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ACC preview: Five teams closely ranked in AP poll all have a shot

The No. 7 Louisville Cardinals, No. 9 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, No. 10 NC State Wolfpack, No. 12 UNC Tar Heels and No. 13 Virginia Tech Hokies will be fierce competitors in the ACC.

Louisville v NC State
The ACC features interesting teams in Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and UNC, as well as the usual powerhouses in rivals Louisville and NC State.
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

We conclude our conference preview series with the ACC. Here is a look at each team in order of predicted finish according to the Blue Ribbon Panel.

1) No. 7 Louisville Cardinals

Players to watch (preseason list): Hailey Van Lith (All-ACC), Morgan Jones (All-ACC), Chrislyn Carr

Louisville has been to four-straight Elite Eights and was the No. 6 overall seed in our hypothetical bracket when the tournament was cancelled in 2020, so it might as well be five Elite Eights in a row. Two of those years, the Cardinals went to the Final Four, including last year. They have truly been one of the premier teams in the nation in recent years and Jeff Walz is one of the most successful coaches without a championship. Louisville enters this season as the team to beat in the ACC despite losing Emily Engstler and Kianna Smith the WNBA. It lost then-two-time reigning ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans after 2020-21 and did just fine last year.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 19 Basketball Hall of Fame Women’s Showcase - UConn v Louisville
Hailey Van Lith (with ball)
Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2) No. 13 Virginia Tech Hokies

Players to watch: Elizabeth Kitley (All-ACC), Ashley Owusu (All-ACC), Taylor Soule (All-ACC)

The national media can rank Virginia Tech at No. 13 all they want, but this team has national championship potential. The Hokies are the only team with three preseason All-ACC honorees and those are three phenomenal players. Elizabeth Kitley is the reigning and preseason ACC Player of the Year. Ashley Owusu comes over from Maryland and was No. 2 on our juniors to watch last year, ahead of Kitley and Stanford’s Haley Jones and trailing only South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston. As if one high-impact transfer wasn’t enough, Taylor Soule comes over from Boston College, where she was the face of the program and a key part of a near-surprise NCAA Tournament bid last year.

Boston College v NC State
Taylor Soule
Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

3) No. 10 NC State Wolfpack

Players to watch: Diamond Johnson (All-ACC), Jakia Brown-Turner (All-ACC), Mimi Collins

Last year, I led the ACC preview with the then-No. 5 Wolfpack.

They went on to win the conference outright and earn a second consecutive No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They got over their Sweet Sixteen curse, finally making the Elite Eight for the first time since 1998, and could have easily been the national runner-up had a couple things gone different in their double-overtime loss to UConn in the national quarterfinals. So it was a great season, but it was really championship or bust for the Wolfpack, so ultimately a disappointment. With the player who had been the face of all their recent success, Elissa Cunane, gone, expectations will be lower this year. But Diamond Johnson, who has incredible upside as a scorer, and Jakia Brown-Turner form a fearsome star tandem and Mimi Collins comes over from Maryland to ensure NC State hasn’t been left out of the whole improvement through transfer chaos thing. You can’t really count the Wolfpack out — they should be up there competing with rival Louisville once again.

UConn v NC State
Jada Boyd (left) and Diamond Johnson
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

4) No. 9 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Players to watch: Olivia Miles (All-ACC), Maddy Westbeld, Sonia Citron

I had a lot of high praise for Notre Dame this past March and I think everyone did after their blowout of Oklahoma in the second round.

The Fighting Irish went on to give NC State a nail-biter in the Sweet Sixteen — they may have had what it would have taken to go much deeper in the tourney. The loss of Maya Dodson is big, but the Irish return the rest of their stars in Olivia Miles, Maddy Westbeld, Sonia Citron and Dara Mabrey. So it’s no surprise that they are the second-highest ranked ACC team in the AP poll. They will go as far as Miles will take them. She’s an All-World passer and will have fans all across the country tuned in to see how many triple-doubles she can accumulate. If she takes a big leap as a sophomore, watch out for Notre Dame.

