ACC: will a wild ride lead to an unforeseen ending?

Arike Ogunbowale and Notre Dame squared off against Mykassa Robinson and Louisville in January. AP stock photo.
Arike Ogunbowale and Notre Dame squared off against Mykassa Robinson and Louisville in January. AP stock photo.

It’s been an unpredictable year in the Atlantic Coast Conference. We’ve seen dominance, upsets, breakout players and absolutely brutal injury luck. No team has been invulnerable, and the conference has shaken itself up plenty.

Ahead of the Conference Tournament, which begins today, here’s a look at how teams finished, who out- or under-performed preseason projections, and what to expect in the tourney and beyond. By ACC Tournament seeding order:

No. 4 Notre Dame (27-3, 14-2 ACC) Preseason conference projections: Coaches No. 1, Blue Ribbon No. 1. Finish: No. 1.

Muffet McGraw’s squad has defended their National Championship about as well possible this year. Showcasing a roster full of future WNBA players, the Fighting Irish have steamrolled almost all comers. They have only three blemishes on an otherwise flawless campaign.

The 89-71 home loss to UConn Dec. 2 will likely be remembered as the turning point if Notre Dame manages to repeat as champions this year. The Irish were uncharacteristically listless on both ends in the second half, but the loss seemed to galvanize them; they’ve been all intensity and focus ever since. The other two losses – 73-78 Jan. 27 at UNC and 65-72 Feb. 7 at Miami – were the products of injury and uncharacteristically poor shooting from key players. After the wake-up call from the Huskies, and with everyone healthy and dialed in, Notre Dame has been utterly dominant.

How dominant, exactly? The Irish are third in Division I in both offensive (122.8) and defensive (72.9) rating, 11th in rebound margin (9.5), eighth in assist-turnover ratio (1.40), second in field goal percentage (51.8), and fifth in scoring margin (25.2). They’re complete, balanced, and incredibly talented. Paced by Arike Ogunbowale’s 21.3 points per game, all five starters average double-figure scoring, and three (Ogunbowale, Marina Mabrey, and Young) have logged well over 100 assists each this season. With Brianna Turner and Jessica Shepard anchoring the paint (29.7 points, 17.5 boards a game combined), they can destroy teams inside. Young and Ogunbowale can score at every level, and Mabrey is absolutely lethal (45.5 percent 3FG) behind the arc. Add it all up and there just aren’t many teams in the country capable of handling the Irish for a full forty minutes.*

*A barometer on precisely how great this team is: Ogunbowale broke Skylar Diggins’ career scoring record this year. Then, in Sunday’s regular-season finale, Jackie Young’s 22-11-10 tied her with Diggins for program career triple-doubles and made her the only player in program history to record two in the same season.

Notre Dame has the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament and are clicking on all cylinders right now. After enjoying a well-earned double bye, they will face either a Georgia Tech squad in the midst of internal turmoil, or North Carolina. The Yellow Jackets have proven they can hang tough and win against ranked opponents, and UNC already beat Notre Dame this year. Te Irish will rightfully be favored whatever the match up, but it won’t necessarily be a walk in the park.

No. 3 Lousiville (27-2, 14-2 ACC) Preseason conference projections: Coaches No. 2, Blue Ribbon No. 2. Finish: No. 2.

Last season Louisville won the ACC Tournament and made it to the Final Four. This year they have shown no signs that they can’t finish in a similarly lofty fashion. Jeff Walz’s squad has run through the season on a rampage. They have faltered only twice, and both times to ranked conference opponents. The Cardinals suffered an 82-68 drubbing on the road at Notre Dame Jan. 10, and took a close 79-73 loss at home to Miami Feb. 17. Otherwise, it has been lights out. Looking back, their schedule is replete with mostly double-digit whoopings, even over fierce competition. They crushed FSU and smoked Syracuse. They beat UConn. And after the Miami loss, they closed the season with four straight 20-plus-point wins, including a 92-62 home demolition of top 10 NC State.

