November 6, 2022 

ACC women’s basketball preview: Excitement, predictions, questions

Can Syracuse win right away with a new coach? Will Olivia Miles take a leap?

Three things to be excited about

Elizabeth Kitley and the skyhook?

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This recent exchange between Virginia Tech’s Kitley – a preseason All-American and reigning ACC Player of the Year – and ACC Network analysts Kelly Gramlich and Debbie Antonelli was noteworthy.

Antonelli: “How are we handling a double team?”

Gramlich: “Skyhook?”

Antonelli: “Can you get it off quick enough?”

Kitley: “I believe so. Yea. I can do it off the pass.”

Kitley averaged 18.1 points per game last season and shot 55.4% from the floor. In the offseason, the Hokies went out and got her help, adding All-American Ashley Owusu from Maryland and All-ACC selection Taylor Soule from Boston College. Both should take some pressure off Kitley. But if she improved her arsenal with a skyhook or a somewhat reliable 3-pointer, then Virginia Tech is going to be even more dangerous than many thought.

Even before this was revealed, Kitley was already garnering praise from around the league at the ACC Tip-Off in Charlotte on Oct. 11…

  • UNC coach Courtney Banghart: “She’s one of the best basketball players I’ve seen in a very long time. She’s basically a combination of like, Dirk Nowitzki and Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner. She can just do a little bit of everything. She’s really special and hard for us to guard in so many ways.”
  • Louisville guard Hailey Van Lith: “Elizabeth Kitley is a matchup problem. She rebounds, has the fadeaway. I feel like, offensively, if she’s making shots, you can’t guard her.”

Channise Lewis playing again

Largely because of a pair of knee injuries, Channise Lewis has played in just nine games since the end of the 2018-19 season. When she was healthy, she was one of the best passers in the country, averaging 5.4 assists for the Maryland Terrapins in her last full season.

Lewis left Maryland – after graduating – and is now at Pitt, where she’s reunited with Lance White, who recruited her to Florida State back when Lewis was one of the top prospects in the country in 2017. Lewis says her legs feel good, and if she stays healthy and plays up to her potential, she could be the floor general White needs to make his program turn the corner. She has two years of eligibility left.

In addition to Lewis, Pitt also brings in top 100 recruit Aislin Malcolm, two recruits the Panthers flipped from nearby rival West Virginia and Ohio State transfer Gabby Hutcherson. Key players such as Dayshanette Harris and Amber Brown return in what could be a crucial season for Lance White’s squad.

Deja Kelly vs. Hailey Van Lith

It’s a real shame UNC and Louisville face each other just once this regular season, but mark your calendars for Feb. 5 at noon on ESPN2.

A year ago, UNC upset then-ranked No. 3 Louisville at Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill, a victory that made everyone pay attention to the Tar Heels and in some ways sparked their run to the Sweet 16. At the center of these two squads are a pair of super-talented junior guards.

Van Lith broke out in the NCAA Tournament last season, averaging 19 points, five rebounds and 2.4 assists per game across five March Madness games. And Kelly – who averaged 22 points, four rebounds and three assists in three tourney games – drew compliments from Dawn Staley as the Heels gave South Carolina a hard fight in the Sweet 16.

And, well, I’m just going to leave this here.

Three questions I’m intrigued by

N.C. State’s Camille Hobby plays against Syracuse at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C. on Feb. 20, 2022. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Is Camille Hobby ready for a bigger role?

Wes Moore sure seems to think so, telling The Next at ACC Tip-Off, “No doubt. I love Camille and that she stayed. Most people, you know, they’re sitting behind Elissa Cunane, they’re going to head out. You got to admire what she’s done and I think she’s stay for two more years and it’s going to be her time to shine… Camille can score the ball. So, we’re excited about what she can do. Now, I got to keep her out of foul trouble.”

Hobby played 12.2 minutes per game last season, but really stood out when she was on the court with her defense and tenacity in attacking rebounds. She’s started once in her career – when Cunane was out because of COVID protocols in the 2020-21 season – and Hobby tallied 19 points (including a made 3-pointer) and nine boards at Virginia Tech. She’s finally get the chance to play big minutes this season.

Can Teonni Key be a difference-maker for North Carolina?

UNC had one of the best defenses in the country last season, with an overall defensive rating of 76.3, which was fourth-best nationally. But while Anya Poole played admirably as an undersized 5, the Tar Heels didn’t really have a presence inside – something South Carolina zeroed in on in their Sweet 16 matchup, leading Aliyah Boston to score a tournament-high 28 points while knocking down a season-high 12 free throws, while also grabbing a season-high 22 rebounds. UNC didn’t have an answer for Boston and it was the difference in the game, a nine-point loss for the Tar Heels.

Can Teonni Key be the presence in the paint the Tar Heels need? Tabbed as the ninth-best prospect in her class in 2021, she’ll be a redshirt freshman this season after sitting out all of last year with a torn ACL. Key is listed on UNC’s roster as being 6’4, but she looks a bit taller. Her sister Tamari plays for Tennessee and was one of the nation’s top rim protectors last year. If Teonni can provide the Tar Heels with that, she could be a real difference-maker for the Heels.

“We got hit by the injury bug last year. Teonni Key, a kid from North Carolina, about 6’5, can move, really versatile,” Heels coach Courtney Banghart said. “She’ll be ready to go this year, which is going to give us a big lift in the frontcourt.”

How much is Louisville going to miss Emily Engstler?

