November 7, 2021 

Everything you need to know about 2021-22 ACC women’s basketball

Familiar faces return for the league contenders like N.C. State and Virginia Tech, while UNC, Duke and Louisville mix in new faces

CHARLOTTE – Nell Fortner smiled when she was asked about all the talent that’s coming back to women’s basketball in the Atlantic Coast Conference this year.

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Indeed, her Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets – fresh off their second-ever run to the Sweet 16 – were bringing just about everyone back. That was made possible in part due to an NCAA COVID-era ruling, that essentially made it so last season didn’t count toward the eligibility clock of players. So, there were stars like Georgia Tech’s Lorela Cubaj – who would’ve likely been a WNBA draft pick – who opted to return for another season of college ball. Another year to get better, another year to learn, and another year to win.

Players across the conference chose to stick around, including N.C. State senior starters Raina Perez, Kai Crutchfield and Kayla Jones. And Virginia Tech sharpshooter Aisha Sheppard. And veteran Clemson guard Delicia Washington. The list goes on, and on, and on, and on. The ACC is as talented and as deep as it’s arguably ever been.

“A hell of a conference race,” Fortner said at the ACC Tip-Off event on Oct. 13. “Experienced and talented. We have a lot of experience coming back, but so does everybody else.”

Well, not quite everyone else. There are teams like Syracuse that saw a dozen players leave the program this offseason. And teams like Duke combed the transfer portal to assemble a totally new roster than the one it fielded last year. And there are teams like North Carolina, Louisville and Notre Dame, which mixed in an upper-echelon recruiting class with old faces and sprinkled in a few transfers.

When the balls start bouncing on Nov. 9, we’ll see which teams have the right formula. Will chemistry and familiarity win out, or will new blood provide a spark to a few squads and propel them to the top of the standings?

“I don’t think we’re intimidated by the thought of other good teams in our league. We respect them,” said Louisville sophomore Hailey Van Lith. “But we also have confidence in our skillset and in our team this year. And I think that it’ll make every game exciting and the ACC will be a great, great women’s basketball league to watch. So, everyone should tune into it.”

Indeed. Let’s roll the balls out, y’all.

Boston College

2020-21 record: 7-12 (2-11 ACC)

Head coach: Joanna Bernabei-McNamee (4th season)

Top returner: Taylor Soule (Senior, Forward)

Crucial newcomer: Ally VanTimmeren (Freshman, Forward)

The buzz: After winning 20 games in the 2019-20 season, the Eagles took a step back last season. For Soule, the star of the team, as her usage percentage went up, her field goal percentage dropped by 11 points. Boston College needs more contributors and need to figure out how to spread the ball out more evenly. The Eagles were 147th in the country last season in assists (13.1 per game), and 121st in offensive rating (98.4), according to Her Hoop Stats. If the Eagles want to sniff the NCAA tournament again, they’ll need to improve on offense.

Stat blast: The 33 points that Cameron Swartz scored against Pitt in the first round of the ACC tournament last tied for the seventh-best single-game performance in ACC tournament history. Now a senior guard, Swartz was 10th in the ACC last season in free throw percentage with an 84.6% mark.

Also: Boston College lost two players in the transfer portal this offseason in Sydney Lowery (Fairfield), Sydney McQuietor (Boise State). However, the Eagles also gained a player in Dontavia Waggoner from N.C. State. A guard from Tennessee, Waggoner was the 88th best prospect in the nation in the class of 2020, according to ESPN.

Clemson

2020-21 record: 12-14 (5-12 ACC)

Head coach: Amanda Butler (4th Season)

Top returner: Delicia Washington (Graduate, Guard)

Crucial newcomer: Kiara Lewis (Graduate, Guard)

The buzz: Last season was an up-and-down one for the Tigers, but they finished strong. Butler’s side topped Notre Dame in the ACC tournament and then lost to Georgia Tech by just three points. In the WNIT, they notched a win over Ohio but then fell to Delaware. The Tigers were impacted in a big way by the transfer portal, as starters Kendall Spray (FGCU) and Tylar Bennett (East Carolina) departed. However, the Tigers also gained an All-ACC talent from Syracuse in Kiara Lewis, a veteran who led the Orange in scoring last season. With preseason All-ACC selection Delicia Washington returning for a fifth season, and with Gabby Elliott back too, The Tigers could have one of the most talented backcourts in the ACC.

