Duke and N.C. State seem to be in familiar places as the ACC women’s basketball season prepares to tip off on Friday.
But North Carolina’s situation is one big question mark.
Notre Dame was picked by both conference coaches and media to win its third straight ACC title, followed by Florida State, Louisville and Duke. The Tar Heels were picked to finish seventh in the conference and the Wolfpack ninth.
Here’s how the three Triangle teams break down.
Joanne P. McCallie’s No. 14 Blue Devils are coming off last season’s Sweet 16 appearance after seeing the nation’s top recruiting class from 2010 leave the year before.
Duke has the top-ranked recruiting class that includes five freshman guards who will all take the floor: 5-foot-10 Angela Salvadores, 5-9 Kyra Lambert, 6-foot Haley Gorecki, 5-11 Crystal Primm and 6-1 Faith Suggs.
Add that to a squad with three returning starters, 6-4 senior Amber Henson and sophomores 6-1 Rebecca Greenwell and 6-6 Azura Stevens of Cary, and the Blue Devils could be poised to make a run at the Final Four. Both Greenwell and Stevens are preseason all-ACC picks.
“We’re still fixing everything,” said McCallie, who is entering her ninth season at Duke. “How hard you post up on the block, how you fill the lanes, how you get down the floor, how you defend the ball, your help defense. I could just keep giving a list of things. We’re nowhere near where we want to be.
“The freshmen, you’re just teaching so much culture. They speak in the film room and are asked questions. It’s not just something dictated to them, and the process has a way of growing kids up. We have to make sure everyone is dressed correctly, their shoes are tied right and they’re a team. We have very talented first-years, but they’re willing to work and get better. They’ve come here to play at the highest level.”
Greenwell, a guard, said she’s comfortable now after a solid 2014-15 season in which she set five Duke freshman records, including 72 3-pointers and 28 double-figure scoring games. She redshirted her true freshman year with injuries.
“I’m just going to have to get out of my comfort zone,” she said. “I try to lead by example, but I need to be more vocal. I’m close to (fellow academic juniors) Oderah (Chidom) and Kendall (Cooper). And Haley and I really click.
“I’m looking forward to having a lot of opportunities. I’ve watched J.J. Redick to learn what to do what I need to do against face-guarding. We’ll be in a lot of man-to-man and I’ll guard the wing players.”
Duke opens at Penn at 8 p.m. Friday, followed by its home opener at 6 p.m. Sunday against Winthrop.
The Wolfpack’s starting backcourt of returning 5-8 juniors Miah Spencer and Dominique Wilson may be one of the most underrated in the country. Also returning are hard-working 6-1 senior Carlee Schuhmacher and 6-1 junior Jennifer Mathurin.
The Wolfpack has a freshman class with plenty of local flavor. Kalia Ealey, a 5-8 guard out of Broughton, will play 14 regular-season games on the Caps’ home court. Amber Richardson, a 6-foot guard out of Southeast Raleigh, also has a chance to make an early impact.
DD Rogers, a 6-1 forward out of Charlotte, is the daughter of former Durham Hillside and Wake Forest legend Rodney Rogers, who scored 9,468 points in 13 NBA seasons. The other newcomers are 5-9 guard Camille Anderson, 6-2 forward Lena Niang and 6-3 center Nae Nae Cole.
“We’re real excited about the season ahead,” said coach Wes Moore, who’s in his third season. “Every year is new and exciting. We obviously have some veterans we’re going to lean on heavily. Miah and Dominique averaged double figures in scoring. Carlee started most of the year with Jen Mathurin.
“And ESPN ranked the freshman class 16th in the country. Right now some days in practice it’s more like 216. But they’re going to get there. At times it’s a big transition, not only on the court but with the academic demands and being away from home. At times they might think they’re trying to take a sip of water out of a fire hydrant.”
Spencer, a guard, started 33 games as a sophomore and averaged 14 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. She says she’s learned plenty from Wolfpack players before her.
“When I first got here I expected to play because I’m confident in myself and what I could do,” Spencer said. “I’ve learned from a lot of great players. Myisha Goodwin-Coleman and Keisha (Gatling) and Len’Nique (Brown-Hoskin) were all great leaders, and I picked up from them what they could do.
“Right now I’m in position to be a great leader. I want to lead this team to the NCAA Tournament and show the freshmen what it’s like to win in college.”
The Wolfpack went to the third round of the WNIT last season.
N.C. State will face Villanova at 5 p.m. in the first of its two games at PNC Arena this season. The Wolfpack will play most of its games this season at Broughton High School’s Holliday Gym as Reynolds Coliseum undergoes a multimillion-dollar renovation.
The last of the Tar Heels’ four-member recruiting class, which was ranked as the nation’s best in 2013, has transferred, leaving the team with just eight scholarship players.
Coach Sylvia Hatchell has one returning starter, 6-2 senior Xylina McDaniel, who’s one of the ACC’s strongest post players. Last year, McDaniel was an All-ACC preseason pick, but she missed much of the season after injuring her leg against Elon on Dec. 21, 2014.
The No. 22 Tar Heels bring in a pair of highly-touted freshman guards, 5-11 Stephanie Watts and 5-10 Destinee Walker.
“We can put five great players out there,” Hatchell said. “We may mix it up and do some different things. I love practice every day. We’ve got what it takes, and every day is an opportunity.
“Most really good teams play about eight kids at conference time, and I’ve been doing this a long time. We’re going to coach these kids. And I have the most experienced staff in the country. We’ve got Sylvia Crawley back. Andrew (Calder) has been there and we’ve got Billy Lee. I’ve got a tremendous staff and the kids are learning. We’re going to be better than OK.”
McDaniel, who started in 12 games and averaged 11.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game before her injury, said she’s not fretting about all the player transfers.
“Even if I wanted to leave I couldn’t,” she said. “My dad (former NBA standout Xavier McDaniel) said during the recruiting process, he’s like, ‘You’d better choose wisely because you’re not transferring nowhere.’ So even if I wanted to I wouldn’t. Coach Hatchell has shown her loyalty to us.
“I’m good with adjusting to different situations and new groups of people. The team and I will be fine.”