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ACC women's basketball preview: UNC on the rise; Can N.C. State defend its title?

North Carolina State's Jakia Brown-Turner (11) drives the ball into North Carolina's Anya Poole (31) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022, in Raleigh, N.C.
Karl B. DeBlaker
North Carolina State's Jakia Brown-Turner (11) drives the ball into North Carolina's Anya Poole (31) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022, in Raleigh, N.C.

The 2022-23 women’s college basketball season begins Monday, and there’s plenty of reasons for fans in the Triangle – and across the Atlantic Coast Conference – to be excited.

N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill are both ranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 Poll and seem primed to build off deep NCAA Tournament runs from last season. Duke retooled its roster with a plethora of newcomers, and Wake Forest is getting a fresh start with a new leader.

Let’s get right to it.

N.C. State won its third straight ACC Championship last season. Are they the favorites again?

 N.C. State head coach Wes Moore talks with Diamond Johnson during the 2022 ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C.
Mitchell Northam
N.C. State head coach Wes Moore talks with Diamond Johnson during the 2022 ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C.

It’s hard to call N.C. State the overwhelming favorite this season, simply because it seems like the ACC is so wide open. There are five ACC teams ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll in No. 7 Louisville, No. 9 Notre Dame, No. 12 UNC, No. 13 Virginia Tech, and then N.C. State at No. 10.

This was an offseason where Wolfpack head coach Wes Moore had to reload. N.C. State graduated four starters from last year’s team that went to the Elite Eight, a group that included a pair of WNBA Draft picks in Elissa Cunane and Kayla Jones.

“We’re not looking in that rearview mirror,” Moore said. “It's been great. I'm proud of what those young ladies have accomplished… At the same time, it’s exciting to try to do it with a new team.”

Moore brought in three transfers, including Wilmington native Saniya Rivers who helped South Carolina win the national championship last year. The other additions include River Baldwin from Florida State and Mimi Collins from Maryland.

The lone returning starter is wing Jakia Brown-Turner, but N.C. State also brings back Diamond Johnson, who won the ACC’s Sixth Player of the Year award last season.

“We got to try to do it all over again. And this league is tough. I'll be honest, I can't believe we've won it three years in a row,” Moore said. “Now, this isn't this isn't your momma's ACC either. You know, we've added some pretty good teams.”

UNC went to the Sweet 16 last season. What should we expect this year?

 UNC women's basketball coach Courtney Banghart
Mitchell Northam
UNC women's basketball coach Courtney Banghart talks to reporters at ACC Media Day on Oct. 11, 2022 in Charlotte, N.C.

A lot of folks expect another March Madness run for the Tar Heels, and maybe even a top-16 seed, which would allow them to host NCAA Tournament games in the first round.

This season will be Courtney Banghart’s fourth on the bench for the Tar Heels, and – like Hubert Davis with the men’s team – she’s bringing back four starters. It’s a unit led by Deja Kelly, who averaged 22 points per game in the postseason last spring and is a preseason AP All-American honorable mention this year. She’s joined by fellow returners Alyssa Ustby, Kennedy Todd-Williams, Anya Poole and standout reserve guard Eva Hodgson.

“Our goal was to be recognized on the national level,” Kelly said. “We don’t really see it as a target, but we embrace it. We embrace people kind of looking out for North Carolina now.”

UNC will likely lean on its strong defense again. Last season, the Tar Heels had the fifth-best defense in the country, allowing opponents to make just 34% of their shot attempts.

And what about Kara Lawson and Duke?

Lawson was hired by Duke in the summer of 2020, but this upcoming season will be just her second full one on the bench. The Blue Devils canceled their 2020-21 season in December that year because of COVID-19.

Last year, Duke started off 11-2, with wins over ranked teams in Iowa and Notre Dame. And then, things sort of spiraled. The Blue Devils lost 11 of their final 17 games and missed the NCAA Tournament.

