2014 ACC Tournament Preview: Newcomers shake things up

March 4, 2014 - 11:36am
The 2014 ACC Women's Basketball Tournament gets underway at 1 p.m. EST Wednesday, March 5, in Greensboro, N.C. (Logo courtesy ACC)

The 2014 ACC Women's Basketball Tournament gets underway at 1 p.m. EST Wednesday, March 5, in Greensboro, N.C. (Logo courtesy ACC)

The newcomers shook things up in the Atlantic Coast Conference this year, with Notre Dame, in its first year in the league after leaving the Big East, executing a perfect season to knock the perennial conference powerhouses off the podium. Syracuse did not fare quite as well, but still made some noise, finishing the regular season at 21-8 and tying with the Tar Heels at 10-6 in conference play. So evenly matched is this pair, that the ACC has North Carolina ranked No. 5 and the Orange No. 6 in the conference standings, based on UNC's half-game better overall record (22-8), but Syracuse grabbed the No. 5 seed in the tournament, leaving the Tar Heels seeded sixth, because the Orange beat North Carolina on its home court, 78-73, in their head-to-head tie-breaker.

There's no need to shed tears for the conference's old guard, however, five of whom have performed well enough to rank among the nation's Top 25, with the Irish leading the way at No. 2, Maryland (No. 8/5), Duke (No. 10), North Carolina (No. 13/12), North Carolina State (No. 14/17) falling into step right behind, and Syracuse still receiving votes (RV5/RV 12) after having spent a good part of the season nationally ranked.

Of course, all those teams, as well as the rest of the pack, will get their chance to realign the pecking order when the 2014 ACC Women's Basketball Ttips off Wednesday at 1 p.m. Eastern in Greensboro, N.C. The early rounds will air on the local affiliates of the Regional Sports Network with most also available on ESPN3 and coverage of all games also available on the ACC's proprietary Championship web site. The semifinals will be carried on ESPNU, while ESPN will broadcast the title game.

Let's take a look at the tournament pairings, including a look at each team's season to date.

First-Round Games: Wednesday, March 5

Game 1: No. 12 Virginia Tech v. No. 13 Clemson --  1 p.m. EST (RSN, ESPN3)

Virginia Tech Notes: The Hokies (14-15, 4-12 ACC) started off the season on a surprising winning streak and then got a cold dose of reality when they entered ACC play. They lost 11 of their first 12 league games before getting it together with wins against Pitt, Clemson and (shockingly) UNC. Forward Uju Ugoka is a matchup problem for anyone in the post, frosh point guard Vanessa Panousis has been on a scoring tear of late and wing Monet Tellier is a steady presence (if a streaky scorer). The Hokies are a solid defensive bunch, but in their losses, they reverted to a static, inefficient offense that featured way too many jump shots.

Clemson Notes: The Tigers (12-18, 4-12 ACC) showed some improvement this year under new coach Audra Smith, but they have a long way to go to field a team with polished talent and depth. Wing Nikki Dixon, shooter Kelly Gramlich, forward Quinyotta Pettaway and a variety of mid-sized wings provide some depth. Only Dixon has been a constant for the Tigers, and even she is an erratic shooter. This is a team that doesn't do anything particularly well, but they are quick enough and big enough to give some opponents problems.

Key Match-Up: Clemson wing Nikki Dixon v. Hokie wing Monet Tellier. These two veterans have done the heavy lifting for their teams their entire careers. Tellier, at least, has other players she can depend on to pick up the scoring slack, so if she can contain Dixon, then the Hokies should win with relative ease.