The key to Louisville’s success is Asia Durr. The senior is an offensive sorceress; truly a once-in-a-generation scoring talent. She is averaging 21.6 points per game on .452/.367/.829 shooting splits. She can create at every level, and there is not a more captivating player to watch in the country when she’s flat-out cooking. (See: her 47 point outburst against NC State, the second time she’s hit that mark this season.) Not to be lost in the mix are Dana Evans (10.6 ppg and 113 total assists), Sam Fuerhing (10.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg), Arica Carter (8.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 77 dimes), and Kylee Shook (7.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 41 total blocks off the bench.) The Cardinals are seventh in offensive rating (117.9), sixth in defensive rating (76.4) and seventh (20.4) in scoring margin. If Durr is on, which she almost always is, this squad can beat anybody. The question now is how many electric games she and her teammates can string together. Recent history suggests it will be quite a few.

As the No. 2 seed in the conference tourney, Louisville also get to luxuriate with a double-bye before playing either Wake Forest (nope), Virginia Tech, or Clemson. Either of the latter two are capable of doing significant damage, but the Cardinals should be able to power through that game to the next round.

No. 9 North Carolina State (25-4, 12-4 ACC) Preseason conference projections: Coaches No. 4, Blue Ribbon No. 4. Finish: No. 3.

There really is no such thing as too much effusive praise for what Wes Moore and NC State have managed to do this season. Four ACL tears to major contributors would have been the end of it for most teams. Instead, they were the last unbeaten squad in the nation, ripping off 21 straight victories before falling to North Carolina in Raleigh. Their other three losses came against ranked teams, and while they didn’t show up well in two of them (bludgeoned 95-72 against Notre Dame and 62-92 at Louisville), they have more than proven themselves in knocking off ranked conference foes and taking lesser competition apart.  As thin as the injury-ridden bench is, the remaining functional pieces are perfectly calibrated, and Moore has gotten the most out of his depleted roster.

It all starts with Kiara Leslie, who might be the most terrifying player in the country when she has the ball in transition. Leslie’s blistering end-to-end speed and deft handles allow her to knife through any defense. She leads the team with 15.8 ppg on .491/.391/.717 shooting splits and is also pulling down 7.3 boards a game. Sharp shooter Aislinn Konig is averaging 11.2 ppg while shooting 40.6 from three and dishing a team-high 112 assists. DD Rogers (6.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg) has been essential down low with her unkillable tenacity on both ends. Freshman center Elissa Cunane has been a genuine delight. Moving from bench to starter amid the wash of injuries, she’s showcased an already-mature post game while averaging 13.1 points and 5.6 rebounds a game. The Wolfpack aren’t on par with Notre Dame or Louisville in overall metrics (20th in offensive rating, 19th in defensive rating, 37th in scoring margin), but they can give any opponent a vicious battle.

As the No. 3 seed in the tourney, they will face either Duke (not likely), Pitt (extra-not likely) or FSU (very likely.) The Seminoles have already dealt NC State a loss this year, and the Wolfpack’s thin bench will have to dig deep, but it’s tough to bet against the alchemical magic in Raleigh right now.

No. 16 Miami (24-7, 12-4 ACC) Preseason conference projections: Coaches No. 5, Blue Ribbon No. 6. Finish: No. 4.

Katie Meier’s team has had quite a year. The Hurricanes have functioned mostly on the winning end of a razor blade, as they cut deep. Sometimes it is at their own expense, but mostly it is to their opponents’ detriment. They’ve suffered a few odd losses, but they’ve also beaten Note Dame, Louisville, Syracuse, and a handful of other very competitive teams. Miami is a flexible squad, and they play for keeps. They do most of their damage down low, but they have balance across the roster. Perhaps most importantly, they are clicking at the most critical point of the season. Even though they dropped their final regular-season contest, taking NC State to the wire in Raleigh was proof positive of what this team is capable of doing. Having already exceeded their preseason expectations, the only thing left for the ‘Hurricanes is to see how far they can take the ride this year.

