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Taking a look at Duke women's basketball's ACC competition

Kara Lawson's true test as head coach starts now.
Kara Lawson's true test as head coach starts now.

Duke has rolled through its nonconference foes thus far, but Wednesday begins Kara Lawson's true test as head coach: the 20-game ACC gauntlet. We break down each of the Blue Devils' conference opponents this season (the dates of the team's games against Duke are in parentheses):

Louisville (Dec. 9 & 31)

The Cardinals are overwhelming favorites to take home the ACC crown, with guard Dana Evans honored as the Preseason ACC Player of the Year. Louisville loses starters in shooting guard Jazmine Jones and center Kylee Shook off a 2019-20 squad that won the ACC regular season by two games, replacing them with two five-star freshmen in guard Haley Van Lith and forward Olivia Cochran. Those two were starters in Louisville’s 40-point drubbing of then-No. 20 DePaul, the former looking like the best player on the court. Finding a way to replace Shook’s defense will be an X-Factor down the road, but even now it might already be “nightmare scenario” for the rest of the conference.

Miami (Dec. 13 & Feb. 7)

The Hurricanes' string of NCAA tournament appearances in the 2010s feels like a distant memory. Miami has failed to effectively replace the depth that carried it through the last decade, and its most recent heralded recruiting class, 2017, has yet to produce much talent. Because now-departed star center Beatrice Mompremier missed most of the 2019-20 season, most of the Hurricanes' minutes and production return this year. Head coach Katie Meier’s international recruiting skills have at least given the roster enough talent to remain in the mid-pack of the conference.

N.C. State (Dec. 20 & Jan. 28)

If the 2020-21 ACC Player of the Year isn’t wearing Louisville red, that’s almost certainly because she’s wearing N.C. State red. I’m talking about 2020 third team All-American center Elissa Cunane. The Wolfpacks' four-out offensive system is built around her excellence in the paint, and the shooters and ball handlers they surrounded her with paid big dividends last year. They’ve lost a handful of impactful seniors from the 2020 ACC tournament champions without bringing in much to replace them, but some big sophomore-year leaps from their eighth-ranked 2019 recruiting class appear to be manifesting, which helped lead a massive upset of then-No. 1 South Carolina Dec. 3 that snapped its 29-game Gamecock winning streak.

Virginia Tech (Jan. 3 & Feb. 18)

Led by two preseason All-ACC selections in combo guard Asia Sheppard and center Elizabeth Kitley, Virginia Tech should be expected to lock up a March Madness at-large bid this season. The pair of stars and a decent supporting cast are enough to keep the Hokies in any game on their docket, but it’s hard to see them challenging the elite teams in the conference, barring any major breakouts among role players. The bulk of the roster is the same as last year’s, and their chemistry clearly developed as the year went on. If Kitley can develop into more than just a great rim-runner, and if the supporting cast can provide spot-up shooting, watch out.

Florida State (Jan. 7)

Few teams have seen a harder drop-off in talent from last year than Florida State, which lost Kiah Gillespie, Nicki Ekhomu and Nausia Woolfolk, taking most of the team’s scoring with them. That being said, it’s not hard to see a competitive squad emerging here. Heralded underclassmen like center River Baldwin, wing Sammi Puisis, forward Kourtney Weber and point guard Izabela Nicolleti are a core that has the potential to be one of the best in the conference going forward. Now add in upperclassmen specialists like Bianca Jackson, once a sharpshooter for South Carolina, Morgan Jones, an elite interior scorer, and Valencia Myers, a great paint defender. The Seminoles' depth chart is quite thin, however, and the team appeared to still be feeling out their roles during nonconference play, so this could be anywhere from a top-three finish in the ACC to a developmental year.

Boston College (Jan. 10)

An unexpected breakout from the Eagles last year led to an ACC tournament semifinals appearance and a likely March Madness bid, and the 2020-21 team returns the majority of that squad’s minutes and production. There’s not a whole lot of bench to speak of, but let’s run through the returning starters: preseason All-ACC wing Taylor Soule, one of the most dominant interior forces in the country; combo guard Marnelle Garraud, a versatile beyond-the-arc player on both ends; point guard Makayla Dickens, a good outside shooter and top floor general; and wing Cameron Swartz, a solid contributor all around. They were supposed to be joined by five-star freshman Jojo Lacey, Boston College's their highest-ranked recruit in a decade, but she’s out for an indefinite period of time.