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Oklahoma
Maddy Westbeld (will ball)
Photo by Alonzo Adams/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

5) No. 12 UNC Tar Heels

Players to watch: Deja Kelly (All-ACC), Alyssa Ustby, Kennedy Todd-Williams

The Heels return their top four scorers from a Sweet Sixteen run. Deja Kelly, the team’s best player, proved how clutch she can be in a regular-season win at Boston College and averaged 22 points over three NCAA tournament games. That included 23 points against eventual national champion South Carolina in a Sweet Sixteen game that her team lost by just eight points. Alyssa Ustby has All-ACC potential despite not getting the preseason nod. Kennedy Todd-Williams rounds out the Heels’ returning double-figure scorers and Eva Hodgson returns her 9.1 points per game. Hodgson, who averaged 20.7 points in 2019-20 at William & Mary, played better than her 2021-22 scoring average indicates and was a terror in the backcourt with Kelly.

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 25 Div I Women’s Championship - Elite Eight - South Carolina v North Carolina
Deja Kelly
Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

6) RV (11 points) Miami Hurricanes

Players to watch: Haley Cavinder, Destiny Harden, Kyla Oldacre

The addition of twins and NIL stars Haley and Hanna Cavinder will bring a lot more attention to the Miami program. Haley’s stats at Fresno State last year were phenomenal: 19.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game. She has the potential to be the Hurricanes’ best player and will be joined by Destiny Harden, who is now known for her 15-0 individual run in last year’s ACC Tournament. Kyla Oldacre is also a player to watch for Miami — she is the No. 25 Hoop Gurlz recruit.

NCAA Womens Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament Championship - Miami v NC State
Destiny Harden (with ball)
William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

7) RV (two points) Duke Blue Devils

Players to watch: Imani Lewis, Celeste Taylor, Shayeann Day-Wilson

The Blue Devils failed to make the Big Dance in Kara Lawson’s first full season as head coach, which was a pretty big disappointment. They finished a lackluster 17-13 overall and 7-11 in ACC play. Imani Lewis is an asset for the team, having been a big star at Wisconsin. The Blue Devils also return stars in senior Celeste Taylor and sophomore Shayeann Day-Wilson, the latter of whom is the reigning ACC Freshman of the Year.

NCAA Womens Basketball: ACC Tournament-Duke at Miami
Celeste Taylor (jersey #0)
William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

8) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Players to watch: Cameron Swartz, Bianca Jackson, Tonie Morgan

Cameron Swartz is a great all-around scorer who could perhaps cure Georgia Tech’s offensive woes — they were 13th in the ACC last year with just 60.9 points per game. Swartz got her first taste of being a team’s best player last year at BC and will probably be even more crucial a player for the Yellow Jackets this year. Expect the ball to be in her hands a lot and for her to put her hometown team on her back. She is joined by Bianca Jackson, who averaged 14.1 points and 3.6 assists for Florida State in 2020-21, and Tonie Morgan, who is the No. 24 Hoop Gurlz recruit.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 05 ACC Women’s Tournament - Boston College v Clemson
Cameron Swartz
Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

9) Florida State Seminoles

Players to watch: Ta’Niya Latson, Taylor O’Brien, Jazmine Massengill

The Seminoles have made nine-straight NCAA Tournaments and 16 of the last 17. However, their last two trips left something to be desired. In 2021 they were embarrassed 83-59 by Oregon State in an 8/9 game and in 2022 they didn’t make it out of the play-in game. 2022 recruiting was kind to them, as they landed Ta’Niya Latson (No. 14 on Hoop Gurlz). But can Latson step in as a freshman and be the star the team needs her to be? She is joined by former Bucknell star Taylor O’Brien and Jazmine Massengill, a very good distributor who has spent time at Tennessee and Kentucky.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 09 Women’s - Kentucky at South Carolina
Jazmine Massengill
Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

10) Syracuse Orange

Players to watch: Teisha Hyman, Dyaisha Fair, Dariauna Lewis

Can new head coach Felisha Legette-Jack get the Orange back on track? 2021 saw the resignation of Quentin Hillsman, who led the team to the national championship game in 2016, and a mass exodus of players. In 2022, the team went 11-18 (4-14 ACC) under Vonn Read. Teisha Hyman was a bright spot, averaging 16.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.5 steals. She returns and is joined by a scoring machine-transfer from Buffalo in Dyaisha Fair and Alabama A&M transfer Dariauna Lewis, who has averaged a double-double in points and rebounds two years running.