Bigs Beatrice Mompremier (16.5 ppg, 12.0 rpg) and Emese Hof (14.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg) have been a truly dynamic interior duo this year. They punish everyone in the paint, and always seem to bring their most electric performances on the biggest nights. In the back court, Mykea Gray and Laura Cornelius have clocked 22.8 ppg and 214 total assists combined this year. At 19th in offensive rating and 37th in defensive rating, they rely on superior scoring to bolster some deficiencies on the other end. And despite that top-20 offense, they’re only 41st in scoring margin, but the formula has worked out well thus far.

Miami will most likely face either Syracuse or Boston College in their first match up of the Tourney – both of which they’ve already beaten this year, but the Orange in particular will be an exceptionally tough out. Nonetheless, the Hurricanes’ propensity for showing up when it counts this year doesn’t seem likely to fade out now.

No. 18 Syracuse (22-7, 11-5 ACC) Preseason conference projections: Coaches No. 3, Blue Ribbon No. 3. Finish: No. 5.

Quentin Hilsman’s Orange have shown an aversion to close games this year. Seventeen of their outings have been decided by double-digits (two more were nine-point games), with Syracuse either getting whooped or, more often, doing the whooping. Their struggles against ranked opponents largely account for the failure to meet preseason expectations, but their overall performance has been plenty stout. Other than drubbings against Notre Dame and Louisville, Syracuse has been right there against some of the fiercest competition in the nation. A few bounces of the ball separate their current position from being in the conversation as one of the most elite squads around.

Point guard Tiana Mangakahia is the engine that makes the whole thing tick. Leading the team in both scoring (16.6 ppg on 50.7/37.8/87.6 shooting splits) and assists (8.4 apg, second overall in the county), the guard alternates between putting teammates in the best position to succeed and taking over games herself. Miranda Drummond is the only other player averaging double-figure scoring (11.3 ppg, .5 rpg), but the Orange runs a deep rotation. The bench-mob trio of Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi, Kiara Lewis, and Emily Engstler have combined for 22.8 points and 11.8 boards an outing. Syracuse is a balanced 24th in  offensive rating and 26th in defensive rating, coming in just behind Miami at 42nd in scoring margin, which is fitting given the tournament seedings.

Speaking of Miami, Syracuse is poised to meet them in the tourney. The Orange will most likely play Boston College for the right to advance, and they’ve already waxed the Eagles by a combined 172-128 margin in two games this year. Syracuse lost 84-71 when they faced the Hurricanes this year, but again, they’re a few bounces of the ball from greatness. Don’t count the Orange out of a deep run.

No. 22 Florida State (22-7, 10-6 ACC) Preseason conference projections: Coaches No. 8, Blue Ribbon No. 7. Finish: No. 6.

Sue Semrau didn’t do much this year, other than coach a team replacing five senior starters to a top-25 ranking. The Seminoles simply reloaded and went to work, fueling off a new core and reconfigured rotations. Like many teams in the ACC, FSU has been a little up-and-down. They announced themselves with a November win over Iowa, then they beat NC State, and they split the season series with Miami. As has already been discussed, it’s tough to hold bad losses to Louisville and Notre Dame against anyone. More concerning: a home loss to LSU, and barely getting by Mercer, St. John’s, and UVA. Most concerning: dropping two straight to Miami and Syracuse before closing the season with a win over Georgia Tech. It’s hard to tell which FSU might show up on any given day, but they’ve still outperformed expectations and Semrau’s latest remix is not to be trifled with.

Florida State rate only 50th in offensive rating, 41st in defense, 71st in scoring margin. That’s not a great starting point for ambitions in the conference tournament or the Big Dance, but the ‘Seminoles pack a considerable punch when everyone is on point. Kiah Gillespie (16.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg), Nicki Ekhomu (14.9 ppg, 117 total assists), Nausia Woolfolk (13.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 72 dimes) and Valencia Myers (9.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg) are a brilliant quartet. When all four are in high gear, good luck trying to stop them. FSU doesn’t get much off the bench, though, and it’s doubtful their core four can put up enough consistent, collective performances to get into late March, but it can’t be entirely ruled out.

