October 30, 2023 

2023-24 ACC preview

Virginia Tech’s depth is a storyline to watch

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Up for debate every year is which conference is the best in women’s college basketball. Some argue it’s the Pac-12, some say the SEC, and others make cases for the Big Ten, Big 12 and BIG EAST. But the ACC might have a legitimate claim to the throne.

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Consider that the ACC sent eight teams — more than any other conference — to the NCAA Tournament last spring. And three of those teams advanced to the Elite Eight, tied for the most of any conference. And since 2019, the ACC has sent three different teams to the Final Four. And since 2014, the ACC has the most NCAA Tournament wins out of any conference (119).

While which conference is the best can be debated until the sun comes up, here’s a fact that’s inarguable: there’s a ton of talent returning to the ACC this season.

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Of the league’s top scorers from a season ago, 12 of 15 are back. And of the All-ACC First Team selections last spring, eight of 10 are back — the two missing being Celeste Taylor and Hailey Van Lith, who transferred to Ohio State and LSU, respectively.

Simply put: it’s going to be another insanely competitive season for a league that will likely send nearly — or maybe more than — half of its members to the postseason.

“It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s the best conference in the conference in the country. I truly believe that,” Georgia Tech coach Nell Fortner said. “It’s just wicked. It’s going to be highly competitive.”

Virginia Tech has a new wrinkle: Depth

When Virginia Tech went on its magical run last year of 15 straight wins — milestones that included the Hokies’ first-ever ACC Tournament title and first ever trip to the Final Four — it did so with a very tight rotation. Kenny Brooks mostly played his starters and sixth-player D’asia Gregg, with a little bit of Taylor Geiman sprinkled in.

Despite the lack of depth, the Hokies rolled through ACC competition in the last half of the regular season, then topped Chattanooga, South Dakota State, Tennessee and Ohio State, and even led eventual national champion LSU heading into the fourth quarter.

Three starters return for Virginia Tech from that run in ACC Tournament MVP Georgia Amoore, two-time ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley, and 3-and-D specialist Cayla King. And elsewhere on the roster, the Hokies reloaded and bulked up.

Not only did Brooks add transfers Rose Micheaux (Minnesota), Matilda Ekh (Michigan State) and Olivia Summiel (Wake Forest), but he also brought in a recruiting class that features four players ranked in ESPN’s top 100. Additionally, Carleigh Wenzel — an ESPN top 50 recruit in 2022 who took a redshirt last season — is ready to play.

No longer will folks be able to make jokes about the Hokies’ six-and-a-half-player rotation.

“In practice, [Brooks] is really toying with rotations. We can go big, we can go small, we can go outside power, we can go inside-focused,” Amoore said. “I think there definitely is more variety in what we can do. So, we’ll just see how that plays out.”

Personally, Brooks is excited about Ekh, who averaged 11.8 points per game and shot 38.5% from 3-point land as a sophomore for the Spartans last season.

“She really fits who we are and what we do. Very, very smart player, understands the system, and is getting in shape for us,” Brooks said. “[Freshman] Carys Baker is a tremendous shooter. [Freshman] Clara Strack, she’s the baby of our group, but she’s playing exceptionally well right now and just really adding some depth… It’s a really good group.”

The Hokies were picked to win the ACC this season by the league’s Blue Ribbon Panel, earning 45 of 61 first-place votes.

A classic Wes Moore-ism

N.C. State coach Wes Moore as the Wolfpack played at UNC in Chapel Hill on Jan. 15, 2023. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Last season was different from what Wolfpack fans have grown accustomed to at N.C. State. For just the third time in Wes Moore’s tenure — and the first since the 2015-16 season — the Wolfpack suffered double-digit losses.

In a season in which N.C. State was adjusting to life without four starters who had led them to three consecutive ACC Tournament titles, they were, at times, wildly inconsistent. There were great highs where they played their best and showed their potential, like a Dec. 1 road win at Iowa, and a Jan. 29 home win over Notre Dame. But there were lows too, where the team looked out of sorts and out of answers, like a Jan. 5 home loss to Boston College, and a Feb. 12 road defeat at Virginia. From Feb. 1 on, the Wolfpack finished last season with a 4-7 record, including a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Princeton.

So, this year, Moore — entering his 11th season in Raleigh — wants consistency and reliability.

And when he thinks of those two qualities, he thinks of the Golden Arches.

It’s best to let him explain.

“I want us to be like McDonald’s French fries. You know anywhere in the world, you walk in to a McDonald’s and you know what you’re getting with those French fries,” Moore said. “Right? Come on. Even though, nowadays my players may want to go with the Chick-fil-A waffle fries, I’m focused still on McDonald’s fries. I want us to be like that every night, no matter where we are, where we’re playing, where we walk in — you know what you’re going to get. You’re getting a team that is mentally and physically tough, that is going to compete and play with urgency.

