Women's college basketball preview: Will Notre Dame face any resistance in the ACC this year?
The ACC doesn't just feature Hall of Famers on the men's side, there are four members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame have ACC women’s basketball ties: Kay Yow (NC State - coach), Sylvia Hatchell (North Carolina - coach), Muffet McGraw (Notre Dame – coach) and Dawn Staley (Virginia – student-athlete).
Seven teams from the ACC made their way into the Women’s Basketball Tournament last season and the ACC has featured a team in the Women’s Final Four three of the last four seasons.
What can we expect from the ACC this season? Will at least team punch a ticket to Columbus, Ohio for the Women's Final Four?
Best player: Lexie Brown, Duke
Entering her final year with the Blue Devils, Brown might be one of the most well-rounded players in the nation, and now she has one more year to add on anything she’s developed in the offseason.
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Averaging nearly 34 minutes of run per game last year, Brown was an efficient scorer on the offensive end, shooting 48.8 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep on 183 attempts, and knocking down a staggering 92.8 percent of her team-high 139 free throws. All of this to say, yes, she led Duke in scoring at 18.3 points per game.
Yet Brown is far from one-dimensional: she also led the team in assists at 3.9 per game, and even chipped in 3.7 rebounds and a team-best 2.8 steals per game. She did it all on the offensive end, and the basketball world noticed, as she made the AP’s All-American third team; this season, she could finish even higher.
There are other players in the ACC who can challenge for the mantle of Player of the Year, namely Louisville guard Asia Durr who set the Cardinals’ single-season record with 119 threes last season average 19.2 points per game, the fourth-best mark in Louisville history.
But with Brown’s essentially flawless offensive skill set, it’ll take a lot for her to not be the ACC’s star once again.
Best team: Notre Dame
When you win four conference championships in a row, it’s hard to choose anything but the obvious. Notre Dame has been an ACC powerhouse for the better part of this decade, and there’s little reason to expect a drop-off from the Irish this season.
The Irish finished the 2016-17 season with three double-digit scorers: Arike Ogunbowale (15.9 points per game), Brianna Turner (15.3 points per game), and Marina Mabrey (14.6 points per game). This season, all three are back, and considering not one of them averaged 30 minutes of action per night last year, it’s safe to say there’s still room for improvement from each one.
One thing Notre Dame will have to do in order to maintain supremacy: counteract the loss of the player who spent the most time on the court last season, Lindsay Allen. Allen was the team’s floor general, dishing out 282 assists in 37 games, or 190 more than any other teammate, while also adding 9.6 points and 5.3 rebounds each night.
Can Mabrey step into Allen’s role as the team’s playmaker? She might have to be the one, as Ogunbowale’s three-point marksmanship (45.4 percent) is too valuable to handicap with a pass-first mindset, and Turner will spend her time on the low block cleaning the glass.
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Of course, when you have three stars on your team, fixing one problem is usually pretty achievable. Expect some more entertaining, and dominant, basketball from the Irish this season.
Sleeper team: Florida State
The hard part about seeing the Seminoles as legitimate contenders in the ACC this season: three of their top six scorers from last season are gone. That’s the hard part.
The easy part is noting that Shakayla Thomas, one of the best forwards in the conference; Imani Wright, a threat to score from most places on the court; and Chatrice White, a center with a high ceiling and room to grow, are all back.
It won’t be easy replacing Leticia Romero’s three-point shooting or Brittany Brown’s playmaking, but if the Seminoles can commit to an inside-out offensive attack featuring Thomas and White as primary targets, and Wright as a shoot-and-slash threat, FSU should be able to keep up with the best-scoring teams in the ACC.
And with White back, the most important cog in the Seminoles’ defensive machine remains intact. White’s 50 blocks (!) last season helped FSU hold opponents to just 58.3 points per game. If the team’s defense can return as strong as ever, Florida State should be in plenty of games in March.
Freshman to watch: Mikayla Boykin, Duke
If the Blue Devils are able to overthrow Notre Dame, Boykin will be a big part of the reason why. As a senior in Clinton, North Carolina, Boykin averaged — are you ready? — 37.4 points, 13.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 5.6 steals per game. Those numbers are mind-boggling.
Yes, college-level talent is a colossal step up from high school opponents, and yes, Boykin’s modest size (she stands 5-9) might make finishing around the rim hard in the early going.
But we’re talking about a player who scored 60 points *twice* last year. Boykin is going to have a great career as a Blue Devil, and it starts this year. She could be one of the best guards in the ACC by March.
Adam Hermann has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, Philadelphia magazine, SB Nation, and NBC Sports Philadelphia.
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