Stat blast: Washington led the ACC in usage percentage last season with a 33.8% mark, according to Her Hoop Stats. The Tigers relied heavily on her grit and playmaking abilities, but the arrival of Lewis – who is on the preseason watch list for the Drysdale Award – should ease some of her scoring responsibilities.

Also: In addition to the veteran presence of Washington and Lewis, Clemson also has five freshmen on this roster, one of which is Kionna Gaines. The 5’9 guard from Columbus, Georgia was tabbed as the 52nd best recruit in her class by ESPN and chose the Tigers over Georgetown, Florida, Kentucky, Purdue and Southern Miss. Scouts have raved about her leaping ability and playmaking skills in transition.

Duke head coach Kara Lawson speaks with reporters at the ACC Tip-Off in Charlotte on Oct. 13, 2021. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Duke

2020-21 record: 3-1 (0-1 ACC) *majority of season postponed

Head coach: Kara Lawson (2nd Season)

Top returner: Vanessa de Jesus (Sophomore, Guard)

Crucial newcomer: Celeste Taylor (Junior, Guard)

The buzz: Following a decision made collectively by the players, Duke canceled the remainder of Kara Lawson’s first year on the job in December last season. However, while the Blue Devils weren’t playing games, they kept practicing and scrimmaged often, beginning the process of implementing the culture Lawson wants to establish in Durham. When the offseason rolled around, Lawson combed the transfer portal for talented players to fit her program. What she ended up with could be one of the most talented rosters in the ACC, on-paper anyways.

She landed the services of Celeste Taylor (Texas), Elizabeth Balogun (Louisville), Nyah Green (Louisville), Amaya Finlea-Guity (Syracuse), Imani Lewis (Wisconsin) and Lexi Gordon (Texas Tech). In all, Duke added seven former top-45 recruits and players that have started a combined 352 games. Add them in with returners like Vanessa de Jesus and super senior Jade Williams, and the Blue Devils should be able to compete with anyone. The question is, will all of the talent and new faces mesh quickly? That’s the challenge Lawson faces.

Stat blast: Lewis led the Big Ten last season in rebounding with 183 boards in 21 games, an average of 8.7 boards per game. In the Big 12, Taylor was ninth in the conference in steals with 33 in 19 games. Taylor was also 12th in the league in defensive win shares with 1.3, according to Her Hoop Stats. Both players should give the Blue Devils a boost inside and out.

They said it: “We want to be one of the best programs in the country. We want to compete at the highest level. We want to compete with the best teams. That’s the vision. Now, we have to do the work to try and get there. Where we are today versus where we were when I took the job, I think we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of getting to that point. We’re not there yet. We’ll just keep working.” – Kara Lawson

Also: At the ACC Tip-Off event, Lawson was asked if she interviewed for any NBA jobs recently. She quickly declined to answer, saying: “I don’t talk about that stuff, man. I’m sorry. I know you got to ask the questions, but I don’t talk about other employment opportunities… I’ve already coached men.”

No. 16 Florida State

2020-21 record: 10-9 (9-7 ACC)

Head coach: Sue Semrau (24th season)

Top returner: Bianca Jackson (RS Senior, Guard)

Crucial newcomer: O’Mariah Gordon (Freshman, Guard)

The buzz: Sue is back, y’all. Without their longtime head coach last season, the Seminoles did what they always do: they were competitive in the ACC, consistent in their play and made the NCAA tournament. Florida State hasn’t missed an NCAA tournament since 2004, and that’s a trend that likely won’t stop this season. Of the 11 players that featured for last year’s squad that was coached by Brooke Wyckoff, nine of them are back, including all five starters. The question now is, can Semrau push this team to the next level? And will chemistry and continuity pay off for this group with so many of the key familiar faces returning?

Stat blast: The Seminoles were the only team in the country last season to play an All-Power Five schedule. Their scheduled games against Florida A&M and Austin Peay were canceled. The only non-ACC games FSU played was a regular-season contest against Florida and its NCAA tournament game vs. Oregon State.