Clemson (Jan. 14)

Let’s talk about Clemson’s positives. After signing five-star recruit Danae McNeal last year, the Tigers added another five-star this season in Gabrielle Elliott, the first time in 14 years that the program has added blue chip recruits in back-to-back years. Clemson's backcourt is led by  Kendall Spray, who emerged as a good 3-and-D guard last year, and Destiny Thomas, another solid defensive guard. The frightfulness is that Clemson’s negatives vastly outweigh those positives. For one, Spray is the only impact two-way player in the rotation, and there’s barely any depth that could replace a productive player. This is going to be a year to forget for the Tigers.

North Carolina (Jan. 17 & Feb. 28)

What second-year head coach Courtney Banghart has been doing at North Carolina cannot be understated. A trailblazer in every way, she went from achieving heights once considered unachievable at an Ivy League school to turning around a program that was quickly collapsing under former head coach Sylvia Hatchell. Banghart brought in the 11th-ranked freshman class in her first off-season and is in line for the second-best one next year in a sport that usually doesn't see new coaches get their recruiting feet under them until their second class. The Tar Heels lose a significant amount of production from last year, but there’s returning talent, and the suddenly-elite recruiting may have already permanently etched them into perennial ACC contention.

Syracuse (Jan. 21)

2020-21 feels like a real “now or never” year for the Orange. Okay, maybe it’s not quite that dire, as they have quite a bit of underclassman talent. But they’ve got a number of contributors going into what would usually be their last year of eligibility, including preseason All-ACC guards Tiana Mangakahia and Kiara Lewis. Mangakahia returns after winning a battle with breast cancer that kept her off the court last year—Syracuse adds her and the fourth-ranked recruiting class to a squad that nearly took down several top teams last year.

Georgia Tech (Jan. 24)

It seems that no one can agree on the Yellow Jackets this year. The ACC preseason Coaches’ Poll has them in fifth, the Blue Ribbon Panel has them ninth and they haven’t received a vote in either national poll. But there’s good reason to think Georgia Tech could jump into the top-third of the conference by March. It’s returning the bulk of a 2019-20 team that ranked 34th nationally in Her Hoop Stats’ net rating—one spot behind Duke—and adds the 12th-ranked freshman group in the nation. Losing star forward Francesca Pan hurts, especially since the roster now skews fairly short. So far this season, the Yellow Jackets have yet to exhibit the defensive prowess that last year ranked as the second-best defensive rating in the ACC according to Her Hoop Stats, and the team's offense has yet to gel. There’s enough of both raw talent and questionable roster synthesis to project a lot of volatility.

Notre Dame (Jan. 31)

It’s sad to imagine a women’s basketball landscape without Muffet McGraw, especially since a top-five 2021 class indicates the Fighting Irish appear to have already reached the "the king is dead, long live the king" stage under new head coach Niele Ivey. But don’t think that the changing of the guard is why they’ve lost to Ohio and now-No. 19 Michigan. Notre Dame was missing four and two key players in those games, respectively, although the team's defensive issues against the Wolverines give reason to be concerned. Still, the Fighting Irish are welcoming a balanced freshman group that includes four top-50 recruits; based on talent alone, they will forever remain in the class of the ACC.

Virginia (Feb. 4 & Feb. 25)

Few people expected the Cavaliers to be this bad right now; they’re 0-3 in nonconference play, with all of those games coming against mid-majors. The 2018 hiring of Tina Thompson, an inner-circle all-time-great player, was quite lauded at the time. But two-and-a-half years later, so much has gone wrong. The recruiting has been dreadful, the on-court coaching hasn’t looked much better and it’s hard to see where this regime can go from here. For a program that closed the 20th century by making the Sweet 16 for a 12th time in 14 years, what is sure to be another season in the ACC’s basement just goes to show how quickly what was once a legacy program can lose everything.

Pittsburgh (Feb. 14)

The Blue Ribbon Panel actually didn’t think Virginia deserved to be named worst in the conference, instead handing that honor to the Panthers, who have finished with a winning record in the ACC just once in the past 11 years. Pittsburgh's best players are probably New Mexico transfer Jayla Everett, an excellent defender who was decent offensively in a weak mid-major conference, and Rita Igbokwe, a 6-foot-4 center who's an excellent rebounder and good rim protector, but limited otherwise. This is a team reliant on guards to net the lion’s share of scoring, though none of the Panthers' guards are actually good shooters.

Wake Forest (Feb. 21)

The ACC preseason polls found a rare moment of unity when they pegged the Demon Deacons to finish fourth-worst. And even after the team's upset of now-No. 21 Missouri State, it's hard to disagree. Wake Forest comes into this season an exceptionally young team, led by preseason All-ACC honoree Ivana Raca, a stretch four who is arguably the ACC’s most versatile player. There’s not a whole lot behind her, though, hence the preseason ranking. But if sophomore Alexandria Scruggs and freshman Jewel Spear, both former four-star recruits, can develop a bit, the Demon Deacons might play some minutes worth watching this year.

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