and Kayla McBride remaining her usual steady self. The pair of games between Duke and Notre Dame (Feb. 2 in Durham and Feb. 23 in South Bend) will likely determine who wins the regular-season conference championship and with it the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament. Will Allen's lack of experience emerge at crucial times during these tilts?

Maryland It's hard to gauge just where Maryland is at this point. With the exception of their double-digit trouncing by Connecticut, the Terrapins have played a relatively easy schedule to date, so we won't really know much about them until midway through January. Forward Alyssa Thomas is as dominant as ever; she has just slipped over to the post more these days instead of staking out the perimeter. The good news is that this team is proving to be remarkably deep, especially when compared to the hospital ward that passed for a basketball team in College Park last season. The bad news is that no single player has emerged as a reliable No. 2 scoring option behind Thomas. Frosh forward Shatori Walker-Kimbrough has shown the most potential; she is currently the only Terp besides Thomas averaging double-figure scoring. Suffice it to say, the pieces are there for this team to go far, but it will be a matter of chemistry and bringing along young players quickly, together with allowing healing players to ease their way back into the swing of things. Maryland does need better play from talented big Malina Howard, who seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle a bit despite her talent.

North Carolina The Final-Four darkhorse in the ACC is North Carolina. With Sylvia Hatchell ceding the reins of the program to longtime assistant Andrew Calder due to her battle with cancer, the painfully young Heels, who field no seniors, were already a team in flux. Calder recently made what will in the long run be the smartest decision for his team: He put his five best players -- UNC's four fabulous frosh as well as soph Xylina McDaniel -- on the floor as starters, with no regard to seniority or experience. He will have the benefit of some experience and talent off the bench, but the length of freshman forward Stephanie Mavunga, the shooting of guard Allisha Gray, the playmaking of point Jessica Washington and the dynamic potential of Diamond DeShields not only point to a lineup that could potentially challenge anyone, it's one whose chemistry is palpable. This young squad will likely stumble here and there along the way, but this is the proverbial team no one will want to play come March. The question for them is whether the young guns will be disciplined enough to score in halfcourt settings against the elite teams they will have to overcome en route to a date in Nashville.

Bubbling Under and Tournament-Bound

Florida State Florida State is playing with an eight-woman team that is almost completely made up of new players. After losing a huge graduating class and seeing a couple of transfers, the 'Noles are built around detail-oriented forward Natasha Howard and quick point guard Cheetah Delgado. Northwestern transfer Morgan Jones has proved to be a reliable scorer, and the Seminole frosh have all delivered. Getting Emiah Bingley as their eighth player after sitting out last season due to transfer eligiblity has also been a huge help. FSU doesn't have great size (huge frosh Kai James has been inconsistent) and the Noles' depth will be an issue against elite teams, but they should be able to beat plenty of opponents in the ACC.

Syracuse League newcomer Syracuse came into the season with a lot of question marks, but thus far they've had plenty of emphatic answers. The sophomore duo of Brittany Sykes and Brianna Butler has led the team in scoring in game after game, but it's their other players who have vaulted the Orange into the Top 25. Center Shakeya Leary has been a fine scorer and rebounder after several years as a bench understudy. The Orange have excellent point guard depth and post depth and seem to get a different player to step up in each game. Syracuse's upset of Texas A&M proved that this lineup can defeat big, physical teams. But can their full-court press and zone defense contain teams that have multiple scoring threats?

Georgia Tech Georgia Tech is armed with high-scoring guard Ty Marshall and stand-still shooter Sydney Wallace. However, their potential rests with the highest-impact frosh in the ACC, Kaela Davis. It will be interesting to see how the 6-3 Davis, who is averaging 19 points per game, fares against big teams geared to stop her in ACC play. While the Jackets have plenty of perimeter firepower, they lack the post scoring that the elite teams in the ACC possess. They still rebound like crazy (thanks to undersized forward Roddreka Rogers) and get plenty of second shots, but it's hard to see them finishing higher than fifth, even with a relatively easy ACC schedule.

Betwixt and Between

Miami Miami is another squad undergoing a huge rebuild, so much so that coach Katie Meier has installed new offenses and defenses. The results have been mixed for a team almost totally lacking in quality size, but there have been signs of life. Miami's defense has forced turnovers, and they've received solid step-up play from a number of young players, including Adrienne Motley, Jassany Williams and Keyonna Hayes, among others. The problem that Meier predicted would show up in the preseason has indeed emerged in practice: rebounding. The 'Canes are one of the worst in the league at it as a team, even with undersized players overachieving. That vulnerability could spell the difference between a potential NCAA tournament run and a WNIT berth (or worse, a losing record).