At the least, the Seminoles will likely cruise through their first game in the ACC Tourney. Neither Duke or Pitt should pose too much of a challenge, though the Blue Devils admittedly gave FSU a fight in a 62-66 ‘Noles home win on Jan. 20.

Clemson (18-11, 9-7 ACC.) Preseason conference projections: Coaches No. 14, Blue Ribbon No. 15. Finish: No. 7.

Amanda Butler could literally multiply fishes and loaves at half court in a packed gym and it still might not be a bigger miracle than what she’s done with Clemson this season. Butler took the helm of a moribund Tigers squad (11-19, 1-15 ACC last year) and turned them into a legit team in her first year on the job. The Tigers knocked off Miami and FSU in consecutive road games in January, then beat the Seminoles again to sweep the season. To be sure, Clemson took some early L’s they maybe shouldn’t have, especially a 90-80 final against Davidson at home. Once they got in gear, though, the Tigers blew past every mile marker and truly shocked both the conference and the country.

Kobi Thornton (14.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Simone Westbrook (13.5 ppg, 103 total assists), and Danielle Edwards (12.9 ppg, 92 dimes) have been an incendiary trio. Add in Aliyah Collier’s 11.5 points and 7.5 boards off the bench, and that’s a very solid nucleus; stable when whirring and potentially explosive. The Tigers are a decent 42nd in defensive rating, but 144th in offense and 141st in scoring margin. On balance, they don’t have enough fire power to sustain a significant run, but the fact that a few wins over favored opponents in March wouldn’t surprise anyone is a tremendous accomplishment given where they were before Butler took over.

Clemson will face either Wake Forest or Virginia Tech in their first game of the conference tournament. The Hokies gave them a battle on Feb. 24, but Clemson should achieve the same winning result.

North Carolina (17-13, 8-8 ACC.) Preseason conference projections: Coaches No. 7, Blue Ribbon No. 8. Finish: No. 8.

There has perhaps been no team more perplexing this season than the Tar Heels. Sylvia Hatchell’s squad has swung a pendulum between the clouds and the gutter all season. Their apex came between Jan. 24 and Feb. 3. Over four straight games, UNC trounced Virginia Tech, beat then-No.1 Notre Dame, beat Georgia Tech, and handed NC State their first loss of the season. Unfortunately for UNC, they’ve also lost every other game against ranked opponents and been swept by Duke, including a dismal 44-62 clunker to close the regular season. Some of their struggles have been injury-related. Paris Kea and Stephanie Watts, the team’s perimeter threats, have both missed games down the stretch. UNC has proven they can beat the literal best team in the country, but they need all hands on deck to do it.

At 33rd in Offensive Rating and 101st in defense, the Heels win when they’re pouring in buckets. At 101st in scoring margin, they need every inch of offensive production, too. Kea (16.7 ppg) and Watts (15.2, 5.5 rpg), have been the stellar, but the team’s rock has been sophomore big Janelle Bailey. Averaging 16.7 points and 8.9 boards, Bailey essentially demands a double team when she gets the ball in the post. She’s also excellent at denying opposing players position down low. Juco transfer Shayla Bennett (10.7 ppg, 116 total assists) has been a huge addition, and the incredibly versatile Taylor Koenen (9.8 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 80 dimes) has been essential on both ends. Problem: Watts has been out the past few games with a knee injury. The Heels’ immediate future probably depends on that.

UNC will face Georgia Tech in their first game of the tournament. If Watts is a go, they should be able to beat the Jackets, and at the least give the Irish a battle. If not, the Heels will likely end their season a little earlier than they’d like.

Georgia Tech (17-12, 7-9 ACC.) Preseason conference projections: Coaches No. 9, Blue Ribbon No. 10. Finish: No. 9.

