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ACC Preview: NC State loaded with talented returners, transfers and freshmen

The NC State Wolfpack return their core, including Elissa Cunane, from a No. 1-seed season and add transfers Diamond Johnson and Madison Hayes and freshmen Aziaha James and Sophie Hart. How close are Louisville, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Florida State to challenging for the ACC crown?

NCAA Womens Basketball: Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament - Louisville vs NC State
Olivia Cochran of Louisville (jersey #44) goes up for a jump ball against Elissa Cunane of NC State (jersey #33).
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Our conference previews continue with a look at the ACC:

Rewind: A look at where the ACC left off

Louisville won the 2020-21 ACC regular season, but NC State defeated the Cardinals by two points in the tournament championship game to take that crown for the second year in a row.

In the ACC there are head coaches awards and Blue Ribbon Panel awards. Dana Evans of Louisville and now the WNBA champion Chicago Sky won both Player of the Year awards, but Rookie of the Year was split between Kamilla Cardoso of Syracuse and Maddy Westbeld of Notre Dame and Coach of the Year was split between Nell Fortner of Georgia Tech and Wes Moore of NC State. For the other three awards, only the coaches vote, but Defensive Player of the Year was split between Cardoso and Lorela Cubaj of Georgia Tech and Sixth Player of the Year was split between Jada Boyd of NC State and Emily Engstler of Syracuse. Lotta-Maj Lahtinen of Georgia Tech won Most Improved Player.

Seven ACC teams made the NCAA Tournament last year. Louisville was the most successful, making it all the way to the Elite Eight before falling to the eventual national champion in Stanford. NC State was a No. 1 seed, but was upset in the Sweet 16 by Indiana. Georgia Tech also made the Sweet 16 after a thrilling overtime win in the first round and upset of West Virginia in the second round. Virginia Tech snd Syracuse both made it to the second round while Florida State and UNC bowed out in the first round.

Team-by-team analysis

Here’s where each team stands entering the 2021-22 season, in order of the preseason standings predicted by the ACC’s head coaches:

1) No. 5 NC State Wolfpack

Superstar Elissa Cunane is back for her senior year and the Wolfpack are hungry to go deeper in the NCAA Tournament than the Sweet Sixteen. Joining Cunane, who was an All-American Second Team selection, will be All-America honorable mention Jakia Brown-Turner, a crafty scoring wing who is now a junior. The Wolfpack actually have all their main scorers back, including graduate point guard Raina Perez, who averaged 4.7 assists last year. They have also added Rutgers transfer Diamond Johnson, who is one of the top sophomores in the nation, and Mississippi State transfer Madison Hayes, who made the SEC All-Freshman Team last year. Incoming Hoop Gurlz 100 recruits for the Wolfpack are Aziaha James (No. 36) and Sophie Hart (No. 64).

2) No. 6 Louisville Cardinals

Dana Evans will be hard to replace, but Louisville hopes that the addition of impact players Emily Engstler (Syracuse) and Chelsie Hall (Vanderbilt) and No. 12 Hoop Gurlz recruit Payton Verhulst will keep it near the top of the ACC. Sophomore guard Hailey Van Lith could become the team’s best player. She wasn’t asked to score a ton last year because Evans was so prolific, but she was capable of doing a lot more. She was the No. 7 Hoop Gurlz recruit in 2020 for a reason and could become a big star as a sophomore.

3) No. 17 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Georgia Tech was a scrappy team last year that emerged as the third-best squad in the conference. It has all three of its double-figure scorers (Lotta-Maj Lahtinen, Kierra Fletcher and Lorela Cubaj) returning, with the latter two both opting for a fifth year. Cubaj in particular is a player to watch; she averaged a double-double last year. The Yellow Jackets have also added one of Syracuse’s key contributors in Digna Strautmane.

4) No. 24 Virginia Tech Hokies

Watch out for Virginia Tech. Graduate guard Aisha Shepard was No. 15 on our list of the best seniors+ in the nation and 6-foot-6 center Elizabeth Kitley was No. 11 on our list of the top juniors. Kitley finished second to Elissa Cunane in ACC preseason Player of the Year voting with 10 media votes and two coach votes. She averaged 18.2 points and 10.4 boards last year while Shepard was good for 17.7 points per game. The Hokies also return sophomore guard Georgia Amoore, who averaged 11.8 points and 4.6 assists in 2020-21. And they add a Power 5 impact player in Kayana Traylor (Purdue) and a mid-major star in Emily Lytle (Liberty).