“I want us to be hot and salty, just like those fries.”

Fortner on Tasha Butts

When Georgia Tech hired Nell Fortner in 2019, one of the first calls she made was to Tasha Butts, who was then an assistant coach at LSU. Butts leapt at the opportunity to join Fortner’s staff and turned out to be instrumental in the Yellow Jackets’ quick turnaround. Georgia Tech won 20 games in the 2019-20 season and might have made the NCAA Tournament if not for COVID-19. The next year, the Yellow Jackets went dancing and made the Sweet 16 for just the second time in program history.

Butts left Georgia Tech this past spring to become the head coach at Georgetown. Tragically, Butts died last week after a long battle with breast cancer.

Fortner and the rest of the Georgia Tech contingent at ACC Tip-Off were wearing pins with Butts’ name on them on Tuesday.

“I’ve known Tasha a long time, and she jumped on-board right away. She brought a recruiting acumen, a toughness, and she was a friend,” Fortner said. “I enjoyed working with her, and I was super proud of her for becoming the head coach at Georgetown because that was a dream of hers, and she achieved that.

“She fought the good fight, and she’s resting now, and we’re happy for her in that regard — that she’s no longer hurting.”

At Tennessee under Pat Summitt, Butts was teammates with Duke coach Kara Lawson for three seasons, the duo helping the Lady Vols win three regular-season SEC titles and leading them to a pair of Final Fours. When Lawson was asked about Butts on Tuesday, though, she quickly cut off The Washington Post reporter asking the question and shut it down, saying, “I’m not going to answer any questions on that.”

Pitt’s Tory Verdi is the lone new coach

Pitt coach Tory Verdi talks to the media at the ACC Tip-Off in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

The ACC saw just one coaching turnover this offseason as Pitt decided not to extend the contract of Lance White after five seasons. The Panthers turned to the A-10 for its next coach, prying Tory Verdi away from UMass, where he had posts four straight winning seasons and led the Minutewomen to an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2022, and a regular season championship in 2023.

It’s been a steady climb for Verdi, who before taking over at UMass in 2016, coached Eastern Michigan for four seasons, winning at least 18 games in three of those. He saw the opportunity at Pitt as a chance to test himself in the ACC.

“It was the right time for me. We won championships at UMass; now it’s the opportunity to go and coach against the best coaches in the country,” Verdi said. “I’m excited to really grow this program and truly move it and get it to where we need to be in order to have success.”

Just four players return this season for Pitt. Nine transferred after the program parted ways with White, including Dayshanette Harris, who stayed in the ACC and landed at Clemson.

Verdi brought in eight newcomers, including five transfers.

“We all come from different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now,” Verdi said. “It is exciting. The one thing that I do know is that we have one main ingredient: they’re all competitive and they want to win… We’re a program that’s on the rise.”

Pitt hasn’t had a winning season since 2015.

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Coaches weigh in on looming expansion

The ACC’s membership will grow by three teams not already in the league’s footprint next season when Cal, Stanford and SMU join. The ACC will have 18 teams across three different time zones, a change that is expected to impact the league’s scheduling model.

Here’s what a few head coaches had to say about the looming move.

Brooke Wyckoff, Florida State: “I don’t know how it impacts women’s basketball necessarily yet. I’m excited. We’re bringing in three great programs…It’s the way of college sports now.”

Nell Fortner, Georgia Tech: “I’m going to be really honest with you: I don’t know. You know, this thing changes. It could be different this time next year that we’re talking. This conference realignment, it’s just yet to be seen how this whole thing shakes out. That’s just my thought. Yes, we’ll have 18 teams in this conference. How that schedule looks? I don’t know yet. What do we do with that? I just don’t think we’re done. I really don’t. I think there’s going to be more to come down the pipe, and all you can do is take the schedule that is in front of you and play it to the best of your ability and see what happens.”

Wes Moore, N.C. State: “I’m excited about it. First of all, from a selfish standpoint, I grew up in Dallas, I grew up watching SMU back when they were in the old Southwest Conference. Their AD, Rick Hart, was also my AD at Chattanooga for part of my tenure there. So, I’m happy for them. You’re going into the Texas market and we all try to recruit kids from Texas, so I think that’ll help. Obviously, Stanford, Cal — both have had quality programs. I think it’ll be fun. We got some new faces and new challenges.”

Kenny Brooks, Virginia Tech: “Anytime you can add a program like a Stanford with their history, they’re one of those programs where – you talk about a UConn or Tennessee, you also talk about Stanford and what Tara has done there…Stanford is definitely going to enhance our league and it’s going to make it tougher.”

Written by Mitchell Northam

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