Game 2: No. 10 Virginia v. No. 15 Boston College --3:30 p.m. EST (RSN, ESPN3)

Virginia Notes: The Hoos (13-16, 6-10 ACC) came into the season with great promise, as they were returning a number of players from injury and bringing in a well-regarded freshman class. However, a brutal nonconference schedule exposed Virginia as a team that was not close to being ready to play against elite opponents; there was simply too much rust on those returning veterans. Of course, the fact that Virginia's point guard play was unsettled (no true playmakers) and their post play was limited (only post Sarah Imovbioh contributed for Virginia, and she had frequent defensive lapses) put more pressure on the shoulders of perimeter veterans like Lexie Gerson, Ataira Franklin and Kelsey Wolfe. The younger players looked to those three veterans for guidance, but all three have either been coming back from injury or dealing with nagging injuries over the course of the season. The result has been a Virginia team that's had lapses of concentration and an inability to put away inferior teams. That said, the Cavaliers upset Maryland and can certainly compete with good teams. The tournament will give them one last chance to prove that they can finish off wins.

Boston College Notes: The Eagles (12-16, 3-13 ACC) have been decimated by injuries this year. Coach Erik Johnson has frequently had to use an almost "Iron Five" lineup just to stay competitive. BC is a slow-down team that sets screens to open up shots for their many markswomen. Post Katie Zenevitch is the key to balancing all of this out, and she hurt her foot prior to Senior Day; it's unclear if she'll be able to go in Greensboro. It should be noted that BC actually managed to beat Virginia earlier in the year, in a game in which they not only got 10 threes to splash but also got to the foul line 20 times.

Key Match-Up: Virginia's lockdown defensive guard Lexie Gerson v. BC's human Swiss Army knife Kristen Doherty. They are the leaders of their respective teams and have their fingerprints on nearly every aspect of the offense and defense.

Game 3: No. 11 Wake Forest v. No. 14 Pitt -- 6:30 p.m. EST (RSN, ESPN3)

Wake Forest Notes: The Deacs (14-15, 5-11 ACC) are another team looking to pull an upset and become eligible for the WNIT. They have two of the ACC's most productive players in guard Chelsea Douglas and forward Dearica Hamby. Hamby, who was just named to the All-ACC first team, led the ACC in both scoring (21.7 ppg) and rebounding (10.9 rbg), is a relentless, efficient scorer in the post who can also pop out and knock down a jumper. Douglas (18.5 ppg) is a shooter, pure and simple. Frosh post Jill Brunori is an effort player who gets lots of offensive rebounds. Beyond that trio, Wake has a lot of complementary players whose production this season has been erratic.

Pitt Notes: The Panthers (11-19, 3-13 ACC) actually experienced a program uptick thanks to new coach Suzie McConnell-Serio, but it wasn't enough to make a dent in the brutally competitive ACC. The team is built around point guard Brianna Kiesel, with forward Asia Logan and guard Loliya Briggs being the other two consistent scorers. Some of the reserves and role players have been known to come up with a big scoring game or two, but there's really very little size and consistency in this group. Only Kiesel has been a constant for the Panthers.

Key Match-Up: Pitt guard Brianna Kiesel v. gunslinging Wake guard Chelsea Douglas. Both players will need to put up some serious points if their teams are to have a chance to win. I see Douglas, aided by Brunori and especially Hamby, as simply having more weapons around her, allowing her to operate a bit more freely.

Second-Round Games: Thursday, March 6

Game 4: No. 5 Syracuse v. Game 1 Winner (Virginia Tech/Clemson) -- 11 a.m. EST (RSN)

Syracuse Notes: The Orange (21-8, 10-6 ACC) are led by super-sophs Brianna Butler (a smooth-shooting guard) and Brittney Sykes (a hard-charging forward). With post Shakeya Leary (and backup Briana Day), point guard Rachel Coffey and a variety of wings, the Orange have the depth and athleticism to challenge a number of opponents. However, their offense sometimes stagnates when someone other than Butler or Sykes is called upon to score, they are prone to turning the ball over against other pressing teams, and their rebounding is inconsistent. That's due in part to playing so much zone, but they also have trouble just getting to the right spots.

Key Match-Up: Orange point guard Rachel Coffey v. Virginia Tech point guard Vanessa Panousis. Coffey needs to shut down the talented young frosh. If she can deny her open looks, then the Hokies will struggle to score against the Orange zone.