They said it: “We’re much deeper. We’re much more skilled. We don’t play hard enough yet, but as soon as we do that, we have a chance to be very good… Morgan Jones didn’t have a left hand when I left. Now I watch her not only go left but cross over… The talent level and the skill level is just so much better.” – Sue Semrau

Also: Florida State didn’t gain any players via the transfer portal, but they did bring in a pair of top 50 recruits in O’Mariah Gordon – who’s teammates call “OMG” – and Makayla Timpson. Gordon is a Florida native and is expected to contribute right away at point guard. Additionally, Mariana Valenzuela will play for the Seminoles this season after redshirting last year. The 6’2 forward from Mexico was originally the 18th best forward in the 2021 class, but joined FSU last season and redshirted. Valenzuela started for FSU in their preseason exhibition win over West Florida.

No. 18 Georgia Tech

2020-21 record: 17-9 (12-6 ACC)

Head coach: Nell Fortner (3rd season)

Top returner: Lorela Cubaj (Fifth Year, Forward)

Crucial newcomers: Digna Strautmane (Fifth Year, Forward)

The buzz: Last season was a historic one for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. In Nell Fortner’s second season on the job, the Jackets made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014 and advanced to the Sweet 16 for just the second time in school history. Lorela Cubaj was named Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the ACC, and Fortner was awarded a contract extension this offseason that will keep her in Atlanta through 2027. Now, 10 of the 11 players that featured for Georgia Tech are all back on the roster this year, and Digna Strautmane – who started 120 games at Syracuse – joins what was already a talented and formidable frontcourt. Defense is likely to be Georgia Tech’s strength again, and they’ll try to ride that to another deep postseason run in March.

Stat blast: According to Her Hoop Stats, Lorela Cubaj led the ACC last season in defensive win shares (1.9), defensive rebound percentage (30.7%), defensive rebounds per-40 minutes (10.7), and total rebounds per game (11.4). Indeed, she was a monster on the glass.

They said it: “I felt like we had more goals to achieve as a team. It was a great year for us last year, and it was important to me to try and replicate that – or better. It was an easy decision because our coaching staff is great, our team is great, everybody is returning. For me, it was really easy to come back. I’m happy that I made that decision.” – Lorela Cubaj

Also: Multiple reports earlier this week indicated that Kierra Fletcher will redshirt this season due to a foot injury. Noticeably, Fletcher did not play in Georgia Tech’s exhibition win over Clayton State on Monday. She was on the bench, but not dressed to play. A fifth-year player, Fletcher was second on the team in scoring and assists last season with 13 points and 4.1 dimes per game.

Louisville head coach Jeff Walz on the set of Packer & Durham on Oct. 13, 2021, in Charlotte. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

No. 6 Louisville

2020-21 record: 26-4 (14-2 ACC)

Head coach: Jeff Walz (15th season)

Top returner: Hailey Van Lith (Sophomore, Guard)

Crucial newcomer: Emily Engstler (Senior, Forward)

The buzz: No matter the year, no matter the roster, the expectations for Louisville are the same. Walz’s side will be expected to compete for the ACC title and make a deep NCAA tournament run. Indeed, they checked both of those boxes last year, winning the regular-season conference crown and appearing in the Elite Eight. Still, this is a group that’s hungry for more. Early on this season though, they’ll have to figure out how to play without Dana Evans, who bailed the Cardinals out often last season, regularly putting the team on her shoulders and dragging them to wins. New faces like Syracuse’s Emily Engstler, Vanderbilt’s Chelsie Hall and top recruit Payton Verhulst could help redistribute the playmaking void Evans left behind.

Stat blast: Louisville is 122-15 in the last four seasons, which is a winning percentage of 89.1%. Again – the Cardinals have just 15 losses in the past four years. Pretty wild.

They said it: “You can’t just show up and think you’re going to win in the ACC. Every game is a battle. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I decided to come to Louisville… Smart, veteran, talented players. That’s what I’m going to be playing against in (the WNBA), and that’s what I want to do with the rest of my life, so why not start doing it in college?” – Hailey Van Lith

Also: Engstler and Van Lith built some chemistry this summer by playing together on Team USA’s 3×3 squad at the FIBA U-23 Nations League in France. The team finished with a 5-3 record.

