The ACC is poised to be the most competitive conference in women’s basketball this season with five teams ranked in the top 15 of The Associated Press preseason poll, and two of those schools are from North Carolina.
Tenth-ranked NC State (32-4 last season with a 17-1 record in the ACC) and No. 12 ranked UNC (25-7, 13-5 ACC) are both looking to stay near the top of the conference and go even deeper in the NCAA Tournament.
NC State won its third-straight ACC title last year and took a small step forward as a program by reaching the Elite Eight for the first time since 1998 before falling in a crushing double-overtime loss to UConn that still irks the Wolfpack faithful since the game was played in the lower-seeded Huskies’ home state in Bridgeport.
The Wolfpack, however, need to replace four starters — Elisa Cunane, Kai Crutchfield, Kayla Jones and Raina Perez — from last year’s team.
“We lost a lot of great talent and a lot of experienced players that had been in our program for years,” NC State coach Wes Moore said. “So now it’s a fresh start. That’s what college sports are about. They graduate, they move on and now you’ve gotta start all over. Luckily, we have some veterans with some great experience.”
Those key veterans are seniors Jakia Brown-Turner and Jada Boyd, and junior Diamond Johnson.
To help them out, the Moore dipped into the transfer portal and landed a couple of big names in Mimi Collins from Maryland, River Baldwin from Florida State and Saniya Rivers from national champion South Carolina.
“We added some really good players, but now you’ve gotta become a team,” Moore said. “These players are going to have to step up and maybe take on roles that they haven’t had in the past as far as leadership.”
UNC made it to the Sweet 16 last season, their best performance since 2015, and are looking to improve further on that under fourth-year coach Courtney Banghart.
The Heels will be led by junior guard Deja Kelly, who averaged a team-high 16.5 points per game last season.
Unlike NC State, UNC will be returning four starters to their lineup.
“I remember coming here last year and saying, ‘I think we’re flying a bit under the radar’ because I had seen all the work they had put in,” Banghart said. “What’s been really fun for me is that for the talent they had last year, they are better than they were a year ago. Our success is dependent on our pieces getting better.”
Along with those returning players, the Heels also have a few promising additions in redshirt freshman Teonni Key and freshman Paulina Paris.
UNC is looking to take another step after being a bit of a surprise last season.
“I think there’s an element of confidence and growth to their game and then the physicality that they bring,” Banghart said. “There’s an assuredness. They’ve been here before, their goals have continued. They’ve seen that if you put the work in, you reach goals. You put more work in, you reach the next goal. And so I’m just going to be doing what I can to bring them as far as they can go.”
Outside of the big two, Duke (17-3, 7-11 ACC) and Wake Forest (16-17, 4-14 ACC) are looking to break out of the murky middle that they’ve found themselves recently in.
Duke hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2018 when it went to the Sweet 16 and are looking for a better showing in head coach Kara Lawson’s second full season.
“I think what stands out with this group is that we’re deeper than we were a year ago,” Lawson said. “I think we have more size and I think we have more athleticism. Those are all good things for our group, and I think we also have multiple two-way players, players that can guard a number of positions but that can also, offensively, put pressure on defenses. Hopefully that translates to a good start to the season for us.”
The Blue Devils will look to build around sophomore guard Shayeann Day-Wilson, who was ACC Freshman of the Year last season after averaging 12.7 points and 3.7 assists per game.
Wake Forest made just its second NCAA Tournament appearance in 2021 but followed that up with a disappointing season last year, finishing 11th in the ACC with only two more wins than last-place Virginia.
It will be the 11th season for head coach Jen Hoover, but a bright spot for the Demon Deacons is that they have junior guard Jewel Spear, who was the ACC’s second-leading scorer and averaged a league-high 18.3 in conference play.
So while the Tobacco Road rivalry won’t be in full swing with Duke and Wake Forest still trying to build up programs, NC State and UNC are looking to bring an ACC title and perhaps even a national championship home to North Carolina.