Louisville looks to continue climb up ACC ladder
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Louisville keeps claiming things that once belonged to Notre Dame.
The Cardinals begin the season as the favorites to win the Atlantic Coast Conference women's basketball championship, marking the first time since 2013 — the Fighting Irish's first season in the league — that Notre Dame is not the ACC's preseason favorite.
With the Irish replacing five starters from a team that played for the national title last spring after winning it all in 2018, this may be the year when Jeff Walz's Cardinals take over as the team to beat.
They'll have to do it without Asia Durr, one of the most decorated Louisville players the program has produced, and hope a couple of transfers from Georgia Tech — including last year's ACC freshman of the year, Elizabeth Balogun — can keep the program humming along. The Cardinals are coming off the first consecutive 30-win seasons in their history.
"We take it as a compliment to our program," Walz said. "We're not foolish enough to think that, you know, the addition of Elizabeth (Bologun) and Elizabeth (Dixon) was not a significant part of that. When you add those two to what we have returning, we're pretty good. So, we're excited about that. Now, we're going to need some ballgames and a little bit of time for them to get together, get used to playing with each other. But I'm really excited about the potential that this team has."
It wouldn't be the first time Louisville thwarted Notre Dame: Two years ago, the Cardinals wrested the top seed in the conference tournament from the Irish, then beat them in the 2018 title game — still their only ACC Tournament loss in six seasons in the league.
That Notre Dame was picked fourth — even in a rebuilding year — is a sign of improved depth in the conference, league coaches say.
"Just the whole conference — every day, you've got to be ready to play," North Carolina State coach Wes Moore said. "It's going to be a big challenge."
A panel of media members and school representatives chose his Wolfpack to finish second — their best preseason pick since 1999, when they also were chosen second — with Florida State third for the second time in four years.
Still, it might not be wise to overlook the Irish — who have either won or shared every ACC regular-season title since 2013, have never been seeded lower than No. 2 for this conference's tournament and had both of their incoming freshmen (forward Samantha Brunelle and guard Anaya Peoples) picked as McDonald's All-Americans.
"I wouldn't count Notre Dame out yet," Moore said.
Some things know about the upcoming ACC women's basketball season:
The two new coaches in the league are at Georgia Tech and North Carolina.
The Yellow Jackets hired former Purdue and Auburn coach Nell Fortner to replace MaChelle Joseph, who was fired in March after 16 seasons following an independent investigation into alleged mistreatment of players and staff.
The Tar Heels brought in Courtney Banghart from Princeton to take over for Sylvia Hatchell, a Hall of Fame coach who resigned in April after an external investigation found she had made "racially insensitive" comments and pressured players to compete through medical issues.
Perhaps no teams were hit harder by injuries last season than two in the North Carolina Triangle — N.C. State and Duke. Three Wolfpack players who suffered season-ending injuries — guards Kaila Ealey and Grace Hunter, and forward Erika Cassell — are "still trying to make their way back," Moore said.
For the Blue Devils, guard Kyra Lambert is working her way back after missing two consecutive seasons with a knee injury and guard Mikayla Boykin is trying to return after suffering a season-ending knee injury for the second straight year.
Miami center Beatrice Mompremier was picked as the preseason player of the year after averaging 16.7 points and 12.2 rebounds and earning a spot on the all-ACC team in 2018-19. Among the other players to watch: Clemson's Kobi Thornton, Haley Gorecki of Duke, Elissa Cunane of N.C. State and the tandem of Nicki Ekhomu and Kiah Gillespie at Florida State.
The ACC went from 16 conference games to 18 this season, in part because of the launch of the ACC Network, and introduced five-team pods for scheduling. Each school will play a home-and-home series with the other four teams in its pod and will face the other 10 schools once apiece.