ACC Preview: New coaches, returning talents promise stiff competition

Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies Can new head coach Niele Ivey get Notre Dame back in contention for conference and national titles? | Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Louisville, powered by Dana Evans, and NC State, driven by Elissa Cunane, should lead the battle for ACC regular-season and tournament crowns. But the arrivals of Niele Ivey and Kara Lawson to head coaching positions at Notre Dame and Duke, respectively, should intensify ACC competition.

Long one of the most competitive conferences in college women’s basketball, extra excitement surrounds the ACC for the 2020-21 season in spite of the ongoing uncertainty caused by the uncontrolled COVID-19 crisis.

Two fixtures of women’s basketball are taking over two of the ACC’s most prestigious programs: Niele Ivey succeeds Muffet McGraw at Notre Dame and Kara Lawson assumes control at Duke.

Both women left rather plum assistant coaching positions with two of the NBA’s most promising young teams to return to college women’s basketball. Ivey served one season as an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzles and Lawson worked a season as an assistant for the Boston Celtics.

Their trajectories are ideal models for a cross-gender coaching world. Intelligent, young women coaches access an NBA opportunity, where they can take advantage of extra resources and new connections, only to bring what they learned back to the women’s game. That Ivey and Lawson both are women of color who will lead prestigious programs is additionally important, as these women will have representational and practical power at primarily-white institutions.

Although it is hard to imagine them not being successful, Ivey, Lawson and their programs will face stiff conference competition in 2020-21, regardless of the shape the still-undetermined ACC and NCAA seasons take.

Namely, All-American-caliber returnees, intriguing newbies and highly-anticipated freshies should result in a competitive quest for conference supremacy.

A look back at 2019-20

At 16-2 in the ACC and 28-4 overall, the Louisville Cardinals were tops in the ACC in the 2019-20 regular season. Although denied an opportunity to make noise in the NCAA Women’s Tournament, the Cardinals claimed a No. 2-seed, and No. 6 overall, in Swish Appeal’s hypothetical 2020 tournament bracket.

NC State, which finished 14-4 in conference and 28-4 overall, capped off their most successful season in nearly 20 years with the ACC Tournament win. The Wolfpack were a No.3-seed, No. 11 overall, in Swish Appeal’s hypothetical bracket.

Other ACC teams that earned a hypothetical berth in the NCAA Tournament were Florida State (No. 4-seed, No. 13 overall), Duke (No. 8-seed, No. 30 overall), Virginia Tech (No. 10-seed, No. 38 overall) and Boston College (No. 11-seed, No. 42 overall).

A look ahead to 2020-21

Here, in the order of the final 2019-20 standings, is a preview of each team’s prospects for the forthcoming season:

1) Louisville

Even though Jazmine Jones and Kylee Shook are suiting up for the New York Liberty these days, the Cardinals still can claim the most talented team in the ACC — highlighted by senior Dana Evans, the 2019-20 ACC Player of the Year, and freshman Hailey Van Lith, a top-10 overall recruit in the class of 2020.

Last season, Evans made a leap as an offense threat, upping her scoring average by 7.6 points per game while improving her 3-point percentage from 38.5 to 43.1 percent. If Evans can make another such leap, watch out!

However, in order to live up to their No. 5 ranking in ESPN’s “Way-Too-Early Top 25,” Louisville head coach Jeff Walz with need production from junior Elizabeth Balogun and transfers Ahlana Smith (Gulf Coast State) and Kianna Smith (Cal).

A December 4 date with UConn will be an early test of the Cardinals’ quality.

2) NC State

NC State is most likely to threaten Louisville for conference honors, with Elissa Cunane poised to take the Player of the Year crown from Evans. Cunane had a superb sophomore season, averaging 16.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game and being named to the All-ACC First Team and the All-American Third Team.

Ranked No. 7 in ESPN’s early estimations, head coach Wes Moore will be counting on seniors Kayla Jones and Kai Crutchfield, as well as sophomore Jakia Brown-Turner — a 2019-20 ACC All-Freshman honoree who could be poised for a breakout season.

3) Duke

As she arrives in Durham, new head coach Kara Lawson will have to deal with the departures of the Blue Devils’ most productive players from the season prior: Hayley Gorecki and Leaonna Odom. Led by the pair of seniors last season, Duke outperformed expectations.