Lawson reshuffled the roster this offseason, bringing in three freshmen and six transfers – a group highlighted by top 20 recruit Ashlon Jackson and transfer Taya Corosdale, who was an All-Pac-12 selection at Oregon State. Duke also returns leading scorer Celeste Taylor and ACC Freshman of the Year Shayeanne Day-Wilson.

The challenge for Lawson will be to make all these new players mesh together quickly.

Wake Forest has a new head coach, right?

Indeed. In a somewhat surprising move, Wake Forest fired former head coach Jen Hoover in May. Hoover played at Wake Forest and has her number retired there, and was the head coach for 10 seasons. In 2021, Hoover guided the Deacs to just their second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. But last season the Deacs won just four ACC games, prompting athletic director John Currie to make a change.

He brought in Megan Gebbia, who is one of four new head coaches in the ACC this season, joining Felicia Leggette-Jack at Syracuse, Brooke Wyckoff at Florida State and Amaka Agugua-Hamilton at Virginia. Gebbia had been the head coach at American University in Washington, D.C. for nine seasons, taking the Eagles to three NCAA Tournaments.

Wake Forest brings back the ACC’s leading scorer from last season, junior guard Jewel Spear. She averaged 18.3 points per game while shooting 36.3% from 3-point land and 81.5% from the free throw line. If Wake Forest is competitive in Gebbia’s first season, Spear will likely be a big reason why.

Ok, who's the player we need to pay attention to in this conference?

Elizabeth Kitley
Mitchell Northam
Elizabeth Kitley is the preseason ACC Player of the Year. Here, the Virginia Tech star talks to reporters at ACC Tip-Off in Charlotte on Oct. 11, 2022.

Virginia Tech is bringing back ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley. She’s a native of Summerfield, N.C. in the Triad, and her father Ralph played at Wake Forest. A 6-foot-6 center, Kitley averaged 18.1 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game last season as a junior. In the Hokies’ NCAA Tournament loss to Florida Gulf Coast last season, Kitley scored a career-high 42 points with a bum shoulder.

“She’s one of the best basketball players I’ve seen in a very long time,” UNC’s Banghart said of Kitley. “She’s basically a combination of like, Dirk Nowitzki and Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner. She can just do a little bit of everything. She’s really special and hard for us to guard in so many ways.”

In the offseason, Virginia Tech brought in former All-American Ashley Owusu from Maryland and All-ACC selection Taylor Soule from Boston College. On-paper, the Hokies look formidable this year, and Kitley will still be at the top of opposing teams’ scouting reports.

And what games are must-watch in the non-conference slate?

Virginia Tech plays preseason No. 5 Tennessee in Knoxville on Dec.4 on ESPN2. That will be a big early test for the Hokies.

More locally, the Tar Heels will head to the Pacific Northwest on Nov. 24 to face preseason No. 20 Oregon in the Phil Knight Invitational on ESPNU. UNC also faces Michigan in the Jumpman Invitational in Charlotte on Dec. 20 in a game on ESPN2.

On Nov. 20, N.C. State heads to Storrs, Connecticut, hungry for a bit of revenge against No. 6 UConn. The Huskies beat the Wolfpack in double overtime in the Elite Eight of last season’s NCAA Tournament.

“We still talk about that to this day,” N.C. State guard Diamond Johnson said of that loss to UConn. “We want to knock them off. They’re on the schedule, so it’s good to get a second chance.”

Who's winning the ACC?

We haven’t talked about Louisville or Notre Dame yet, and both of those teams have a fair shot at claiming the ACC crown.

The Cardinals – who went to the Final Four last season – bring back Hailey Van Lith, who averaged 19 points per game in the NCAA Tournament last season. Louisville also brought in Florida State transfer Morgan Jones.

Notre Dame is led by one of the best point guards in the country, Olivia Miles, who, as a true freshman last season, was second in the nation in assists per game with 7.4. The Irish bring back three other starters too, and added some depth in the front court with a pair of 6-foot-4 talents in Kylee Watson from Oregon and Lauren Ebo from Texas.

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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