The situation in Atlanta right now is turbulent, to say the least. Georgia Tech had a perfectly fine year, highlighted by a 65-55 home win over Syracuse Jan. 20. Recently, however, 16-year head coach MaChelle Joseph was placed on leave by the athletic department without any explanation beyond a “pending personnel matter.” Joseph’s attorney has asserted the leave was a retaliation against the coach for raising gender equity issues within the department. Acrimony between Joseph and the athletic department isn’t a new thing, but the timing here is truly crazy. The Yellow Jackets are in contention to snag a bid in the NCAA Tournament, and it’s an almost unprecedented move to engage this level of direct conflict with a coach on the brink of March Madness. There is plenty of talent on the roster, but whether acting coach Mark Simons can keep this now-literal Ramblin’ Wreck focused and together is an open question.

The bright side: The Yellow Jackets have some really good players. Elizabeth Balogun (14.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Francesca Pan (12.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg), and Elizabeth Dixon (11.0 ppg, 6.0 pg), and Kierra Fletcher (8.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 74 total assists) have been tremendous this season, maximizing their talents and emboldening their teammates. This team also has a clear identity as a hard-nosed, clamp-down squad. Tech is 39th in defensive rating, but 128th offensively and 111th in scoring margin. Given the chaos they have to play through right now, it’s uncertain if those numbers will hold or matter at all going forward. Teams in these situations tend to either dial in completely or fall apart.

As mentioned above, Georgia Tech will face North Carolina in their first ACC Tournament game.

Virginia Tech (19-10, 6-10 ACC) Preseason conference projections: Coaches No. 10, Blue Ribbon No. 11. Finish: No. 10.

Virginia Tech started the year with 13 straight W’s before things took a turn. Conference play hit the Hokies like a big rig with the brake lines gone, and they never quite recovered. That’s not to say they weren’t a good team, though. They lost a close one 61-68 to Miami on the road, took Syracuse and NC State to OT, split the season series by beating the Hurricanes at home, and generally took care of business against inferior opponents. Coach Kenny Brooks has improved the team every year he’s been in Blacksburg, and their trajectory only points upwards.

Taylor Emery has paced the team with 17.9 points per game, and Regan Magarity has averaged a monster 14.4 points and 12.9 boards. Dana Mabrey has struck the ideal balance between scoring and facilitating. She’s averaging 11.8 points on .460/.477/.860 shooting splits and has dished a team-high 82 assists. Alternating between starter and bench-spark-plug, Trinity Baptiste is putting up 9.8 points and 7.1 boards. The Hokies are 44th in offensive rating, 64th in defense, and 50th in scoring margin.

Virginia Tech face a Wake Forest team they should make short work of in their first tourney match-up. If they advance, they’ll face Clemson, whom they played tough in a 66-73 road loss on February 24. (This could be the low-key heater in the early rounds.)

Duke (14-14, 6-10 ACC) Preseason conference projections: Coaches No. 6, Blue Ribbon No. 5. Finish: No. 11.

The Blue Devils have had some rough injury luck this year. Not NC-State-level bad, but multiple critical players going down while also trying to replace the production of two of the best players in program history is a tough ask, even for a coach as accomplished as Joanne P. McCallie. Duke started conference play with a brutal schedule, taking five straight losses against a murderer’s row of opponents. The Devils tried mightily to right the ship, and even succeeded to a degree. They beat a very good Clemson team and swept the season series against rival UNC, including a 44-62 demolition in Cameron. Nonetheless, they’re too haggard to do much damage at this point.

Haley Gorecki has been unreal, averaging 17.1 pints and 7.2 rebounds while dishing a team-high 107 assists. Leaonna Odom (13.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 67 assists), Miela Goodchild (11.0 ppg, 49 dimes), Mikayla Boykin (9.4 ppg, .1 rpg) and Jade Williams (8.5ppg, 5.3 boards) have kept the team afloat. The Devils are 55th in defensive rating, 135th in offense, and 184th in scoring margin. They’ve played their hearts out this year, it just hasn’t been enough.

Duke should take care of Pitt in round one of the tourney, and they played FSU, who they’ll play if they advance, close this season, but they don’t have enough depth to get far beyond that. Unless Gorecki goes off, which isn’t totally out of the question.