For Duke to challenge the conference’s tops teams again, Lawson will need to reactivate the Blue Devil’s aggressive, effective defense but also find an offensive spark.

Expect Lawson to rely on senior center Jade Williams for solid play on both ends of the floor. Although limited by injury through much of her collegiate career, a big senior season from Mikayla Boykin could be a boon for the Blue Devils. And sophomore Jaida Patrick and freshman Vanessa de Jesus also have the potential add pop to Duke’s attack.

4) Florida State

For the first time in 23 years, Sue Semrau will not be at the head of the Seminoles’ bench. The long-time head coach is taking a leave of absence to support her mother’s recovery from ovarian cancer. Semrau intends to return in March 2021. Until then, associate head coach Brooke Wycoff, an FSU alumna who has worked under Semrau for 10 seasons, will steer the program.

Wycoff will have to navigate FSU through the 2020-21 season without Kiah Gillespie, Nicki Ekhomu and Nausia Woolfolk, last season’s senior trio that was the heart and soul of the team. Four transfers — Bianca Jackson, Tiana England, Sara Bejedi and Erin Howard — should provide an infusion of talent. And breakout seasons from sophomore center River Baldwin and junior guard Mo Jones also could boost the Seminoles toward the top of the conference standings.

5) Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech took a leap last season, establishing itself as much more than a team the rest of the conference could overlook, as its 11-7 regular-season, in-conference record indicates.

This season, head coach Kenny Brooks will be without Taja Cole, the do-it-all graduate transfer who is out of eligibility, and Dara Mabrey, of the 3-point shooting Mabreys, who transferred to Notre Dame.

Brooks does have Elizabeth Kitley, who averaged 12.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game in her debut season and earned a spot on the All-ACC Freshman Team. The sophomore not only should be the Hokies’ central star but also could be the best big in the ACC. Brooks also returns Aisha Sheppard, last season’s leading scorer, who will be expected to continue producing from the guard position.

6) Boston College

Joanna Bernabei-McNamee in 2019-20 earned ACC Coach of the Year honors, her second season at the helm at Boston College, after leading the Eagles to 20 wins — including 11 over ACC foes. The Eagles thus enter 2020-21 with higher expectations.

To replace the production of graduating seniors Emma Guy, Taylor Ortlepp and Georgia Pineau, Bernabei-McNamee will be calling on a trio of talented freshmen — JoJo Lacey, Kaylah Ivey and Sydney McQuietor. In particular, the highly-touted Lacey, a five-star recruit, could establish the Eagles as a perennial ACC threat. Helping to guide the freshmen through the rigors of ACC play will be junior guards Marnelle Garraud, Makayla Dickens and Cameron Swartz, all of whom contributed last year and will be relied on for more this season.

It also would be exciting if assistant coach and WNBA legend Yolanda Griffith could pull some extra production out of BC’s bigs.

7) Georgia Tech

Following the MaChelle Joseph fiasco, Georgia Tech was floundering. But Nell Fortner quickly righted the ship. While Tech’s performance for the 2019-20 season was somewhat surprising — 10-8 in conference and 20-11 overall — it shouldn’t have been. Fortner long ago had established herself as one of the best head coaches in the women’s game, succeeding at the college, professional and national levels.

In Fortner’s second season in Atlanta, a tournament berth stands as a realistic goal for the Ramblin’ Wreck. In a recent Zoom conference, she tempered expectations, noting the limitations caused by the continuing pandemic, but also expressed particular excitement about what the four members of her highly-esteemed freshman class — Loyal McQueen, Anaya Boyd, Anisa Clark and Avyonce Carter — can bring to the program.

8) Syracuse

Some things are bigger than basketball. After missing last season while battling breast cancer, Tianna Mangakahia will be back on the court for Syracuse as a fifth-year senior.

Her return, however, is very much about basketball. The Orange’s all-time assist leader should serve as the perfect leader, both on and off the floor, for a top-five recruiting class of seven freshmen. With leading scorer Kiara Lewis also will be back in the fold, Syracuse, ranked No. 23 in ESPN’s early evaluation, has the ingredients necessary to cause trouble in the ACC.

9) Virginia

It’s time for Tina Thompson’s team to take the leap!

In her first season in Charlottesville, Thompson’s Cavaliers were 5-11 in the ACC and 12-19 overall. Last season, Virginia improved to 8-10 in conference and 13-17 overall. Can season three produce a winning record, and possibly more?