NCAA Womens Basketball: ACC Tournament-Clemson at Syracuse
Teisha Hyman
William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

11) Virginia Cavaliers

Players to watch: Sam Brunelle, Camryn Taylor, Mir McLean

After three successful years at Missouri State, Amaka Agugua-Hamilton takes over for WNBA legend Tina Thompson as head coach of the Cavs. Thompson never had a winning record in four years at the helm. Sam Brunelle returns to the Charlottesville area — she is from Ruckersville, which is about a half an hour away — after moving into a bench role over the past two seasons at Notre Dame. She started 32 games as a Fighting Irish freshman, averaging 13.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Former Marquette Golden Eagle Camryn Taylor returns for her second year at UVA after averaging 12.8 points and 6.1 rebounds in 12 games last season. Former UConn Husky Mir McLean rounds out Virginia’s players to watch.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Basketball Tipoff
From left to right: Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, Sam Brunelle and Camryn Taylor
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

12) Clemson Tigers

Players to watch: Amari Robinson, Ruby Whitehorn, Daisha Bradford

Clemson had a great women’s basketball program under head coach Jim Davis in the 90s, but has really only had one successful season since Davis left and that was in 2019. The Tigers have missed the tournament the past two years and face an uphill climb this season. Their best player isn’t a transfer, which is nice to see — senior Amari Robinson is a Tiger through and through, having started 85 games for the team. Ruby Whitehorn, the No. 15 Hoop Gurlz recruit, hopes to be a big help to Robison and former junior college star Daisha Bradford returns after averaging 9.5 points for the Tigers last year.

Syndication: The Anderson Independent Mail
Amari Robinson
Ken Ruinard / staff / USA TODAY NETWORK

13) Boston College Eagles

Players to watch: Maria Gakdeng, Ally VanTimmeren, Ally Carman

The Eagles barely missed the Big Dance last year, which was devastating for their many seniors, including Taylor Soule and Cameron Swartz. What’s devastating for head coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee is that both Soule and Swartz, as well as two other key seniors in Marnelle Garraud and Makayla Dickens, have decided to use their COVID year elsewhere. The Eagles’ only returning star is five-time Freshman of the Week Maria Gakdeng, who led freshmen across the country in total blocks. Gakdeng has a bright future, but can she alone carry the team? Ally VanTimmeren, who was a solid player last year, also returns and the team has added the No. 88 Hoop Gurlz recruit in Ally Carman.

Boston College v Louisville
Maria Gakdeng (with ball)
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

14) Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Players to watch: Jewel Spear (All-ACC), Elise Williams, Olivia Summiel

Wake Forest, which made its second NCAA Tournament appearance in 2021, went 4-14 in the ACC and 16-17 overall last year. Reigning ACC scoring champ Jewel Spear still has at least two more years left in Winston-Salem, which is good news for the Demon Deacons. She is joined this year by returner Elise Williams, who averaged 9.5 points last year, and returner Olivia Summiel, who averaged 6.6 points and 6.8 rebounds.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Wake Forest at Syracuse
Jewel Spear (with ball)
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

15) Pitt Panthers

Players to watch: Dayshanette Harris, Amber Brown, Liatu King

Pitt went 2-16 in the ACC and 11-19 overall last year. It does have a solid scorer in Dayshanette Harris, who has averaged 11.5 points and 3.2 assists over three seasons with the Panthers. Her career high of 12.7 points per game came as a freshman in 2019-20; she averaged a career-best 4.6 assists per game the following season. She is joined by fellow senior Amber Brown, who has averaged 8.7 points and 6.7 rebounds in her career, and junior Liatu King (6.4 points and 6.1 rebounds in her career).

NCAA Womens Basketball: Pittsburgh at Syracuse
Dayshanette Harris
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports