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It’s About Damn Time: ACC Preseason Contenders Rounding Into Expected Form
Bi-Weekly Conference Roundup for Games Played 1/11-1/24
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To start the season, and/or conference play, a few ACC teams seemed a bit out of sorts and not quite playing to the level many would have expected. After an upset-tacular two weeks last time, it seems like a lot of those teams have rounded into form. Solid timing, as we’re just 35 days from tip-off of the ACC tournament in Greensboro and 46 from Selection Sunday. We did see another upset, because there has to be a modicum of chaos in this conference, but even the team that got upset bounced back in a big way.
We’re starting this recap in the Research Triangle, where all three teams are ranked and have been in all the 2023 polls (all three were also ranked from the Dec. 13 through the Jan. 17th polls of last season). Duke is tied atop the conference with Notre Dame at 7-1. The single losses both the Blue Devils and Fighting Irish have are to North Carolina.
In addition to being ranked, we have also now seen each Research Triangle team play each other once. UNC swept its way through, Duke split 1-1, and NC State came out 0-2. It was actually the Blue Devils’ victory over the Wolfpack in Raleigh that most likely launched them into the AP poll, an upset I covered in my last roundup.
NC State also dropped its road game to UNC 56-47, a game about which Tar Heels’ coach Courtney Banghart said “I’m sure there were some people who were questioning if either team ever practiced offense…” You can’t really argue with her, as neither team broke 30% from the floor. The UNC victory marked the 27th time this season a team has shot 29.7% on field goals (the Tar Heels’ mark) or worse and still won. UNC caught fire when it needed to, though, shooting 58.3% in the fourth quarter after shooting 18.2% in the third and going into the final frame down one. Especially hot was the Tar Heels’ Destiny Adams, who scored more points in the fourth quarter (8) than she does per game on the season (5.2).
Banghart said she hadn’t entirely realized until right after the Virginia win (the game before the NC State one) that the Duke game was right after the NC State one: “They talked about rivalry games and I had said we’ve got a big one coming up, and a big one down the road, and my SID said ‘that’s the next one’…”
The UNC-Duke game started similarly for the Tar Heels on the offensive end, as they shot just 28% in the first half and went into the locker room tied. However, UNC exploded in the third quarter, shooting 90%, then followed that with a 60% mark in the fourth quarter to give them a 48.9% shooting percentage on the game. That’s the Tar Heels’ best since a Dec. 16 victory over SC-Upstate and their best against an ACC foe (to that point) by 5.6%.
One bright spot in the game for Duke was Shayeann Day-Wilson, who had her first 20-point game of the season, putting up 24 for the Blue Devils on 63.6% shooting. The rest of her team couldn’t back her up though, shooting 26.1%.
Both Duke and North Carolina followed their rivalry clash up with wins, though they did it in different ways. The Blue Devils’ defense, a signature of their season so far, locked down on Syracuse, holding the Orange without a point for the last five minutes of the first half and without a field goal during the first 4:22 of the third quarter and the final 2:39 of the game.
Conversely, the Tar Heels beat Georgia Tech with offense, not quite hitting their mark from the Duke game, but coming close with a 47.4% field-goal percentage. Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby led the way for UNC in both games, and then Kennedy Todd-Williams added double-digit points in the Duke game, while Eva Hodgson did it in the win over the Yellow Jackets.
Before their loss to the Tar Heels, No. 20 NC State dropped another game to an unranked foe in Florida State, the one big upset I mentioned at the start. That combo marks the first back-to-back losses for the Wolfpack since the 2019-20 season.
In that upset, Florida State’s Sara Bejedi had her second-consecutive 20-point game, only the third of her career. Makayla Timpson added 14 points and 10 rebounds for another double-double, but the story, once again, was Ta'Niya Latson. She had 31 points in that game and is only the 14th freshman since the 2009-10 season to shoot at least 81.2% in a game while taking at least 15 shots. If you add in the fact she only had one turnover, the list is 4, and Latson is the only one to do it against major-conference competition. The Wolfpack only had the lead for the first 1:05 of the contest. From there it was all Seminoles. FSU and NC State are both great rebounding squads, each ranking in the top 15 in defensive rebounding and the top 25 in total rebounding. That makes it all the more impressive how dominant FSU was on the glass in this game, outrebounding the Wolfpack by 17 defensive boards and 14 total.
Unfortunately for the Seminoles, they followed up that big win with a close loss at Louisville. Bejedi added a third-straight 20-point game, FSU actually led for all but 55 seconds of the first three quarters and went into the fourth up six, but the Cardinals outscored the Seminoles 31-18 in the final frame. Louisville shot 72.2% in that quarter and 54.2% in the game. It was FSU’s first game of the season allowing an opponent to shoot 50% or better from the field. For the Cardinals, it was just their second win of the season in which they trailed at halftime (previously 1-5). While Hailey Van Lith’s dagger basket with 25 seconds to play sealed the game, a lot of credit for the Cardinals’ come-from-behind win has to go to Olivia Cochran, who had 10 of her 13 points in the fourth quarter.
While they came up big to close out the win over FSU, and earned a win over Boston College in the following game (hitting four for its last five field goals and shooting 63.6% in the fourth), Louisville, the preseason pick to win the conference, bookended those two wins with tough losses to the teams picked to finish second and third.
In both the FSU win and the preceding two-point loss to Virginia Tech, neither Louisville nor its opponents ever got the margin to double figures. In the loss to the Hokies, the Cardinals actually had the last four shots (and five of the last six) but just couldn’t connect to tie it up, missing all of them.
The final quarter was even worse for Louisville in its loss to NC State. The Cardinals made one field goal in the final quarter, shooting 6.3% and getting outscored 15-4. What was interesting about what Louisville head coach Jeff Walz had to say in postgame was that his bigger frustration was with the way the Cardinals started the game, allowing a 10-2 Wolfpack run. He obviously wasn’t thrilled with the way the Cardinals shot in the fourth, but he summed it up pretty well: “We had some good looks, the ball just did not go in the basket, we had several where it rolled in and out. We just could not buy a bucket there in the fourth quarter…”
Some of the credit for that 11-point fourth-quarter margin has to, of course, go to NC State, which had its second game in a row holding an opponent below 10 points in a quarter. Before traveling up to Louisville, the Wolfpack picked up a 10-point win over Miami and held the Hurricanes to just five points in the second quarter on 20% shooting. NC State won the fastbreak points battle in that game by 16, its best mark in ACC play by 13 and only the second time in conference play the Wolfpack have led in that category this season.
HHS ACC Player of the Bi-Week:
Three teams went undefeated over the past two-week period, but only one team had two of those wins come against teams with winning conference records. That would be the North Carolina Tar Heels. And that was my whittling factor for this bi-week’s awards, so it’s going to Alyssa Ustby.
Ustby scored in double figures in three of UNC’s four games over the past two weeks. In the fourth, where she only missed that mark by one point, she pulled down 18 rebounds, the third-most of any ACC player in a game this season.
Ustby also had 16 in the game against Duke despite starting the day dehydrated and receiving IV fluids.
Despite shooting just 25% in the Tar Heels’ win over NC State, Ustby still managed to shoot 56.5% over the two-week period. She also tied her career-high in blocks (3) and set her season-high in steals (4) in the game against Virginia.
Just an all-around excellent run from the junior.
Virginia Tech’s Liz Kitley, whose team went 3-0 and who recorded a double-double in all three games. Kitley averaged 20.3 points and 13 rebounds over the two-week span. Arguably most impressive was her 12-for-15 shooting night in the Hokies’ win over Wake Forest.
Other Performances of Note:
Louisville’s Morgan Jones shot 9-for-10 for 25 points and added 10 rebounds for the double-double in the Cardinals’ win over Florida State.
Notre Dame’s Sonia Citron shot 85.7% from 3 (and scored 20) in the Fighting Irish’s win over Virginia, the only ACC player this season to shoot that well with at least seven attempts and only the 21st-such performance nationally.
FSU’s Ta'Niya Latson’s abovementioned 31-point game on 81.2% shooting (and 91.7% from two) in the win over NC State.
Latson’s FSU teammate Sara Bejedi also scored in double figures in all four of her team’s games during the span this recap covers, averaging 20.
Once again from FSU, Makayla Timpson had a pair of 14-point, 10-rebound double-doubles in wins against Virginia and NC State.
Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith had 29, just five below her career-high, in the Cardinals’ loss to Virginia Tech.
Quick-hit style this time, since there’s SEVEN games I have my eye on over the next two weeks:
On Thursday, Jan. 26, newly-ranked No. 24 Florida State, who sits alone in third in the ACC standings at the moment, travels to South Bend to take on tied-for-first No. 7 Notre Dame. This will be a battle of the only two ACC underclassmen averaging 15-plus points per game in Seminoles’ freshman Ta’Niya Latson and Fighting Irish sophomore Olivia Miles. The game is at 8 p.m. ET on RSNs.
Also on Thursday at 8 p.m. (on ACC Network), No. 12 Virginia Tech travels to No. 16 Duke. The Hokies have two of the top eight scorers in the ACC in Elizabeth Kitley and Georgia Amoore and the leading rebounder in Kitley, but Duke leads the conference in opponent field-goal percentage and scoring defense (and top-15 rankings in the country). The Blue Devils also boast the third-best rebounding margin in the ACC, so the battle to watch is definitely on the Hokies’ end of the floor.
The Blue Devils follow that game with a trip to Tallahassee on Sunday the 29th to take on No. 24 FSU. It’s a similar story, as the Blue Devils will have to rely on their stellar defense to shut down the conference’s leading scorer in Latson, and the leading shooter by field-goal percentage in Makayla Timpson. Timpson is also the fourth-leading rebounder in the conference. The game is on ACC Network at 2 p.m. ET.
On that same day, No. 7 Notre Dame visits No. 20 NC State on ESPN in a game that is already sold out. With the game in Reynolds, the Her Hoop Stats prediction model sees a 4.7-point Wolfpack win. Both of these teams rank in the top 10% in a pile of categories, including field-goal percentage and opponent field-goal percentage, and have total rebounding rates in the top 35. Tip-off is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET.
A week later on Feb. 5, No. 15 North Carolina is in Louisville to take on the Cardinals. Louisville is the better offensive team on the season, coming in 20th in field-goal percentage, while the Tar Heels are better defensively, coming in at that same spot in opponent field-goal percentage. Tip-off is at noon ET on ESPN2.
That same day, the current ACC leaders face off in South Bend at 1 p.m. ET on RSNs. Notre Dame is scoring 79.7 points per game, 17th-most nationally, while Duke is holding opponents to just 50.9 points per contest, the second-fewest. What will be interesting about this game is that while the Fighting Irish have a prolific offense, they are almost as strong defensively, coming in just 0.2%, and one slot, behind the Blue Devils in opponent field-goal percentage, as the two teams are 10th and 11th.
Finally, Virginia Tech visits NC State on ESPN2 on Monday, Feb. 6 at 6 p.m. ET. The Hokies’ Elizabeth Kitley is the only player in the conference averaging double-digit rebounds (and one of just 12 nationally averaging 11 or more), but NC State has the slight edge as a team, coming in 34th in total rebounding rate to Virginia Tech’s 39th, and the Wolfpack are 16th in defensive rebounding rate to the Hokies’ 22nd.
Note: teams are listed in alphabetical order within the tiers
Turn up the music, let's celebrate:
No. 16 Duke (7-1 ACC, 17-2 overall): Yes, the Blue Devils dropped a game to rival North Carolina, but they bounced right back and took down Syracuse by 12. Duke has held every single one of its opponents below their season field-goal percentages, including holding 12 of 19 to 50 points or fewer. In addition to the lockdown defense, Duke’s offense, already good, has improved even more over the past week or so, led by the resurgence of Shayeann Day-Wilson.
No. 15 North Carolina (5-3 ACC, 15-5 overall): In the Duke game, the Tar Heels had their best-overall shooting performance by percentage in ACC play on the same night they had their second-worst 3-point shooting one. Oppositely, they had their most made threes of the season (and second-best 3-point percentage) on a night they shot terribly overall, the NC State game. All this to say, the Tar Heels do a really good job of adjusting their offense to what’s working on a given night. Add in the No. 1 turnover margin in conference play and the second-best opponent field-goal percentage in the ACC (and 20th best nationally), and you’ve got quite a solid combo for winning. Which is what the Tar Heels have done for five straight games, the longest current streak in the conference. Four of those victories, including the last three straight, came at home. However, three of the next four are on the road, notable among them the final in the quartet in Louisville.
No. 7 Notre Dame (7-1 ACC, 16-2 overall): The Fighting Irish are one game behind UNC in the win streak column, having bounced back from their loss to the Tar Heels with four straight. They have done it in impressive fashion, shooting 48.4% or better in three of the four games and 52% or better from two in those same three (wins over Syracuse, Virginia, and Wake Forest). Overall during conference play, Notre Dame is second-best in field-goal percentage and leads the ACC in both opponent field-goal and 3-point percentage, as well as rebounding margin and assists per game. I unfortunately have to mention an injury in this tiers section again, though, as Dara Mabrey suffered an ACL injury in the win over the Cavaliers that will end her Fighting Irish career.
I got a feelin' I'm gon' be alright:
No. 24 Florida State (7-2 ACC, 18-4 overall): The team that was picked ninth in the preseason poll is now sitting in third, right behind Duke and Notre Dame. The Seminoles have been led all season by freshman Ta’Niya Latson and sophomore Makayla Timpson. Latson ranks sixth nationally in points and is in the top 10% in both steals and assists per game. Timpson is 13th in Division I in blocks per game and ranks in the top-55 in field-goal percentage, offensive rebounds per game, and total rebounds per game. FSU has also seen a giant leap in productivity from senior Sara Bejedi, who is averaging 21.2 points per game over the last five games and is shooting 54.8% from three and 50.2% overall over that stretch. The Seminoles will be tested in the next few days, though, as they face the conference’s top two teams in consecutive games, first on the road in South Bend then at home to take on Duke.
No. 11 NC State (5-4 ACC, 15-5 overall): Partially due to injuries to Jada Boyd and Diamond Johnson (the 2022 ACC Sixth Player of the Year), NC State has been tough to get a read on this season. One consistent bright spot has been the rebounding, as the Wolfpack are 16th nationally in both defensive rebounds per game and defensive rebounding rate, 24th in total rebounds per game, and 35th in total rebounding rate. As you might expect, that’s been the metric that most predicts NC State’s success this season. When the Wolfpack outrebound their opponents, they’re 4-1 in conference play. When they get outrebounded? 1-3.
No. 12 Virginia Tech (6-3 ACC, 16-3 overall): Speaking of rebounding, the Hokies have the leading rebounder in the ACC, Elizabeth Kitley. She is averaging 11.5 per game and has the lead by a full 2.4 in conference play, a margin greater than the one that separates second from 14th. Led by Kitley, Virginia Tech has the No. 1 defensive rebounding percentage in the conference. The Hokies are on a three-game win streak and are shooting 46.6% over that span. That’s a good sign, as Virginia Tech is undefeated when shooting above 40% (they’re 3-3 when shooting 40% or worse).
Tryna bring out the fabulous:
RV Louisville (6-3 ACC, 15-7 overall): Even with that ghastly fourth quarter against NC State, the Cardinals are scoring the second-most points per game in conference play and have the best field-goal percentage. Louisville’s 46.3% field-goal percentage across all games this season ranks 20th nationally, and its 35.8% 3-point percentage is 35th (its 40.2% ACC mark is second behind Duke). The Cardinals also have the leading scorer in ACC play in Hailey Van Lith. All this to say, Coach Walz was right when he at least partially blew off the ice-cold ending against the Wolfpack and focused on the Cardinals’ poor defensive start. Louisville’s strong offense will no doubt bounce back relatively quickly from the NC State game, and if Walz can get his team to lock in sooner on defense, this team will remain as dangerous as they have been the past few seasons.
RV Miami (5-3 ACC, 12-7 overall): Overall, Miami is good at a lot of things but great at nothing. The Hurricanes rank in the top third nationally in a lot of categories, and in the bottom third in only a few, namely opponent 2-point percentage, opponent assists per game, and opponent assisted shot rate. In conference play, they allow opponents more assists than everybody but last-place Pitt and have the fourth-worst opponent 2-point percentage. However, the Hurricanes make up for that by being strong on the other end, with the third-best field-goal percentage in the conference.
