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ACC parity bodes well for deep NCAA Tournament runs

Ta'Niya Latson runs past the Boston College defense. Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images photo.

Ta’Niya Latson runs past the Boston College defense. Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images photo.When it comes to the most intriguing conference in women’s college basketball, many seem to agree that the ACC takes the cake. With six teams ranked in the AP Top 25, the entire conference has been full of great battles and storylines this season.

Going into tonight’s matchups, the top five teams are No. 16 Duke and No. 9 Notre Dame, both 8-2; No. 23 Florida State, No. 11, 8-3; North Carolina, 7-3; and No. 13 Virginia Tech, 7-4. Louisville, is next, at 7-4, followed by 6-4 No. 15 NC State, 6-4 Miami, 5-6 Syracuse and 4-7 Wake Forest. Boston College and Clemson are also 4-7, while Virginia is 3-8, Georgia Tech 2-8, and Pitt, 0-10. 

Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw, who joined the ACC Network crew as an analyst after retiring from Notre Dame in 2020, said win-loss records and rankings don’t reflect how good each team is this season.

“I think this year, you’re going to see the parity of teams that have three or four losses and still be number one in the conference,” McGraw said. “I think that the parity is there. Everyone’s getting better. I think there’s more talent around, probably because of the transfer portal. That has definitely improved some teams.”

When basing it on the eye test alone, it does look like that the transfer portal has had a huge impact on the overall quality of league teams. Two of Duke’s best players, Celeste Taylor and Kennedy Brown, transferred from Texas and Oregon State, respectively. Virginia Tech saw Ashley Owusu and Taylor Soule transfer from Maryland and Boston College respectively. NC State features transfers Diamond Johnson, River Baldwin and Mimi Collins.

It is definitely no coincidence that all three of these teams are three of the top teams in the conference, with NC State coming off of a trip to the Elite Eight. However, the team that lost to the eventual champion in the Final Four – Louisville – did seem to take a step back this year after initially struggling in non-conference play due to being too dependent on Hailey Van Lith offensively, as well as having a porous defense.

Despite this, the Cardinals have managed to bounce back in conference play, though they are currently on a two-game losing streak to Wolfpack and Demon Deacons. Van Lith continued to put her team on her back, averaging 19.3 points, five rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.4 steals per game.

The Tar Heels and the Irish both made impressive runs last year to the Sweet 16, with the former in particular being the one team that really made eventual champions South Carolina sweat. This year North Carolina is 16-5 overall. At the end of 2022 and beginning of 2023, they were on a four-game losing streak to Mchigan, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami. 

However, they have managed to recently turn things around on a seven-game winning streak as the hottest team in the ACC. Bench players like Paulina Paris (6.8 points and 1.1 steals per game) and Destiny Adams (4.7 points, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per game) have stepped up in big ways during this winning streak.

“I just think that was my main concern for North Carolina: who was going to step up outside of their five main starters and we’re starting to see that, so that’s a very good sign for UNC,” ACC Network analyst Kelly Gramlich said.

For Notre Dame, they have really taken massive steps in the third season of head coach Niele Ivey, currently 17-3, with standouts Olivia Miles, Maddy Westbeld and Sonia Citron. They are a great two-way team, having the No. 2 scoring offense and No. 4 scoring defense respectively in league, scoring 78.4 points while allowing just 58 points per game.

“The fact that they are better defensively, and I think that that’s just a lot of players growing up and maturing and getting better year over year, that’s what separates them and I think that’s what makes them the favorite right now,” Gramlich said.

One team in particular that has really risen this year, thanks to stout defense, is the 18-3 Blue Devils. They boast the leading scoring defense in the conference, only allowing 52.1 points per game.

Head coach Kara Lawson has really taken her experience coaching Team USA 3×3 women’s basketball and the NBA’s Boston Celtics and used it to mold this team in her image, playing hard every night and literally preventing their opponents from having a shot, which could pay dividends come March, where they haven’t played since 2018.

Another defensive-minded team that has really shocked people this year is the Virginia Cavaliers, who went from being dead last in the conference last year at 5-22 overall to now being 14-8 overall under new head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton. The biggest improvement has definitely been defensively, where they are only allowing 61.6 points per game and 37.1. percent shooting.

What makes this even more impressive is that there wasn’t that much roster turnover, as the Cavaliers still have seven players from last year’s team: Carole Miller, Taylor Valladay, Mir McLean, Kaydan Lawson, Camryn Taylor, London Clarkson and McKenna Dale.

“I think Amaka was a great choice and she’s doing a great job and is going to do a great job building that program back up to where they’re competitive in the ACC,” McGraw said.

The Seminoles are a third team that has been a huge surprise this year, climbing back into the top 25 rankings after a two-year absence. Much of their spirited play is thanks to their dynamic newcoer, Ta’Niya Latson, who is averaging 22.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.8 blocks per game, being the first true freshman to lead the ACC in scoring.

FSU also has two other double-digit scorers in Sara Bejedi (11.6 points, 2.5 assists and 0.9 steals per game) and Makayla Timpson (13.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 2.5 blocks per game). They currently are the highest-scoring team in the league, averaging 83.5 points per game.

“Their depth is very unique, they play all 11 players on their roster,” Gramlich said. “I think that their depth really makes them stand out and I think that they can make a deep run.”

Two teams that have been somewhere in between this year are the Hurricanes and the Eagles. The latter lost key players to the transfer portal, and the former initially got off to a 7-4 start in non-conference play. Both teams have promising young players that are capable of helping them to be dark horse contenders in the conference Tournament. 

Miami has Haley Cavinder (12.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 0.8 steals per game) and Destiny Harden (12.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.1 steals per game). Boston College has Dontavia Waggoner (13.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and three steals per game), JoJo Lacey (11.4 points, five rebounds, 1.8 steals and 0.5 blocks per game), Maria Gakdeng (10.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 0.7 steals and 1.5 blocks per game), Taina Mair (10.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, seven assists and two steals per game) and Andrea Daley (10 points, 6.2 rebounds, one steal and 0.6 blocks per game).

Overall, the depth of the ACC has been truly unparalleled this season, as there are multiple teams capable of winning the conference and making deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. There are great offensive and defensive teams, and teams that have managed to rebound from difficult starts.

Eight teams are projected to qualify for the postseason: Notre Dame, Duke, NC State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Miami and Florida State. Whether or not any of them can make it to the Final Four will have a lot to do with how they finish both, in the regular season and in the ACC Tournament.

“You definitely want to be a team that can host in the first and second rounds, so if Virginia Tech hosts, if North Carolina hosts, if Florida State hosts, that’s a big difference-maker because then, all you have to do is win two games and get to the Sweet 16,” Gramlich said.

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