March 20, 2024 

Previewing the ACC storylines in the NCAA Tournament

The ACC has been a force to be reckoned with in March for some time

A record-tying eight ACC squads earned spots in the 2024 NCAA Tournament. All eight were granted top-nine seeds, and three schools — NC State, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech — will host first- and second-round games. 

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The ACC has been a force to be reckoned with in March for some time. The conference currently leads the nation with 119 all-time tournament wins. Nine ACC teams have advanced to the Final Four, with the most recent being Virginia Tech in 2023. Collectively, the conference has made 23 trips to the Final Four and holds three national championship titles. 

It’s been five years since an ACC team appeared in the championship game, so one of the most powerful conferences in women’s basketball is due for a deep run. But the question remains: Which team has what it takes to make it happen?

Let’s take a look at the contenders. 

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No. 2 Notre Dame

Fresh off an ACC championship, the Irish’s “big three” — junior guard Sonia Citron, senior forward Maddy Westbeld and freshman phenom Hannah Hidalgo — have proved that Notre Dame has the star power to make a deep run in the tournament. Hidalgo leads the ACC in scoring and has shown time and time again that big-name opponents can’t slow her down. The freshman put up 34 points against UConn in January and scored 22 points to lead her team to the conference title. 

However, starting forward Kylee Watson’s recent injury could throw a wrench in their plans. The junior tore her ACL in Notre Dame’s ACC Tournament semifinal game and will not play in the NCAA Tournament. While the Irish don’t rely on her to put up big numbers — Watson averages 6.2 points and five rebounds per game — the 6’4 forward’s presence in the paint has been critical to Notre Dame’s defensive efforts. 

The Irish brought home an ACC championship victory despite Wolfpack center River Baldwin’s formidable presence in the paint. Notre Dame did what it does best, centering the game on quick guard play and ironclad defense to limit N.C. State’s offensive opportunities.

Notre Dame was the last ACC school to claim a national title when it defeated Mississippi State in 2019, and this year’s team certainly seems to have what it takes to repeat that title run. 

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No. 3 N.C. State

What’s set this team apart all season long is its ability to consistently rank among the nation’s best without having one or two “stars” that it constantly depends on to put up big numbers. All five of the Pack’s starters average double-digit scoring with sixth woman Zoe Brooks falling just short at 8.7 points per game. 

Any one of these players has the potential to be dangerous, which makes it tough for opponents to create an effective offensive game plan — there’s just no one in that lineup that opposing teams can afford to overlook. 

After a rocky finish to conference play, the Wolfpack got it together just in time to make an impressive run to the ACC championship game. N.C. State’s painfully narrow loss to Notre Dame made it clear that if there’s one thing that’ll make or break this squad, it’s the team’s ability to remain cool under pressure as the clock winds down. 

In its championship loss, the Pack held the lead for the majority of the fourth quarter but committed critical turnovers and played lackluster defense in the final minutes that cost them the game. N.C. State has the talent to go far in the tournament, so it’s a matter of the team’s ability to lock in and finish the job.

No. 4 Virginia Tech

Just last month, the Hokies looked primed to repeat last year’s Final Four run. Virginia Tech dominated in conference play, boasting a 14-4 ACC record and securing the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament two weeks before the postseason began. The seemingly unstoppable duo of three-time ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley and dynamic guard Georgia Amoore led the charge and showed no signs of slowing down. 

That is, until the last week of ACC play, when the Hokies suffered consecutive losses to Notre Dame and Virginia and, more importantly, Kitley went down with a left knee injury that she has yet to return from. 

Sans Kitley, Virginia Tech scraped past Miami in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament before its crushing 29-point loss to Notre Dame in the semifinals. Despite 24 points from Amoore and a 10-point, 18-rebound double-double from graduate guard Olivia Summiel, the Hokies fell alarmingly short. 

Those ACC Tournament games made one thing clear — the Hokies’ offense runs through Amoore and Amoore only, despite the other talented players on the roster. Without Kitley there, it’s easy for opponents to focus most of their attention on Amoore to limit the team’s offensive production. 

Head coach Kenny Brooks has been vague about the timeline for Kitley’s return, but the star center’s presence will be critical in determining how far this Virginia Tech squad makes it in the tournament. 

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No. 6 Syracuse

Led by Division I women’s basketball’s fifth all-time leading scorer, Dyaisha Fair, Syracuse sat atop the ACC standings for the majority of the regular season. The Orange were the second team to secure a double bye in the conference tournament but made a surprisingly early exit after a 13-point loss to Florida State. But with ACC Coach of the year Felisha Legette-Jack at the helm, there’s no reason to count out the Orange. 

The key for Syracuse will be a cumulative scoring effort, including contributions from the bench. Fair has carried most of the load this season, which puts a big target on her back. But if her teammates are able to step it up, the Orange could bounce back from their ACC Tournament loss to come back even stronger in the NCAA Tournament. 

No. 6 Louisville

The Cardinals are driven by a core group of seasoned transfer guards: Sydney Taylor, Kiki Jefferson and Jayda Curry. After star guard Hailey Van Lith transferred to LSU last spring, there were a lot of concerns surrounding whether Louisville would be able to stay afloat in a very tough ACC field. 

The Cardinals have emerged as one of the ACC’s more balanced squads, which is a new look for them. Four Louisville players average double-digit scoring, and the team has displayed consistency from game to game. 

Louisville’s main challenge will be thwarting the high-scoring offenses it’s bound to face in the tournament. Poor defense grounded the Cardinals in its ACC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Notre Dame — the Cards allowed 30 points in the third quarter after coming into the half with a seven-point lead. 

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No. 7 Duke

The Blue Devils finished the season ranked first in the ACC in scoring defense, but their offense could use some work. Duke has only two players that average double-digit scoring, and its lead scorer — junior guard Reigan Richardson — averages 11.5 points. 

A strong defense is essential to make a run in the tournament, but it can take a team only so far. If the Blue Devils can’t find a way to consistently put more points on the board, they won’t be dancing for long. 

No. 8 North Carolina

The Tar Heels sat firmly in the middle of the conference rankings for the majority of the season, never falling too low but never getting too high. Carolina notched notable wins over N.C. State, Notre Dame and Syracuse but dropped games to bottom-tier teams like Boston College and Virginia. 

North Carolina’s non-conference schedule was highlighted by games against South Carolina and UConn. In both, the Heels kept it tight heading into halftime, only to let up 20-plus points in the third quarter and lose them the game.

The common thread for the Heels? Inconsistency. And if there’s one place where inconsistencies can’t be afforded, it’s the NCAA Tournament. 

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No. 9 Florida State

Despite earning the lowest seed out of the ACC teams, Florida State has the potential to bust brackets this month. High-scoring guard Ta’Niya Latson, forward Makayla Timpson — who’s averaging a double-double in points and rebounds — and dynamic guards O’Mariah Gordon and Sara Bejedi make the Seminoles challenging to defend. 

Latson has tallied six 30-point games this season and has made significant contributions to a Florida State offense that ranks second in the ACC and 19th in the nation. 

The Seminoles have shown their ability to win in an offensive shoot-out, but what about a defensive stand-off? In that case, a win is not so likely. Florida State ranks dead last in the ACC in terms of scoring defense, letting up an average of 71.2 points per game. That kind of defense won’t hold up well against offensive powerhouses like Iowa and South Carolina.

Written by Jenna Cuniowski

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