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ACC Tournament Preview: Can Syracuse or Notre Dame make a run?

The Louisville Cardinals and NC State Wolfpack are the favorites in the ACC Tournament once again, but they will be challenged by the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and Florida State Seminoles. Meanwhile, the previously-ranked Syracuse Orange and Notre Dame Fighting Irish hope to emerge from the second round and wreak havoc in the quarterfinals.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NC State at Syracuse
The ACC Rookie of the Year from Syracuse, Kamilla Cardoso (left), fights for a rebound against Elissa Cunane (right) of NC State.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The ACC Tournament begins on Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET with the first three rounds being broadcast on FOX Sports affiliates. The semifinals will air on the ACC Network and the final will air on ESPN2.

The NC State Wolfpack are the reigning tournament champions and are one of the favorites to win this year. The Louisville Cardinals are the other frontrunner.

The top four teams

The Cardinals are the ACC regular-season champions, but the Wolfpack have the better overall resume and were projected to be a 2-seed in the final NCAA Tournament reveal, whereas Louisville was projected to be the top 3-seed. Both teams will be battling to get on the 1-line with an ACC Tournament title.

The Cardinals are led by two-time ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans, a senior guard who is clutch and can score from all over. If Evans puts on some signature performances, Louisville could be hard to beat.

However, the Cardinals only have one win over a ranked team (DePaul on Dec. 4) and lost to NC State 74-60 on Feb. 1.

The Wolfpack feature do-it-all junior center Elissa Cunane, who nearly averages a double-double. She and sophomore wing Jakia Brown-Turner were both named to the All-ACC First Team by both the Blue Ribbon Panel and the conference’s head coaches, while teammate Kayla Jones, a senior forward, joined them on the coaches list.

Louisville may not have another star who is near the level of Evans, but guard Hailey Van Lith and forward Olivia Cochran are solid freshmen who could be X factors in the ACC Tournament.

The No. 3 seed in the tournament, the unranked but vote-receiving Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, were the surprise success story in the conference this year. The Blue Ribbon Panel’s ACC Coach of the Year, Nell Fortner, led them to a 12-6 conference record after they were picked to finish fifth by the head coaches and ninth by the Blue Ribbon Panel. Their best wins came against the Florida State Seminoles (twice), Syracuse Orange and Notre Dame Fighting Irish. However, Georgia Tech has been cold lately, losing four of its last seven, including one to the last-place Boston College Eagles.

The Yellow Jackets have co-ACC Defensive Player of the Year Lorela Cubaj, a senior forward, and the conference’s most improved player, Lotta-Maj Lahtinen, a junior guard.

The 4th-seeded Florida State Seminoles finished 9-7 in the ACC and broke onto the national radar when they beat Louisville 68-59 on Feb. 21. They are led by junior guard Morgan Jones, who made the Blue Ribbon Second Team and the coaches First Team.

As far as seeding goes, Georgia Tech will be looking to improve on 6-seed status in ESPN’s latest projection and avoid playing a 3-seed in the second round. Florida State is pretty solidly in the tournament projection as a No. 9 seed, but, likewise, wants to move up to a 7-seed to avoid playing a 1-seed in the second round.

First and second round matchups

The 12th-seeded Pitt Panthers play the 13th-seeded Eagles in the play-in game before the second round. The two teams finished the regular season tied at the bottom of the ACC standings, but Pitt played two more games and had the better winning percentage. The Panthers’ only three wins in the conference came against Clemson (twice) and BC, 83-80, in their only matchup against the Eagles. BC only had two wins, but they were against good teams in Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.

Fifth-seeded Syracuse will play the winner of Pitt/BC. The Orange came into this season with high expectations. Assist machine and then-projected first-round WNBA Draft pick Tiana Mangakahia was back after winning her battle against breast cancer and the program also brought in two Top 10 Hoop Gurlz recruits: Kamilla Cardoso and Priscilla Williams. Cardoso, a 6-foot-7 center, has won ACC Rookie of the Year by the Blue Ribbon Panel’s vote and is also the conference’s co-Defensive Player of the Year, but Mangakahia’s draft stock has fallen considerably and the team has fallen from as high as No. 18 in the national rankings to no longer receiving votes. Mangakahia still put up great assist numbers, but her scoring was way down this year. Still, the Orange should be considered a sleeper pick to win the ACC Tournament and could spoil a higher seed for teams above them. They are currently projected as an 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

6th-seeded Notre Dame is another team that started the season ranked and is no longer receiving votes. It did have one good stretch this year, though, when it won five of six games from Dec. 31 to Jan. 21. It has been on the bubble all season and right now is considered to be the last team in the NCAA Tournament as an 11-seed. Maddy Westbeld, the ACC Rookie of the Year according to the coaches, leads the team in scoring and rebounding.

The Irish will be facing the 11th-seeded Clemson Tigers in the first round of the ACC Tournament. Clemson was 5-12 in the conference with key wins over Florida State, Syracuse and Notre Dame (78-55),

The scrappy Virginia Tech Hokies (No. 7 seed) will play the 10th-seeded Miami Hurricanes in the first round. The Hokies first crept on the national radar when they played Louisville within four points in defeat on Jan. 7. Three weeks later, they broke through with an overtime win over NC State, which started a six-game winning streak. That streak was just snapped by the UNC Tar Heels in their final game of the regular season on Sunday.

With two First Team All-ACC members (sophomore center Elizabeth Kitley and senior guard Aisha Sheppard) the Hokies could be pesky like Syracuse and Notre Dame. And they are a little safer than the Fighting Irish as a projected 9-seed due to their stronger resume.

Miami, on the other hand, is part of ESPN’s “next four out” after an 8-10 year in the ACC. It’s best win came against Florida State on Feb. 7.

The opening game of the second round will feature an in-state showdown between the 8th-seeded Tar Heels, a projected 9-seed, and the 9th-seeded Wake Forest Demon Deacons, one of the “first four out.” UNC blew out Syracuse 92-68 on Dec. 17 and upset NC State on Feb. 7, but lost both rematches. Wake Forest features senior forward Ivana Racca, a First Team All-ACC player, has a win over Florida State and split with UNC.

ACC Tournament schedule

All games at Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, NC

First Round – Wednesday, March 3

Game 1: No. 12 Pitt vs. No. 13 Boston College, 2 p.m. ET

Second Round - Thursday, March 4

Game 2: No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Wake Forest, 12 p.m. ET

Game 3: No. 5 Syracuse vs, Game 1 winner, 2:30 p.m. ET

Game 4: No. 7 Virginia Tech vs No. 10 Miami, 6 p.m. ET

Game 5: No. 6 Notre Dame vs. No. 11 Clemson, 8:30 p.m. ET

Quarterfinals - Friday, March 5

Game 6: No. 1 Louisville vs. Game 2 winner, 12 p.m. ET

Game 7: No. 4 Florida State vs. Game 3 winner, 2:30 p.m. ET

Game 8: No. 2 NC State vs. Game 4 winner, 6 p.m. ET

Game 9: No. 3 Georgia Tech vs. Game 5 winner, 8:30 p.m. ET

Semifinals – Saturday, March 6

Game 10: Semifinal 1, 12 p.m. ET (ACCN)

Game 11: Semifinal 2, 2:30 p.m. ET (ACCN)

Championship – Sunday, March 7

Game 12: Winners of semifinal contests, 12 p.m. ET (ESPN2)