Game 5: No. 8 Miami v. No. 9 Florida State -- 2 p.m. EST (RSN)

Miami Notes: The Hurricanes (16-13, 8-8) are in good shape for a WNIT bid in a year that had a lot of question marks when it began. Coach Katie Meier had to totally reinvent her team and coaching philosophy after the last of the great players from her recent run of success finally graduated. In a team bereft of skilled size and much experience at any position, the 'Canes became a fiercely competitive squad built around pressure defense and three-point shooting. They are a poor rebounding club in general but sometimes make up for that by generating turnovers. They are built around wings and guards like Keyona Hayes, Adrienne Motley, Caprice Dennis and Suriya McGuire.

Florida State Notes: The Seminoles (19-10, 7-9 ACC) are closing in on an NCAA bid but probably need one more win to sew it up. Forward Natasha Howard, after three years as a complementary player, has exploded as a senior at both ends of the floor. Her ability to slither through defenses makes her a difficult match-up. FSU is a team with a short rotation that depends heavily on its frosh; how guard Brittany Brown and forward Ivey Slaughter react in this environment will go a long way toward determining how this game shakes out.

Key Match-Up: Quick FSU point guard Cheetah Delgado v. Miami rookie floor general Adrienne Motley. Delgado sets the tone and pace for Florida State but isn't a big scorer. Motley has seized a leadership role as a frosh and is equally capable of hitting clutch shots or setting others up for them. If Motley has a poor game, Miami won't have much of a chance to win.

Game 6: No. 7 Georgia Tech v. Game 2 Winner (Virginia/Boston College) --  6 p.m. EST (RSN)

Georgia Tech Notes: The Yellow Jackets (19-10, 10-6 ACC) are healthy and jelling at the right time of the season. The younger players on the team are maturing and making key contributions, and one gets the sense that everyone knows her role. That said, Tech is limited in some ways. They don't have a post who can score, nor do they have a true point guard who can score, defend and set up others. Tech loves to press and is extremely physical, bumping cutters and daring officials to make calls. They can get away with this because of their tremendous depth at guard and wing. They have shooters in Sydney Wallace and Aaliyah Whiteside, as well as the superb rookie guard Kaela Davis. Ty Marshall is the team's catalyst and is equally adept at drawing in defenders to find teammates or attacking the rim.

Key Match-Up: Ty Marshall v. either Virginia's Lexie Gerson or BC's Kristen Doherty. Marshall is the team's leader as well as its leading scorer. I suspect she will be able to impose her will on either one of those players, solid as they are.

Game 7: No. 6 North Carolina v. Game 3 Winner (Wake/Pitt) --  8 p.m. EST (RSN)

North Carolina Notes: The young Tar Heels (21-8, 9-6 ACC) are led by a quartet of outstanding frosh -- wing Diamond DeShields, guard Allisha Gray and undersized post Stephanie Mavunga foremost among them. Along with veteran guard Latifah Coleman and soph forward Xylina McDaniel, this has been a fascinating team to follow because they're capable of anything. They swept No. 2-seed Duke in their regular-season match-ups, but lost to both Miami and Virginia Tech. They can put up points in a hurry but can also go through offensive droughts that last up to 10 minutes. Lack of discipline is often at work there, along with a loss of confidence if shots suddenly stop dropping. Still, no ACC team has the sheer raw talent and athleticism that UNC possesses, which makes them a dangerous No. 6 seed.

Key Match-Up: If the Heels play Wake Forest, it will be Wake post Dearica Hamby v. UNC post Stephanie Mavunga. Hamby is the top scorer and rebounder in the ACC, and she always finds a way to score even if she doesn't get great looks. If the Heels can contain her, then their task is mostly done in this game.