5) No. 16 Florida State Seminoles

The Seminoles ended last season with a blowout loss to Oregon State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but return as the No. 16 team in the country, partly because of a great freshman class featuring No. 31 Hoop Gurlz recruit O’Mariah Gordon and No. 48 Makayla Timpson. They also return all three of their double-figures scores (Bianca Jackson, Morgan Jones and Kourtney Weber). Jackson led the team in scoring and distributing and Jones led the team in rebounding. Erin Howard, who was a solid contributor for Auburn in 2019-20 before missing last year at FSU due to injury, could be an important player as well.

6) Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The Irish had made 24-straight NCAA Tournaments before missing it last year. Then-freshman Maddy Westbeld was a bright spot in what was a disappointing season by the program’s standards. She will look to follow up her ACC Rookie of the Year campaign with an even better sophomore season. Olivia Miles has fans excited as well. She is the No. 8 Hoop Gurlz recruit and started college early last year, averaging 9.3 points and 3.5 assists over six games. The team lost second-leading scorer Destinee Walker to graduation, but it returns five of its top six scorers and adds another freshman from the Hoop Gurlz 100 in Sonia Citron (No. 16).

7) North Carolina Tar Heels

Unlike the teams predicted to finish above them, the Tar Heels lost quite a lot. Their top three scorers Janelle Bailey, Stephanie Watts and Petra Holešínská all entered the 2021 WNBA Draft. Their top returning scorer is 2020 No. 10 Hoop Gurlz recruit Deja Kelly who averaged 11 points. They also return Alyssa Ustby, a sophomore guard who averaged 9.9 points in 2020-21. There is a lot of potential for UNC to make up for its losses. It brings in 2021 No. 9 Hoop Gurlz recruit Teonni Key as well as No. 17 Kayla McPherson, No. 18 Morasha Wiggins and No. 20 Destiny Adams. The Tar Heels have also added two mid-major stars in Eva Hodgson (William & Mary) and Carlie Littlefied (Princeton).

8) Duke Blue Devils

Duke is full of transfers, perhaps most notably Imani Lewis, who starred at Wisconsin. They also add Lexi Gordon, who averaged 15.7 points for Texas Tech last year, one of Charli Collier’s co-stars at Texas in Celeste Taylor, a solid contributor from Louisville in Elizabeth Balogun and a former ACC All-Freshman honoree in Amaya Finklea-Guity (Syracuse). Baylor transfer Jordyn Oliver, a very underrated player, is out for the season with a torn Achilles. Last year was a four-game season for Duke because of COVID, but the team does return its top two scorers in Miela Goodchild and Vanessa de Jesus as well as its top rebounder in Onome Akinbode-James. Duke’s one Hoop Gurlz 100 recruit is Shayeann Day-Wilson (No. 41).

9) Miami Hurricanes

The Hurricanes return their top two scorers from last year’s 8-10 conference campaign. That would be Kelsey Marshall (13.2 points per game) and Destiny Harden (10.7 points and 5.4 rebounds per game). However the team’s third-leading scorer and leading distributor Endia Banks is now a graduate student at Mercer. Point guard Lashae Dwyer will look to fill Banks’ shoes and make an impact as the No. 79 Hoop Gurlz freshman.

10) Clemson Tigers

Clemson guard Delicia Washington is a graduate student to keep an eye on. She averaged 16.4 points, six rebounds and 3.5 assists last year and was in consideration for our Top 20 seniors+. The Tigers have also added Syracuse transfer Kiara Lewis, who should be able to make a big impact, and the reigning OVC Defensive Player of the Year in LaTrese Saine from SEMO. The team’s second-leading scorer from 2020-21, Gabby Elliott, should also be a key piece. And we’ll see if No. 52 Hoop Gurlz recruit Kionna Gaines can contribute right away.

11) Boston College Eagles

Taylor Soule is the main reason for optimism in Chestnut Hill. The senior small forward is on the Cheryl Miller Award watch list for the second season in a row and received a media vote to win ACC Player of the Year. She is fast and athletic in transition and has the great inside moves and touch needed to put up some points. She averaged 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds as a sophomore and 15.7 and seven as a junior.

“I hope that as the year goes on everyone’s gonna see that she’s so much more than just a kid that runs fast up and down the court and is an athlete,” BC head coach Joanna Bernabei McNamee said of Soule at media day on Thursday. “She truly is a consummate team leader. And she’s kind of like a dream player for a coach. ... We wear these little devices called catapults and it tracks (our players’) movement on the court and how hard they go. And after every practice hers is number one. And when your best player, who could be a prima donna out there, doesn’t have to (do) that, she (does) it every day.”