Virginia Tech The idea that Virginia Tech would be in line for a potential postseason berth seemed absurd in the preseason, but coach Dennis Wolff wasn't exaggerating when he said that this team was going to score a lot more points than last year's historically awful group. Indeed, fielding a team with Hannah Young and Taijah Campbell in the starting lineup together with go-to players Monet Tellier and Uju Ugoka, the Hokies are averaging a solid 71 points per game and still  have the top defense in the ACC, giving up just 55 points, on average, to opponents. Two things have contributed to their fast start: a healthy roster and impact freshmen.   However, the real secret to the team's success has been the remarkably steady play of Aussie frosh guard Vanessa Panousis. A veteran of international play, Panousis has shot well from the field and is in the top ten in the ACC in assists. On the down side, the Hokies haven't beaten any elite teams and have come close to dropping games against inferior opponents, and that's because their bench is dangerously thin. Any game in which a key starter is in foul trouble will put the Hokies in jeopardy, no matter which ACC team they're playing. Still, the Hokies stand a decent shot at postseason play of some sort.

New Coach Cavalcade

Clemson Three new coaches entered the ACC this year, taking over programs in various states of disrepair. The toughest job unquestionably belongs to Audra Smith at Clemson. The once-proud Tigers have been in disarray since the latter years of the Jim Davis era and suffered through ineffective stints from Cristy McKinney and Itoro Umoh-Coleman. Smith brings a veteran hand and a reputation for great defensive play, but these Tigers can't score points. They're last in the ACC in scoring at just 58 points per game. And the job of pointing points on the scoreboard won't get easier when the Tigers play ACC teams with the defensive prowess (and length) of Syracuse and North Carolina. Clemson's players have always been long on potential and short on actual production against elite opponents (Exhibit A: Nikki Dixon); they will struggle this year and will continue to struggle until Smith is able to sign the kind of players who will have the talent and aptitude to excel in her system.

Pittsburgh Suzie McConnell-Serio has great credentials and has an excellent chance of quickly rebuilding a Pitt program that fell apart thanks to a slew of transfers and injuries that forced out longtime head coach Agnus Berenato. Pitt's recruiting is already starting to pick up and the Panthers have a legitimate start to build around in Brianna Kiesel. A recent win over McConnell-Serio's most recent former program, Duquesne, provides a note of hope as the Panthers enter ACC play.  They have the capacity to pull off a minor upset or two.

North Carolina State Wes Moore left Chattanooga to take over what many consider to be the sleeping giant of the ACC, NC State. Kelly Harper had a nice start but wasn't able to lure the kind of talent to Raleigh needed to truly compete against the ACC's elite. A lack of institutional support and outdated facilities were both listed as obstacles she couldn't overcome, but the fact of the matter is that her teams played poor defense and were out of shape. Moore has the Wolfpack Women playing a four-in, one-out motion offense, which has allowed talented forward Kody Burke to shine as a rover on offense instead of chaining her to the post. Six-five center Markeisha Gatling is in better shape and a great anchor in the middle for a team that spreads opponents out with three-point shooting and makes great use of a fairly deep bench.

Where Are We Going?

Boston College It's too early to tell how the other young coaches in the ACC are faring. For example, Boston College's Erik Johnson has gone back to the patterned offense that the Eagles used to excel at during his old boss Cathy Inglese's term as head coach. The Eagles can certainly shoot the ball, but they don't generate offense from defense. Their lack of speed and mediocre rebounding have also been issues. It hasn't helped that BC's post depth has been ravaged due to injuries; the Eagles essentially operate with a seven-woman rotation. In essence, Johnson's players compete until they drop. Their discipline makes them a fun team to watch, but they just don't have the depth or athletes to compete with the top teams in the league at this time.

Wake Forest Jen Hoover is trying to get her Wake Forest team to hold on until reinforcements arrive next year. The team has only one useful senior and one useful junior to go with some decent frosh and mediocre sophs. Right now, this is mostly a two-woman squad, headed up by Chelsea Douglas on the perimeter (she dropped 48 points on FIU) and Dearica Hamby in the post. Hamby is a long and lean player who has massively improved as a scorer; her defense and rebounding were always top-notch. Beyond those two, there's a whole lot of uncertainty, though freshmen Jill Brunori and Kelila Atkinson have had their moments. Douglas's fearlessness as a shooter will generate an upset or two, but like won't be enough to pin down a winning season.

Virginia If Virginia Tech is the most pleasant surprise in the ACC so far, then in-state rival Virginia is the least happy happenstance. Though the Cavaliers lost some useful seniors, they were expected to be ready to go with the return of guards Lexie Gerson and Kelsey Wolfe from injury. Instead, their perimeter play has been erratic, with no true point guard there to steady them. They can't shoot, rebound or defend, other than to generate steals. There is talent here, but it won't coalesce until everyone not only gets healthy, but also gains confidence in their health. Joanne Boyle has been good enough to merit her more time, even if this season is a total washout, especially since she has good recruits coming in. Still, the clock is ticking on a UVA turnaround.


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