Syracuse (4-5 ACC, 13-7 overall): As one would somewhat expect from a team one game below 0.500, as a team, the Orange are middling in most statistical categories in conference play and/or have a strong showing in one category but a poor one in its opposite (scoring the fourth-most points, but allowing the third-most). Two individual bright spots, though, have been Dariauna Lewis and Dyaisha Fair. Lewis is one of just four players averaging 8.5 rebounds or more per game in ACC play, while Fair is one of just three players averaging 19 points or more per game.
I've been through a lot but I'm still flirty:
Boston College (3-6 ACC, 13-9 overall): After starting off conference play with a 3-2 record, including upsets over NC State and Florida State, the Eagles have gone ice cold, dropping all four of their games over the past two weeks. The main culprit is BC’s 3-point shooting, which was 5.7% lower over its last four games compared to its first five conference ones. If you look strictly at conference wins versus conference losses, the dichotomy from distance is even more stark with a difference of 22.7%.
Clemson (4-5 ACC, 13-8 overall): The Tigers are middling-to-below-average in a lot of statistical categories in the ACC, right where they fall in our rankings. Clemson’s best ranking in conference play is its 9.2 steals per game mark, good for third. Nationally across all games, its 10.3 per game is 27th and its 12.0% steal rate is 34th. The Tigers’ other top-four mark in the conference is their 35.0% offensive rebounding rate, which ranks fourth. The problem has been, to some degree, that even with those numbers, Clemson has had nine games (42% of its contests) where it either lost or tied the second-chance point battle and 10 games (48%) where it lost or tied the points off turnover margin. Somewhat unsurprisingly, they are 2-7 and 3-7 in those games, respectively.
Virginia (3-6 ACC, 14-6 overall): There are a lot of similarities between the Tigers above and the Cavaliers in terms of statistical rankings within the conference. Virginia comes in 11th in a lot of categories during conference play, right around where they come in within these rankings. They started their 2022-23 campaign by ripping off 12 wins, more than double the number of victories they had all last season. Since then, though, they’ve gone just 2-6, and the losses have come by an average of nearly 15 points a contest. The best statistical category for Virginia on the season has been offensive rebounding, but leading rebounder Mir McLean was lost for the season a few weeks ago. Camryn Taylor is only 1.4 offensive rebounds per game behind McLean, and she’ll need to continue to grow her role there if the Cavaliers want to try to right the ship.
I’ve been so down and under pressure:
Georgia Tech (1-8 ACC, 10-10 overall): The Yellow Jackets lost five of their six leading scorers from last season, four of their five leading rebounders, and both of their players who ranked in the top 10% nationally in assists per game last season, not to mention senior leadership as four players graduated. While that has caused a fall off in record and, arguably, team performance, the future is bright in Atlanta. The 2022-23 Georgia Tech roster is evenly split between upper and lowerclassmen, but four of the six in the latter group are freshmen. Tonie Morgan understandably gets most of the hype, as she was the No. 24 prospect in her class and was just named ACC Freshman of the Week after averaging a double-double, but the Yellow Jackets’ freshman class has some depth. Three different Georgia Tech freshmen have multiple 10-plus point games, the most of any team in the conference, and the only one to have three players with at least one 15-point game.
Pitt (0-8 ACC, 7-12 overall): The Panthers are the only ACC team with more than one player with multiple four-block games in Liatu King and Gabby Hutcherson. King is leading the Panthers (and coming in the top-10% nationally) in all three rebounds per game categories, as well as blocks per game. She also leads the team in points per game. Second on the team is Amber Brown, who broke a streak of seven-straight double-digit scoring games in the Panthers’ loss to Florida State on Sunday. In that game, Pitt shot 15.8%, the only team this season to shoot that poorly over the course of an entire game. The Panthers actually had their second-best rebounding effort in the loss to the Seminoles, pulling down 49. The problem is they gave up 55.
Wake Forest (2-7 ACC, 11-9 overall): Unlike some of the teams in the bottom chunk of the ACC standings, the Demon Deacons have a giant bright spot in junior guard Jewel Spear, one of just six ACC players to have six-plus 20-plus point games this season. As a team, Wake Forest is already halfway to its conference win total from last season, and its 62.0% assisted shot rate (all games) is just barely out of the top 10% nationally.