The Eagles return their entire rotation, including starters in Soule, Cameron Swartz, Makayla Dickens, Marnelle Garraud and Clara Ford — all seniors. Swartz, a 5-foot-11 guard, was second on the team in scoring last year with 13.4 points per game. Dickens was third with 12.6 and was 10th in the nation with a 3-point shooting percentage of 45 percent (54 makes). She made 2.84 treys per game — good for 22nd in the country. Garraud, like Soule, brings a hometown vibe to the team (both are from New England), and is the quarterback of the offense. Ford, a center, is solid contributor as well; she was sixth on the team in scoring last year.

Early-enrollment freshman Ally VanTimmeren was fifth with 5.9 points per game to go along with 4.8 rebounds in 21.1 minutes. Not bad at all for someone who was supposed to be in high school. She is No. 95 on Hoop Gurlz and at 6-foot-2 could help the Eagles go big at times. Their starting lineup last year was basically three guards, a 3 and a 5. VanTimmeren gives them a true 4 and she can even play the 5, according to Bernabei-McNamee, who added that VanTimmeren could see time in the starting lineup. She started just once last year in 10 appearances.

The Eagles also have the No. 53 Hoop Gurlz recruit from 2020, JoJo Lacey, whose 2020-21 season was cut short at seven games due to injury. And they have an NC State transfer in Dontavia Waggoner.

BC may be picked to finish seventh, but it was picked to finish 13th in 2019-20 and ended up tied for fourth before making it to the ACC Tournament semifinals. With so much talent back and so much chemistry established, perhaps this year could see another surprise top-half finish for the Eagles. They are particularly hungry for such an outcome because they were robbed of a trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2019-20 due to COVID. In Swish Appeal’s hypothetical bracket, they were chosen as an 11 seed.

12) Syracuse Orange

Where to begin with Syracuse. Last year’s head coach Quentin Hillsman has resigned after facing allegations of bullying and inappropriate behavior. Vonn Reed is now the acting head coach. Nearly the entire 2020-21 roster has transferred away from the school, including three of the team’s top four scorers. The other, Tiana Mangakahia, has graduated. Priscilla Williams, the No. 9 Hoop Gurlz recruit from 2020, is one of the few players who remains from last season. She averaged 8.7 points as a freshman. The Orange also have transfers Chrislyn Carr, Christiana Carr, Najé Murray, Eboni Walker, Alaysia Styles and Jayla Thornton, who have all had success at the DI level.

13) Wake Forest Demon Deacons

The Demon Deacons (8-10 in the ACC last year) appear this low because they lost Ivana Raca to graduation and Gina Conti via graduate transfer to UCLA. Raca averaged 16.7 points and nine rebounds last year. Conti averaged 13.8 points and 4.6 assists. That’s a lot to replace. Third- and fourth-leading scorers Jewel Spear and Christina Morra and Utah transfer Niyah Becker will do their best.

14) Pitt Panthers

The Panthers return leading scorer Jayla Everertt (15.4 points per game) and leading distributor Dayshanette Harris (12.4 points and 4.7 assists per game). That upperclassman duo will look to step up and help the team improve upon its 3-12 conference record from a year ago. The Panthers have also added Youngstown State’s leading scorer Mary Dunn, who had 16.4 points per game in 2020-21.

15) Virginia Cavaliers

The Cavaliers played just two games last year and though they return four players who averaged nine points or more (Amandine Toi, Meg Jefferson, Carole Miller and Kaydan Lawson), not one of those players has experience carrying a significant load for the team for a whole season. Jocelyn Willoughby did most of the scoring in 2019-20. Virginia does have a few key additions who could help out: Ivy League stars Eleah Parker (Penn) and McKenna Dale (Brown) and All-Big East honorable mention Camryn Taylor (Marquette).

Preseason nods

As voted on by the ACC’s head coaches:

Player of the Year: Elissa Cunane (NC State)

All-ACC Team: Taylor Soule (Boston College), Delicia Washington (Clemson), Lorela Cubaj (Georgia Tech), Lotta-Maj Lahtinen (Georgia Tech), Hailey Van Lith (Louisville), Jakia Brown-Turner (NC State), Elissa Cunane (NC State), Maddy Westbeld (Notre Dame), Elizabeth Kitley (Virginia Tech), Aisha Sheppard (Virginia Tech)

As voted on the media:

Same results.

Key conference dates

Dec. 10: ACC season start (NC State vs. Pitt)

Must-see ACC matchups

Jan. 2: Louisville vs. Georgia Tech. Early on in their conference slate the Yellow Jackets will have the home court advantage against Louisville. Will that be enough for them to pull off the upset?

Jan. 20: Louisville vs. NC State. These two teams have been the class of the ACC for a while now. Watch them go at it again.

Feb. 3: Florida State vs. NC State. Can Florida State really make a big leap this year and compete with NC State?