If so, Thompson and the Cavaliers will have to do it without Jocelyn Willoughby, the 10th pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft, as well as two other high-minute contributors: graduated seniors Lisa Jablonowski and Dominique Toussaint. Of returning players, sophomore guard Carole Miller appears most likely to emerge as an impact player. Otherwise, Thompson better hope that some of her six eligible new additions — five freshmen and Elon graduate transfer Emily Maupin — can offer quality contributions.

10) Notre Dame

Muffet McGraw’s final season in South Bend was a bit of a nightmare. Not only were the Fighting Irish inexperienced, they also encountered unfortunate injury luck.

The first season of the Ivey Era should feature more favorable conditions. Last season’s most productive players — Destinee Walker, Sam Brunelle and Kaitlyn Gilbert — will be ready to hit the ground running. Those who were saddled with injuries in 2019-20 — Anaya Peoples, Abby Prohaska and Mikayla Vaughn — round out a solid returning squad.

The Irish also will enjoy an injection of some high-pedigree talent. Madeline Westbeld, the younger sister of 2018 national champion Kathryn, headlines a top-three recruiting class that also includes Amirah Abdur-Rahim, the younger sister of former NBA player Shareef Adbur-Rahim.

The aforementioned Mabrey will follow in the footsteps of her sisters Marina, a member of the Dallas Wings, and Michaela, a current Irish assistant coach. The NCAA granted Mabrey immediate eligibility.

11) Wake Forest

Unlike many of their ACC counterparts, the Demon Deacons know how their 2020-21 season will begin. Wake Forest will participate in the Gulf Coast Showcase in Fort Myers, Florida, from Friday, Nov. 27 to Sunday, Nov. 29, where they will face Arkansas, Davidson and Missouri State.

Regardless of these results, these early-season tests should be welcome for Wake, which has been mired near the bottom of the conference standings throughout head coach Jen Hoover’s eight-year tenure.

In order to climb toward the top half of the conference, the Deacons will need a big senior season from Ivana Raca, a native of Serbia who played for Greece before arriving at Wake Forest. Last season, Raca was named to the All-ACC Second Team and an All-ACC Tournament First Team honoree. Senior guard Gina Conti, who is poised to set the program’s all-time assist mark, also will have an important role this season.

12) Miami

The Hurricanes underachieved last season. They opened the 2019-20 season ranked No. 18 in the AP poll but stumbled to a 15-15 record, including 7-11 in conference play.

Even before a foot injury befell Beatrice Mompremier, it was clear Miami was not ready for the big time. However, the Hurricanes will be lead by four seniors, suggesting they can overachieve in 2020-21. Head coach Katie Meier is entrusting Endia Banks, Mykea Gray, Kelsey Marshall and Taylor Mason to provide steady leadership and essential production. The quartet of guards accounted for 57.4 percent of scoring and 77.6 percent of assists last season.

Can the Hurricanes find frontcourt threats to complement their backcourt depth? Although they cannot replace a player of Mompremier’s caliber, Miami at least needs a reliable big or two to battle with the ACC’s best.

13) Clemson

A tough 2019-20 season, when the Tigers finished 3-15 in the ACC and 8-23 overall, has not dimmed their ambitions for 2020-21. Clemson’s sextet of seniors — Tylar Bennett, Destiny Thomas, Kendall Spray, Nique Cherry, Shania Meertens and Delecia Washington — intend to end their collegiate careers with a berth in the Big Dance.

To achieve this goal, the seniors and head coach Amanda Butler will need another promising season-long performance from Amari Robinson, who earned ACC All-Freshman Team honors last season.

14) Pitt

The Panthers received a dose of good news this week. Destiny Strother, a transfer from Marquette, will be immediately eligible for the 2020-21 season. In limited minutes last season, she showed promise as a 3-point shooter. Strother will join another transferee — Jayla Everett — in the Pitt backcourt. Now a junior, Everett was the Mountain West Freshman of the Year for New Mexico in 2018-19. Last season, she averaged 11.5 points and 3.4 assists in 19 appearances for the Lobos.

As the head coach of the ACC’s cellar dweller, Lance White should welcome any potential or proven contributors. He’s also hoping for improvement from returning players, as Pitt was one of the conference’s youngest, least experienced teams in 2019-20.