Virginia (11-18, 5-11 ACC) Preseason conference projections: Coaches No. 11, Blue Ribbon No. 11. Finish: No. 12.

Tina Thompson’s first year with the Cavaliers did not go well. In fairness, Virginia did beat Georgia Tech, split the season with Virginia Tech, and came close against FSU, Clemson, and Syracuse. They played hard. They fought and scrapped and never caved to any opponent, it just wasn’t enough. Thompson is obviously as knowledgeable as anyone regarding what it takes to succeed in the game. She just needs time to imprint her vision on the program.

Jocelyn Willoughby (14.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and Dominique Toussaint (11.1 ppg, 94 total assists) were the team’s standouts, but they didn’t have much in the way of support, and ultimately the lack of depth and versatility proved too tough a hurdle. The Cavaliers are 159th in offensive rating, 137th in defense, and 275th in scoring margin.

Virginia plays Boston College in their opening game of the tourney, and even though BC has the lower seed, the Cavaliers will have their hands full in round one.

Boston College (14-15, 3-13 ACC.) Preseason conference projections: Coaches No. 15, Blue Ribbon No. 14. Finish: No. 13.

The record isn’t great, and the Eagles didn’t exceed expectations by much, but coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee’s first season on Chestnut Hill has been a success. BC blitzed out to an 11-3 start this season before faltering in conference play, but a revamped system and doubling last season’s win total are enough proof of concept for the Eagles going forward. BC didn’t pull off any crazy upsets, but they beat the teams they were supposed to and played Miami down to the wire on the road. Give Bernabei-McNamee a few classes of her own recruits to suit her preferred style of play, and all the indicators are there for a bright future.

The Eagles are 64th in offensive rating, 174th in defense, and 158th in scoring margin. True to Bernabei-McNamee’s vision, they are 15th in offensive rebounding. BC is led by Emma Guy (14.0 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Makayla Dickens (12.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 110 total assists), Georgia Pineau (8.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg), and Taylor Ortlepp (10.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 87 dimes). No one player stands out, but everyone contributes.

If BC can get past Virginia in Round 1 of the tourney, they’ll face a Syracuse squad that beat them comfortably by double digits in both match ups this year. The Eagles have the longest of long shots, but there’s a slim chance they could pull that one off.

Pitt (11-19, 2-14 ACC) Preseason conference orojections: Coaches No. 13, Blue Ribbon No. 13. Finish: No. 14.

Pitt did about what they were expected to do this season. Lance White’s first year guiding the Panthers was never going to be a rousing success. The team needs a rebuild, and that’s going to take time. Injuries didn’t help the situation. Aysia Bugg was leading the team and averaging 14.0 points, 3.4 assists and 2.4 boards before going out five games into the year due to blood clots. Danielle Garven (11.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg), Cassidy Walsh (9.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg), and Jasmine Whitney (9.5 ppg, 134 assists) have tried to carry on, but there just hasn’t been enough firepower. At 231st in offense and 157th in defense, they never really had a shot. Even a depleted Duke team trounced the Panthers 55-74 in the regular season, and the result will likely be similar when Pitt face the Devils in their opening tournament game.

Wake Forest (10-19, 1-15 ACC) Preseason conference projections: Coaches No. 12, Blue Ribbon No. 12. Finish: No. 15.

An already difficult season for coach Jen Hoover’s Demon Deacons got the hammer dropped in January when leading scorer Elissa Penna (15.3 ppg) went out for the season with a knee injury. Ivana Raca (12.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Gina Conti (9.0 ppg, 1 total assists) played their tails of in an attempt to finish out the year strong, but any slim odds of catching tourney lightning in a bottle went out with Penna. Wake finished the season 225th in offense, 148th in defense, and 266th in scoring margin. Hoover is a good coach, and the Deacs will rebound, but this is one season they’ll want to forget. Wake Forest will square off in a rematch of their season finale (a 57-69 loss) against Virginia Tech in the tourney.