Now with the Indiana Fever, Engstler covered up a lot of Louisville’s mistakes last season. Not only was she one of the nation’s top defenders and a valuable rebounder, but her experience and leadership played a big role in pushing Louisville into the Final Four.

Positionally, Morgan Jones – transferring in from Florida State – will replace her, but while Jones is a talented scorer, she’s far from the defender and rebounder that Engstler was: an 84.8 defensive rating by Morgan last year compared to Engstler’s 64.3, which was fourth-best in the nation.

Perhaps Jones’ defense will improve in Jeff Walz’s system. The other good news for the Cardinals is that two-time ACC All-Defensive team selection Mykasa Robinson is back. Maybe that – combined with a leap year for Van Lith – will be enough to make up for Engstler’s loss.

At ACC Tip-Off, Walz said: “Morgan is not the same as Emily, but she can fill the same spot, but just brings a different talent set. Really excited about that.”

Three predictions

Notre Dame guard Olivia Miles at ACC Tip-Off in Charlotte on Oct. 11, 2022. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Out of the teams with new head coaches, Syracuse will finish with the best record

There are four new coaches in the ACC this season: Felisha Legette-Jack at Syracuse, Megan Gebbia at Wake Forest, Amaka Agugua-Hamilton at Virginia and Brooke Wyckoff at Florida State. For Legette-Jack, it’s a homecoming and a chance for her to make a real positive impact and change at her alma mater.

“These young ladies are so ready to have somebody believe in them,” Legette-Jack said at ACC Tip-Off.

She brought in 10 transfers to transform the Orange roster, and four of them – including one of the top scorers in the nation, Dyaisha Fair – followed her from Buffalo.

“Four players wanted to stick with me, which is a blessing, and six players decided that they needed to leave where they were in order to heal, to find, to grow, to become. There’s some brokenness there,” Legette-Jack said. “Every day, I try to figure out what’s one thing I can do to help them feel like they matter and that they are enough? … When they walk in my office – which a lot of them haven’t walked in head coach’s office as freely as they do mine – there’s always an open door policy.”

Legette-Jack brought three of her top four scorers from Buffalo to Syracuse. She also retained All-ACC honorable mention Teisha Hyman and brought in Wichita State starter Asia Strong, former five-star recruit Olivia Owens, Temple reserve Kyra Wood and one of the nation’s leading rebounders in Alabama A&M’s Dariauna Lewis.

It’s hard to think that Legette-Jack – who won a lot with a little at Buffalo – won’t turn this group of players into a unit that’s dancing in March.

Olivia Miles will receive Player of the Year votes

At ACC Tip-Off, Miles chuckled when a reporter asked if she had gotten taller.

“Everyone keeps saying that. It’s probably just the hair,” Miles said.

As a true freshman, Miles nearly led the nation in assists with 7.4 per game. In her first full season in the ACC, Miles showed the league how dangerous and skilled she is. Her court vision is wildly impressive, she can score inside and out, and she attempts to do things on the court most guards wouldn’t dream of. Sometimes those gambles backfired – contributing to her 3.8 turnovers per game – but a lot of times they worked, and she helped Notre Dame go back to the NCAA Tournament, where it advanced to the Sweet 16.

It seems foolish to think that Miles is due for some sort of sophomore slump. Instead, we should probably expect her to be even better. If Miles can cut down on the turnovers and improve her shooting percentages, we’ll be mentioning her in the same breath as Kitley for the ACC Player of the Year race.

“I took a lot of time mentally, physically, emotionally just getting right,” Miles told The Next. “My midrange jumper for sure, being more confident in that area. And consistently knocking down the 3, better decision-making, my mental state. Just really all of those things.”

North Carolina will host NCAA Tournament games

The Tar Heels return 85% of their scoring production from last year’s team that claimed a No. 5 seed and went to the Sweet 16. And the nucleus of that team – Deja Kelly, Kennedy Todd-Williams and Alyssa Ustby – were all sophomores.

Conventional thinking says they’ll be better this season as juniors. And Courtney Banghart’s side gets Ariel Young and Teonni Key healthy, plus freshman Paulina Paris and a heavier dose of Eva Hodgson – who as was a 50-40-90 player the last time she was a starter in the 2019-20 season at William & Mary.

Even if the Tar Heels take a small step forward this season, they should find themselves with a top 16 seed in March.

Two freshmen who will be depended on

Ta’niya Latson, Florida State

The Seminoles just snuck into the NCAA Tournament field last season with a 17-14 record. The only double-digit scorer on that team was Morgan Jones, who now plays for Louisville. And last year’s third-leading scorer, Bianca Jackson, is now at Georgia Tech. Simply put, Brooke Wyckoff’s Seminoles will need someone to step up. Maybe that person is Bucknell grad transfer Taylor O’Brien, or maybe it’s Latson – the 5’8 guard from Miami who ESPN tabbed as the 14th-best player in this class. Latson showed promise in FSU’s exhibition win over West Georgia, pouring in 22 points.

Ruby Whitehorn, Clemson

A 6′ guard from Michigan, Whitehorn was ranked as the 15th-best player in her class by ESPN and is the highest-ranked recruit Amanda Butler has ever landed at Clemson. She was a McDonald’s All-American at Detroit Edison after averaging 24 points, 12.2 rebounds and 4.5 steals per game. She joins a Tigers team that lost three of its top four scorers from last season and that squad finished with just three ACC wins. Whitehorn should get plenty of chances to shine early on for this team.

Written by Mitchell Northam

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