Quarterfinal Games -- Friday, March 7

Game 8: No. 4 North Carolina State v. Game 4 Winner (Syracuse v. Virginia Tech/Clemson) -- 11 a.m. EST (RSN)

North Carolina State Notes: The Wolfpack Women (24-6, 11-5 ACC) hobble into Greensboro minus both a key guard in Myisha Goodwin-Coleman and their backup center Lakeesa Daniel. The Pack use a four-out, one-in offense under new coach Wes Moore, with hulking center Markeisha Gatling staying in the lane and everyone else acting as a potential cutter or shooter. That includes shot-blocking forward Kody Burke, who doubles as a three-point threat as well as a post player. Point guard Len'Nique Brown is the team's playmaker and top defender, while Krystal Barrett and Miah Spencer are the only other two players who are now receiving significant playing time. State sets a lot of screens and is a decent rebounding squad, but its margin for error is now exceedingly thin.

Key Match-Up: The Pack's Markeisha Gatling v. the Orange's Shakeya Leary. These two posts provide scoring balance for their respective teams; if either of them is ineffective or in foul trouble, her entire team becomes vulnerable. The difference for Syracuse is that they can bring in a credible backup in Brianna Day, while State has no such option. I expect this to be the breaking point for the Wolfpack if they match up with the Orange.

Game 9: No. 1 Notre Dame v. Game 5 Winner (Miami/Florida State) -- 2 p.m. EST (RSN)

Notre Dame Notes: Behind game-changing guard Jewel Loyd, crafty veteran guard Kayla McBride (one of the best shooters in the ACC) and chippy center Natalie Achonwa, the Irish (29-0, 16-0 ACC)  have a core that knows how to win games and isn't afraid of the moment. Only two opponents finished within 10 points of the Irish this season. This team has excellent chemistry, as frosh point guard Lindsay Allen has run the team with aplomb. Forwards Ariel Braker and Taya Reimer and sniper Michaela Mabry provide perfect complementary play. Notre Dame absolutely dominated the ACC -- and everyone else they played --  this season.

Key Match-Up: If the quarterfinal opponent is Miami, then it's Jewel Loyd v. the Hurricanes' Adrienne Motley. If it's Florida State, then it's Achonwa v. the 'Noles' Natasha Howard. Howard would definitely get her points, but it would take her much more effort than usual. Motley isn't ready to deal with Notre Dame's poise and experience in a setting like this just yet.

Game 10: No. 2 Duke v. Game 6 Winner (Georgia Tech v. Virginia/Boston College) -- 6 p.m. EST (RSN)

Duke Notes: The Blue Devils (25-5, 12-4 ACC) have suffered an unprecedented series of injuries at guard, losing the starting backcourt of Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones as well as veteran back-up Chloe Wells. They've transformed from an attacking, up-tempo team to one that plays 40 minutes of zone and slows it down on offense. With so many big players, Duke is now going to a double-post offense, moving stretch four Haley Peters to the wing. These Devils play best when moving the ball with crisp passes and struggle when they're dribbling around with no particular end in mind. Despite all the injuries, you can't count Duke out of it yet: There's still plenty of talent here; it's just a matter of finding ways to maximize the efficiency of players like center Elizabeth Williams and wing Richa Jackson, along with getting good production from the bench.

Key Match-Up: Blue Devil wing Tricia Liston v. (potentially) Jacket wing Ty Marshall. Both are playing out of position in that they're handling the ball a lot. Marshall's short game could have problems against Duke's zone, while Liston's three-point shooting could be stymied by pressure. The player who can best overcome these challenges will likely lead her team to victory.

Game 11: No. 3 Maryland v. Game 7 Winner (North Carolina v. Wake Forest/Pitt) --  8 p.m. EST (RSN)

Maryland Notes: The Terps (24-5, 12-4) have had a solid year built around star senior forward Alyssa Thomas. Always a threat to post a triple double, Thomas is a tough match-up in the post. Otherwise, the Terps are highly dependent on freshmen: wing Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, who is a great shooter; powerful post Brionna Jones; and point guard Lexie Brown. The Terps build their game around rebounding and a few capable shooters, like sniper Katie Rutan. Maryland is a dangerous squad that hasn't quite been able to compete with the nation's elite teams but is capable of doing a lot of damage in the tourney.

Key Match-Up: Speedy Terp point guard Lexie Brown v. UNC rookie star Diamond DeShields. The Terps will need someone to quickly locate DeShields at all times and flat-out smother her, and Brown is the one player who can keep up with her. DeShields is the engine behind UNC, and if she's frustrated or inefficient, it could make all the difference for the Terps.

Semifinal Games - Saturday, March 8

Game 12: Game 8 Winner v. Game 9 Winner -- 5 p.m. EST (ESPNU)

Key Match-Up: If it's Notre Dame v. Syracuse, as I expect, then it will be an easy win for the Irish. The Orange's style of play -- frenetic, fast-paced, zone-oriented -- plays right into Notre Dame's hands, and I expect the Irish to break the press with ease and get plenty of good shots. Syracuse's Brianna Butler will match up with Notre Dame's Kayla McBride, a duel weighing heavily in favor of the Irish senior. 

Game 13: Game 10 Winner v. Game 11 Winner -- 7:30 p.m. EST (ESPNU)

Key Match-Up: If it's Duke v. Maryland, as I predict, then the match-up here will be Haley Peters of Duke v. Alyssa Thomas of Maryland. That said, I expect Duke to swarm Thomas and take their chances with Maryland's shooters. Otherwise, this is a huge edge to Maryland. This should be a close game, but playing a day earlier will put more strain on short-handed Duke than on Maryland. I see the Terps playing for one last ACC championship before they leave the conference.

Championship Game -- Sunday, March 9

Game 14: Game 12 Winner v. Game 13 Winner -- 7 p. m. EST (ESPN)

Key Match-Up: If things evolve as predicted above, the match-up to see will be Notre Dame's Jewel Loyd v. Maryland's Alyssa Thomas. They won't guard each other, but this duo staged an epic duel in their first meeting this season in a game won by the Irish. Maryland came back from a huge halftime deficit thanks to pounding the ball into the post. If Irish post Natalie Achonwa gets into foul trouble, this could greatly assist Maryland in taking the upper hand. On the other hand, if Maryland can't hit from the perimeter, the Irish will make them pay. It's not clear who, if anyone,  Maryland has who can slow down Loyd or McBride, so we'll call it Notre Dame winning its first ACC tournament and claiming the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

All-ACC Team

The All-Atlantic Coast Conference Teams were announced Tuesday as teams warmed up in Gwinnett Center on the tourament's practice day. Notre Dame and Duke led the way with two players apiece on the 10-member All-ACC First Team. These had to be tough decisions for the league's Blue Ribbons Panel, made up of members of the national and local media as well as representatives of member schools, to make, given the quantity of top-notch talent in the league, which promises to give fans an entertaining week of women's basketball.

2014 All-ACC First Team
Player Year Pos University
Diamond DeShields FR Forward North Carolina
Markeisha Gatling SR Center North Carolina State
Dearica Hamby JR Forward Wake Forest
Natasha Howard SR Forward Florida State
Tricia Liston SR Guard Duke
Jewell Loyd SO Guard Notre Dame
Tyaunna Marshall SR Guard Georgia Tech
Kayla McBride SR Guard Notre Dame
Alyssa Thomas SR Forward Maryland
Elizabeth Williams JR Center-Forward Duke
2014 All-ACC Second Team
Player Year Pos University
Natalie Achonwa SR Forward Notre Dame
Kody Burke SR Forward North Carolina State
Kaela Davis FR Guard Georgia Tech
Brittney Sykes SO Guard Syracuse
Uju Ugoka SR Virginia Tech

The league's All-Freshman Team was also announced Tuesday. Its five members include:


2014 All-ACC Freshman Team
Player Pos University
Lexie Brown Guard Maryland
Kaela Davis Guard Georgia Tech
Diamond DeShields Guard North Carolina
Alisha Gray Guard North Carolina
Adrienne Motley Guard North Carolina

Announcements of the league's player of the year, coach of the year and freshman of the year honors are expected to be announced on Wednesday, the opening day of the tournament.