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With Notre Dame retooling, Louisville and NC State have a chance to dominate the ACC

With Notre Dame losing five of their best players to graduation and the WNBA, the ACC looks quite different this year. But a rebuilding season for the Fighting Irish is great news for the Louisville Cardinals and the NC State Wolfpack — two teams looking to break out in 2019-20.

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 23 Div I Women’s Championship - First Round - Maine v NC State
Junior forward Kayla Jones (left) and sophomore center Elissa Cunane return to NC State with hopes of leading the Wolfpack to ACC glory.
Photo by Michael Berg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With regular season and conference tournament titles are up for grabs, the 2019-20 ACC women’s basketball season promises intrigue. Notre Dame has dominated the ACC since joining in 2013, winning six consecutive regular-season titles and five conference tournament championships. With Fighting Irish stars Arike Ogunbowale (Dallas Wings), Brianna Turner (Phoenix Mercury), Jackie Young (Las Vegas Aces), Jessica Shepard (Minnesota Lynx) and Marina Mabrey (Los Angeles Sparks) graduating and moving into their professional careers, the Fighting Irish have undergone wholesale changes, bringing in a brand-new starting five. Amid this shakeup, are the Irish still contenders? Or will their new-look roster open the door for other schools to rise to the top of the ACC?

What’s next for Notre Dame?

The good news for Notre Dame is that they return six players from last year’s roster, although half of those were freshmen last year. The upperclassmen, one senior and two juniors, are not terribly experienced either. Kaitlin Cole, the lone senior, walked on as a sophomore and redshirted in 2018-19 because of a knee injury. Cole played in 23 games in the 2017-18 season and scored a combined 29 points.

Nicole Benz, a junior, has played in 36 games in two years, totaling just 99 minutes on the court. Benz has yet to score more than two points in any single appearance. Mikayla Vaughn, the other junior and the roster’s lone center, appeared in 44 career games — 38 in the 2018-19 season during which she averaged 9.5 minutes per contest.

To offset inexperience, the Irish brought in two graduate transfers: Marta Sniezek from Stanford and Destinee Walker from North Carolina. After a promising junior year, Sniezek redshirted her senior season after suffering multiple injuries. Sniezek started 32 of 35 games her junior season and, while not a big offensive threat, she brings defensive intensity. Sniezek was a two-time PAC-12 All-Defensive Team honorable mention.

Walker’s college basketball career was off to a great start as a full-time starter for the Tar Heels. Walker averaged 13.9 points in her freshman campaign and 12.4 points in her second season at North Carolina. A knee injury would force her to miss the final 10 games of the season and she redshirted her junior season. Walker played in just four games during her final year at North Carolina.

With Sniezek and Walker coming off injuries, it is hard to know what Notre Dame is going to get. With any luck, both players can return to their prior forms and provide clutch play for the Irish.

The most experienced player on the Notre Dame roster in terms of minutes played is sophomore Abby Prohaska. As a freshman, Prohaska played in 38 games and averaged 14.4 minutes; she likely figures into the starting lineup this year. Prohaska did not show a lot in terms of scoring, but she contributed 43 assists and 30 steals in 2018-19.

The Fighting Irish have advanced to the Sweet 16 in 10 straight NCAA Tournaments. After being picked to finish fourth in their conference amid this season’s rebuild, Notre Dame has quite the task ahead.

Can Louisville be an outright champion?

Louisville won the ACC conference tournament in 2018 and tied for a share of the ACC regular-season title with Notre Dame the last two seasons. The Cardinals were picked as the favorite to win the ACC tournament in 2019-20. The question will be whether Louisville can win both the ACC regular season and the conference tournament.

Although they return just two starters, Jazmine Jones and Bionca Dunham, there is proven talent on the Cardinals roster. Dana Evans, the ACC Sixth Player of the Year in 2019, is the highest scorer returning this season. She averaged 10.4 points per game last season. Look for Evans to only get better as she slides into a starting role.

Two sophomore transfers from Georgia Tech look to play big roles for Louisville: ACC Freshman of the Year Elizabeth Balogun and ACC All-Freshmen Team member Elizabeth Dixon. Balogun and Dixon left Georgia Tech after the firing of head coach MaChelle Joseph and both immediately were ruled eligible. Balogun started all 30 games for the Yellow Jackets in 2018-19 and averaged 14.6 points. Dixon led all ACC freshmen with 6.4 rebounds while also averaging 11.0 points.

Louisville looks to be a force for the other schools in the ACC to reckon with this season. The Cardinals quite possibly will be a contender for a national championship.

Can NC State challenge for the ACC title?

The NC State Wolfpack won 21 consecutive games to start the 2018-19 season and advanced to the Sweet 16. Unfortunately, they where beaten by Iowa 79-61. The Wolfpack come into the new season with all but two of their starters from last season’s campaign — last year’s leading scorer Kiara Leslie (Washington Mystics) and DD Rogers (graduation) — which puts them in a pretty good spot.

Elissa Cunane, a true sophomore, played in all 34 games last season, starting 11. Cunane averaged 13.6 points and was named to the ACC All-Freshmen Team. Look for her to blossom as a starter. Aislinn Konig, a senior, took over the starting point guard role after Kaila Ealey suffered a knee injury before the season. Konig flourished with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.7 and a program record with 93 made three-pointers.

Grace Hunter, who started the first 14 games of the season, was averaging 14.6 points prior to suffering a season-ending injury. Hunter and Ealey should be back for NC State and are sure to be impactful.

NC State also brings in three five-star freshmen: Jakia Brown-Turner, Jada Boyd and Elle Sutphin. These three should bolster this already talented roster. The Wolfpack look to be one of the country’s best.

The ACC appears to be one of the deepest conferences in the nation. Only time will tell if the individual programs live up to the hype.