Miami

2020-21 record: 11-11 (8-10 ACC)

Head coach: Katie Meier (17th season)

Top returner: Mykea Gray (Senior, Guard)

Crucial newcomer: Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi (RS Senior, Forward)

The buzz: After four straight seasons of more than 20 overall wins and more than 10 ACC victories, the Hurricanes seem to be in a bit of a slump. They finished with a .500 overall record and a losing mark in conference play for the second straight year last season. To prevent this slide from continuing, Miami will need to improve on offense. The Hurricanes were 251st in the nation last season in free throw percentage (66.8%) and 230th in three-point shooting (29.5%). The Canes were also one of the worst rim-protecting teams in the country too, ranking 322nd in block rate (4.4%) and 327th in blocks per game (1.6). The arrival of three 6’4 talents in Syracuse transfer Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi, Utah transfer Lola Pendande, and Spanish national Paula Fraile Ruiz should help in the latter department.

Stat blast: When Mykea Gray was last healthy – in the 2019-20 season – she was one of the top defenders in the ACC, leading the conference in steals with 2.6 per game.

Also: Miami lost two players to the transfer portal this offseason in Brianna Jackson (Old Dominion) and Jamir Hutson (East Carolina).

N.C. State’s Diamond Johnson stares down a free throw attempt on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, at Reynolds Coliseum. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

No. 5 N.C. State

2020-21 record: 22-3 (12-2 ACC)

Head coach: Wes Moore (9th season)

Top returner: Elissa Cunane (Senior, Center)

Crucial newcomer: Diamond Johnson (Sophomore, Guard)

The buzz: I’d like you to read those last two bullets again. There is a team in college basketball this season that returns Elissa Cunane – a preseason All-American and the favorite to win ACC Player of the Year – and also added Diamond Johnson, who, as a freshman, made the All-Big Ten team and was one of the best three-point shooters in the country. This is also a team that returns its four other starters from its squad that won its second straight ACC crown. And this is a team that also added Madison Hayes, an SEC All-Freshman selection. And this is also a team that added a pair of top 65 prospects in Aziaha James and Sophia Hart.

We could keep going, but the point is this: N.C. State is even more talented than they were last season. Anything short of winning the ACC and making the Final Four would be a disappointment for them. Perhaps those expectations seem lofty but consider this: When the team was getting its ACC championship rings made, players vehemently voted against acknowledging on the hardware that they’ve been to three straight Sweet 16’s. The Wolfpack is hungry for so much more. They want to still be dancing in April.

Stat blast: Again, as a freshman, Diamond Johnson had the nation’s fourth-best offensive player rating last season, a mark of 131.4, per Her Hoop Stats. The players ahead of her were Stanford’s Anna Wilson, and members of the nation’s best offense, Maryland’s Chloe Bibby and Katie Benzan.

They said it: “I think nobody believes in us more than we do and nobody wants to go further than we do ourselves. It’s like, what more can we do? … We’re not going to have any goals that are smaller than (winning the ACC). We’re going for everything. We aren’t coming in here just to averagely go through every practice or every game. We’re coming in here because we want to win. We don’t like losing.” – Elissa Cunane

Also: Kayla Jones played in N.C. State’s exhibition win over UNC-Pembroke on Wednesday, but Wes Moore said the fifth-year forward still isn’t quite 100% back from her off-season patella tendon surgery. Still, Moore said “I think she’ll be able to play some” in the Wolfpack’s season-opener against No. 1 South Carolina. Fellow forward Jada Boyd, last year’s ACC Co-Sixth Player of the Year is unlikely to play during November, Moore said. Boyd injured her shooting hand during fall workouts.

North Carolina

2020-21 record: 13-11 (8-9 ACC)

Head coach: Courtney Banghart (3rd season)

Top returner: Deja Kelly (Sophomore, Guard)

Crucial newcomer: Teonni Key (Freshman, Forward)

The buzz: The Tar Heels got back into the NCAA tournament last year in just Banghart’s second year on the job. In addition to the postseason success UNC has quickly found under Banghart, they’ve also re-established themselves as a power on the recruiting trail, as the Tar Heels brought in four players this season who were ranked in the top 20 of ESPN’s 2021 rankings. Leading that class is Teonni Key, who has inside and out skills at 6’4 and is expected to play a big role for UNC this season. At the ACC Tip-Off event, Banghart said that Key could become the top pick in the WNBA Draft.

Before then though, she’ll be tasked with helping the Tar Heels get better as they climb their way back into the national conversation. UNC sent three of last season’s starters to WNBA training camps. So, while the likes of N.C. State and Georgia Tech might have a plethora of familiar faces returning, there’s a lot of new for the Tar Heels. In addition to her recruiting class, Banghart also brought in former All-Ivy League guard Carlie Littlefield, and former All-CAA forward Eva Hodgson. This is a roster truly built by Banghart, and it’ll be tested early in a non-conference slate that features five road games, three of which are against Power 5 programs.

Stat blast: The last time Malu Tshitenge was fully healthy, she was one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, grabbing 124 in 2019-20, which ranked1 13th nationally and topped the ACC. Tshitenge also had the sixth-best offensive rating in the conference that season with a 116.2 mark, according to Her Hoop Stats. Tshitenge played last season as a sophomore, but saw her minutes per-game average decrease by more than half, largely because she was recovering from offseason hip surgery that wasn’t publicized.

They said it: “I like our speed, I like our length, I like our ability to change directions on both sides of the ball. This team is built by me, so I understand how to play to our strengths well. There’s no secret that we’re quite young… But this team has less weaknesses than last year’s does. You can make up a lot with how fast you play and how you’re willing to move the ball.” – Courtney Banghart

Also: The Tar Heels had closed exhibitions this preseason against East Carolina and No. 1 South Carolina.

Notre Dame

2020-21 record: 10-10 (8-7, ACC)

Head coach: Niele Ivey (2nd season)

Top returner: Maddy Westbeld (Sophomore, Forward)

Crucial newcomer: Sonia Citron (Freshman, Guard)

The buzz: The Irish wound up narrowly missing the NCAA tournament in Niele Ivey’s first season at the helm, but its clear that Notre Dame is building toward being its old self again. Seven of Notre Dame’s top nine scorers from last season are back, a group that includes Dara Mabrey, ACC Co-Freshman of the Year Maddy Westbeld, and the electric youngster Olivia Miles. Additionally, the Irish have added veteran forward Maya Dodson on a transfer from Stanford, and one of the nation’s top recruits in Sonia Citron. Notre Dame has a blend of youth and experience, and they’re deep and talented. The Irish should be in the mix for an NCAA tournament bid, and may even play themselves back into the AP Top 25 Poll as well.

Stat blast: Olivia Miles should’ve been finishing up her final season of high school ball last year. Instead, she joined Notre Dame early and essentially got a bonus year of college basketball. Miles made an impact right away. The sample size is small, but through six ACC games, she shot 62.2% on all shots inside the arc, a mark that was second-best in the conference, according to Her Hoop Stats. Miles was also third-best in the ACC in assists per game with 6.2. Those are both promising signs for what’s to come from the Irish’s point guard.

They said it: “Oh my gosh, Sonia is great. I could go on and on about Sonia. She will do whatever it takes for the team to win. The dirty work, the box out, she’ll hit the three, drive to the basket. She’s another person that leads by example. She’s a young freshman coming into a team that shoots for a national championship every single year – and she lives up to that expectation. She’s very coachable. She responds; not afraid to ask questions. I’m confident that ACC fans and Notre Dame fans are going to love Sonia.” – Dara Mabrey

Also: Notre Dame went from last in the ACC in three-point percentage in 2019-20 (27.1%) to fourth in 2020-21 with a 35.2% mark. Sam Brunelle, Westbeld and Mabrey all shot better than 38%.

Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey on the ACC Network set on Oct. 13, 2021, in Charlotte. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Pitt

2020-21 record: 5-14 (3-12 ACC)

Head coach: Lance White (4th season)

Top returner: Jayla Everett (Senior, Guard)

Crucial newcomer: Mary Dunn (Fifth-Year, Forward)

The buzz: Lance White finally has something at Pitt that he’s never had before: experience. And the Panthers didn’t get that by bringing in a bunch of transfers. No, most of these players have grown together. White’s first recruiting class – Dayshanette Harris, Amber Brown and Rita Igbokwe – are all juniors now. Jayla Everett, an ACC honorable mention selection last season, is a senior now. Five of Pitt’s losses last season were by two possessions or less and three of those defeats came against teams that went to the NCAA tournament. White is hoping that, with the added chemistry, continuity and experience that’s been built up, those losses will now become wins.

Stat blast: One area the Panthers were incredibly strong in last season was rebounding. Pitt was 12th in the nation, and led the ACC, in offensive boards per game with 15.7. Pitt was also sixth in the ACC in rebounding margin, with a +1.3 mark, and they were 29th in the country in total rebounds per game with 41.4. They’ve added Mary Dunn to their frontcourt, someone who has long been dominant in the paint in the Horizon League.

They said it: “We finally have eight juniors and seniors… It’s been so fun. This group came in with a vision of where we have to go. We knew they would have to battle and battle, and then they would become juniors and seniors. Finally, they’re juniors. So, that’s been the most fun part, just watching the evolution – them come in not understanding, now knowing, to then slowly work on their skills, work on their game. And now it’s going to be the rewards of that.” – Lance White

Also: At the ACC Tip-Off event in Charlotte last month, Pitt guard Dayshanette Harris told The Next that she “feels good” and thinks that she’ll be 100% healthy by the start of the season. “That’s the hope,” said Harris, who had offseason knee surgery. A sophomore last season, Harris led the Panthers in assists with 70 in 15 games while also averaging 12.4 points per game.

Syracuse

2020-21 record: 15-9 (9-7 ACC)

Head coach: Vonn Read (1st Season) *Interim

Top returner: Priscilla Williams (Sophomore, Wing)

Crucial newcomer: Christianna Carr (Senior, Guard)

The buzz: Syracuse returns just one player who scored points for the Orange last season in Priscilla Williams. Literally, everyone else is gone, from Tiana Mangakahia down to Kamilla Cardoso. A total of 12 players transferred out of Syracuse at the beginning of the offseason. Then, in June, the Athletic published an explosive report, in which nine former players and a total of 30 sources near the program described head coach Quentin Hillsman as someone who had created a culture of bullying and inappropriate behavior within the team, in which he threatened players and made unwanted physical contact.

That reporting led to Hillsman’s resignation. Instead of attempting to find a long-term solution right away, the Syracuse brass promoted Vonn Read – who had been Hillsman’s associate head coach since 2013 – as the interim head coach for the season. Read was tasked with quickly assembling a roster through the transfer portal. This is an all-new Syracuse, and what we can expect in terms of an on-floor product is a mystery.

Stat blast: At Kansas State last season, Christianna Carr was eighth in the Big 12 in three-pointers made with 35. She shot 32.7% from behind the arc on 107 attempts. Carr also had the eighth-highest usage percentage in the conference with a 28.4% mark, according to Her Hoop Stats.

Also: Two of the players Syracuse added are former HBCU standouts in the MEAC. Jayla Thornton comes to Syracuse from Howard, where she was the MEAC Player of the Year and set the conference record for three’s made in a career with 275. The Orange also added Alaina Rice, who was the MEAC Rookie of the Year with Florida A&M in 2020. She played with Auburn last season, averaging 5.3 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game.

Virginia

2020-21 record: 0-5 (0-2 ACC) *majority of season postponed

Head coach: Tina Thompson (4th season)

Top returner: Amandine Toi (Graduate, Guard)

Crucial newcomer: Eleah Parker (Graduate, Forward)

The buzz: If there’s a coach in the ACC who might be on the proverbial hot seat, it could be Tina Thompson. Under Joanne Boyle, the Cavaliers had four straight winning seasons and won an NCAA tournament game in 2018 before Thompson was hired that offseason. Since then, the Cavaliers are 25-41 overall and 13-23 in ACC play. They haven’t sniffed a postseason bid during Thompson’s tenure, and last season canceled their season after starting 0-5, in part due to COVID, but largely because they didn’t have enough bodies to compete regularly. Thompson reloaded her squad in the offseason with five transfers, two of which come from the Ivy League. On the 14-player roster, there is just one freshman. So, the Cavaliers have a veteran group. In year four of Thompson’s five-year contract, they’ll need to gel together quickly and show that the program is heading in the right direction.

Stat blast: In the last two seasons of college basketball that Eleah Parker has played – the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons – she was among the nation’s leaders in blocked shots, checking in at third-best as a sophomore with 3.2 per game, and 16th best as a junior with 2.7 per-game. She also led the Ivy League in rebounding as a junior, and had the second-best PER in the league with a 29.2 mark in 2019-20, according to Her Hoop Stats.

They said it: “(This team) looks full, for one. I mean, we haven’t had a full roster in the time that we’ve been here. So, just having the versatility of that, and players being able to play in their true position is definitely a blessing. And we’ve matured, and we’ve grown not just in size, but also in talent and maturity. So, we’re really excited about this group.”

Also: Since the ACC Tip-Off event on Oct. 13, two players have left Virginia and entered the transfer portal. They are Corina Carter and Zaria Johnson, according to sources close to the situation. Carter had just arrived in Charlottesville this offseason via transfer from New Mexico, while Johnson played in four games for the Cavaliers last season.

No. 24 Virginia Tech

2020-21 record: 15-10 (8-8 ACC)

Head coach: Kenny Brooks (6th season)

Top returner: Elizabeth Kitley (Junior, Center)

Crucial newcomer: Kayana Traylor (Senior, Guard)

The buzz: The Hokies have arrived. For the first time since 1999, they are ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll. And for good reason too. Kenny Brooks’ side returns one of the nation’s top three-point shooters in Aisha Sheppard, one of the nation’s best posts in Elizabeth Kitley, and one of the ACC’s most promising young guards in Georgia Amoore. Cayla King is back too, and the Hokies also added Kayana Traylor (Purdue) and Emily Lytle (Liberty) on transfers. Virginia Tech was 11th in the nation last season in three-pointers made (238) as it made the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, and appeared in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. Virginia Tech will strive for more this season, and with all of its key players back, they have the potential to shake up the pecking order in the ACC.

Stat blast: Cayla King doesn’t always get the spotlight on this team, but last season she led the nation in free throw rate, a statistic from Her Hoop Stats that calculates the percentage of two-point scoring attempts that result in a trip to the free-throw line. King’s rate was 50%, meaning every other time she took a shot inside the arc, she was heading to the line. King shot 78.1% from the charity stripe last season, and remained lethal from the three-point range too, knocking down 38.5% of her attempts from behind the arc.

They said it: “It’s so funny, like, after an individual workout, (Brooks) will be showing me all of these moves. And then that night, he’ll be watching a game and he’ll just sit there recording all the moves that we did, and then just sending them to me. So, it’s just nice to see the translation into an actual game. And what he’s showing me is applicable to actual basketball, which is cool. He sends me (clips of) random people. Whatever comes up on his Instagram reels.” – Elizabeth Kitley

Also: Virginia Tech also got a transfer from West Virginia in Rochelle Norris, a 6’5 forward, but she’ll redshirt this season after tearing her ACL this summer.

Wake Forest

2020-21 record: 12-13 (8-10 ACC)

Head coach: Jen Hoover (10th season)

Top returner: Jewel Spear (Sophomore, Guard)

Crucial newcomer: Raegyn Conley (Freshman, Guard)

The buzz: The Demon Deacons went to the NCAA tournament last year for the first time since 1988. It was an incredible and historic accomplishment for Jen Hoover’s side and one they deserved after battling through a tough ACC slate. The question now is, how do the Deacs put the celebration of last year behind them, while also flipping it into momentum for this season? Surely, the Deacs don’t want to wait another three decades to go dancing again. While Ivana Raca and Gina Conti are gone, this team does return Jewel Spear, who made the All-ACC Freshman Team and All-ACC Tournament team last season. Forward Christina Morra is back to hold things down in the frontcourt, and top 60 recruit Raegyn Conley should provide a spark right away too. It’s time to see what the new-look Deacs are made of.

Stat blast: Jewel Spear was a stellar three-point shooter as a rookie. She set the program’s freshman record in three’s made per game at 2.32 and tied an ACC Tournament record by flushing seven shots from behind the arc against North Carolina. Spear’s 42.1% mark from three-point range was third-best in the ACC, and she was also second in the conference in points-per-play with 1.08, according to Her Hoop Stats.

They said it: “When I took over the job, we felt like we were going to have to do it from the foundation up. It wasn’t going to be an instant success. It can’t be. At Wake Forest, we have to find kids that want to thrive on the academic side of things and be a part of building a program that hasn’t been (to the NCAA tournament). And so, when we were able to do that, this past year, it just opened so many doors. We’d been knocking on some doors with some top kids, but I think the thing in the back of their mind was always like, ‘We want to play in the NCAA tournament.’ I’m sure in recruiting, we had that held up against us quite a bit… It makes the dream a reality.” – Jen Hoover

Also: This past summer, Spear played with Team USA’s U-19 squad at the FIBA World Cup in Hungary. There, she teamed up with fellow ACC guards Notre Dame’s Sonia Citron, Louisville’s Payton Verhulst and N.C. State’s Diamond Johnson.

Written by Mitchell Northam

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