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Preview: Syracuse-Louisville headlines Thursday night action in topsy-turvy ACC

The ACC’s six ranked teams are in action on Thursday night, headlined by No. 16 Louisville vs. No. 21 Syracuse and No. 5 NC State vs. No. 24 North Carolina.

Virginia Tech v Syracuse
Can Dyaisha Fair and Syracuse remain a legitimate ACC contender?
Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Six ACC teams currently are ranked in the top 25: No. 5 NC State, No. 14 Notre Dame, No. 16 Louisville, No. 17 Virginia Tech, No. 21 Syracuse and No. 24 North Carolina.

Those teams also occupy the top spots in the conference standings, albeit in a different order:

1. Louisville (18-3, 7-1)

t-2. Syracuse (17-3, 7-2)

t-2. Virginia Tech (16-4, 7-2)

t-2. North Carolina (15-6, 7-2)

3. NC State (18-2, 6-2)

4. Notre Dame (15-4, 5-3)

On Thursday night, a pair of contests will feature matchups between two of the ranked teams that remain in contention for the ACC regular-season title, with Syracuse visiting Louisville and NC State hosting North Carolina. After an inspirational win over UConn, Notre Dame will look to avoid a letdown at Georgia Tech (13-8, 4-5), while Virginia Tech welcomes in-state rival and upset-minded Virginia (10-10, 2-7).

Let’s take a closer look at the two top-25 matchups:

Can ‘Cuse continue to crash the conference party?

Entering the 2023-24 season, Syracuse was expected to finish ninth in the ACC, mired in the middle of the conference well below more favored squads. Halfway through the conference slate, the Orange are on the edge of first place, owners of a sweep of Notre Dame and a win over then-No. 15 Florida State. A victory over Louisville, a team that’s also exceeding expectations by sitting atop the conference, would further confirm that ‘Cuse is more than a good story; they’re just a good team.

And the main reason the Orange are good is grad guard Dyaisha Fair, one of the most prolific scorers in women’s college hoops history. Fair’s increased aggressiveness and improved proficiency from 3—38.5 percent on 9.4 attempts per game—has made her more dangerous, on top of her refined inside-the-arc scoring craft.

The Cardinals’ foremost task will be slowing her down. The size of 6-foot-1 senior guard Kiki Jefferson and 5-foot-9 senior guard Sydney Taylor could trouble the 5-foot-5 Fair, while 5-foot-6 junior guard Jada Curry can try to stick with her with speed and shiftiness. However, in losses to UConn and North Carolina, Louisville allowed perimeter scorers to succeed, as the Huskies’ redshirt junior Paige Bueckers scored an efficient 20 points while the Tar Heels’ senior guard Deja Kelly got to the line for 16 free throws on her way to 23 points.

Can the Wolfpack rise above the rest of the ACC?

After River Baldwin went down with an injury in NC State’s win over Florida State, the Wolfpack lost two of their next three games without their grad center, allowing a Virginia Tech comeback and suffering a double-digit loss at Miami. Suddenly, NC State’s surprise season that had vaulted them to the top of women’s college basketball seemed on shaky ground.

But, Baldwin returned. Since she’s been back in the lineup, the Wolfpack reeled off three-straight wins, albeit not against the conference’s toughest competition. Having Baldwin in the lineup, however, equips the Wolfpack to extend their streak against the ACC’s other contenders, including cross-Triangle rival North Carolina. When fully healthy, NC State sports one of the conference’s—and the nation’s—most balanced rosters, capable of competing with, and often succeeding against, any and all comers.

The Pack present a tough task for the up-and-down Heels. NC State can punish UNC with the sleek scoring and playmaking of junior guard Saniya Rivers, the bucket-getting bursts of junior guard Aziaha James, the three-level scoring of freshman guard Zoe Brooks, the 3-point shooting of senior guard Madison Hayes, the picking-and-popping of grad forward Mimi Collins and the board battling of Baldwin. The Wolfpack’s top six players also have the defensive chops necessary to trouble a Tar Heel offense that can stall out. But, if the tough buckets are falling for Deja Kelly and senior wing Alyssa Ustby is, as is her wont, all over the court and overflowing with effort, UNC can meet the challenge.

Game information

Virginia (10-10, 2-7) vs. No. 17 Virginia Tech (16-4, 7-2)

When: Thursday, Feb. 1 at 6 p.m. ET

Where: Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, VA

How to watch: ACC Network

No. 14 Notre Dame (15-4, 5-3) vs. Georgia Tech (13-8, 4-5)

When: Thursday, Feb. 1 at 7 p.m. ET

Where: McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, GA

How to watch: ACC Network Extra

No. 21 Syracuse (17-3, 7-2) vs. No. 16 Louisville (18-3, 7-1)

When: Thursday, Feb. 1 at 7 p.m. ET

Where: KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, KY

How to watch: ACC Network Extra

No. 24 North Carolina (15-6, 7-2) vs. No. 5 NC State (18-2, 6-2)

When: Thursday, Feb. 1 at 8 p.m. ET

Where: Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, NC

How to watch: ACC Network