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Breana Bacon | NCAA.com | October 13, 2017

Five must-watch ACC matchups this season

Duke's Lexie Brown returns to make another postseason run in her senior year.

Seven teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference were represented in last year’s NCAA tournament with only three making it out of the second round. The ACC's conference matchups will make for some fun and interesting basketball this season. There are several competitive games to keep an eye on, but here are five you should be sure to watch:

Jan. 4: Duke at Louisville

This ACC matchup has all the makings of a primetime basketball game. Last season, Louisville made it all the way to the Sweet 16 before a crushing loss at the hands of Big 12 powerhouse Baylor.

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Louisville will return all-ACC first team junior guard Asia Durr, who had quite the summer, traveling to Tokyo to play for USA women’s basketball, as well as senior forward Myisha Hines-Allen. Durr had a record-breaking season with the Cardinals, bringing her play into full for after suffering an injury during her freshman year. She notched 119 three-pointers last season (fifth in the nation in three-point field goals per game) to join Louisville’s 1,000-point club. Hines-Allen also had a stellar season, finishing tied with former Cardinal Angel McCoughtry for most single-season double-doubles and leading the division. Hines-Allen was trouble for opposing teams on the boards – recording 336 rebounds last season, the highest total in the ACC – and in the field, with an impressive 49.3 percent shooting average.

The Cardinals will be missing Mariya Moore this season, after transferring to USC to be closer to family. Moore was one of Louisville’s top scorers last season. But the Cards will welcome freshman Dana Evans, an explosive 5-foot-6 scorer who can break down defenses and get to the basket. Along with Evans, incoming freshman Loretta Kakala will join the team as a presence on both ends of the floor. Louisville may have the components to make a tournament run, but Duke may be a stumbling block in the path to their success.

The then-No. 13 Blue Devils broke the Cardinals’ seven-game win streak on January 2, 2016, upsetting the eighth-ranked program. The game was tight, with Duke only winning by three, but their performance made it clear that they can defy their standing and win big games. Key players in that game for the Blue Devils were the "Splash Sisters," redshirt seniors Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell. The pair are part of one of the highest scoring backcourts in the ACC, averaging a combined 34.7 points and 156 three-pointers last season.

In their last season, Brown and Greenwell will be missing the third piece scoring trio as junior guard Kyra Lambert will be sidelined for the beginning of the season due to an ACL tear suffered in Duke’s first round win over Hampton. 

Jan. 7: NC State at Duke

Next on Duke’s plate is an in-state matchup with North Carolina State. NC State knocked off Duke last year for the third-straight season, the first time since 1996 they've beaten the Blue Devils three times in a row. During that game, NC State held Duke’s Greenwell and Brown to only 11 and eight points, respectively, limiting the duo’s shooting to 7-21 for the night.

The Wolfpack will have to replace four of their starting five players from last season and are tasked with the large job of filling the shoes of Miah Spencer and Dominique Wilson, who were NC State’s top two scorers last season. Wilson was also the most accurate free throw shooter in program history. They’ll also have to find a way to make up for Jennifer Mathurin’s presence in the paint and Ashley Williams’ team-high three-pointers. But returning for NC State is Chelsea Nelson, who had the team’s highest field goal percentage at 56.7 last season. Nelson recorded 21 games of 32 played in double figures and cinched the 18th spot for rebounding in the ACC. Nelson will likely be a defensive threat as well, swatting 22 blocks last season.

With Nelson, the squad has a decent number of returners who will be depended upon to step up in the place of the graduated seniors. The Wolfpack was thwarted by Texas by four points last season to be knocked out of tournament contention, so this season, they’ll have to kick it into high gear to compete with the likes of Duke and other top-ranked opponents.

Look for Duke to use freshman Jade Williams in the post to capitalize off NC State’s Mathurin’s departure, though. Her shot blocking ability may cause problems for the Wolfpack if they challenge her in the paint.

Jan. 28: Notre Dame at Florida State

The only two ACC teams to make an appearance in last season’s Elite Eight will meet in the middle of the season this year for a tough matchup. Last year, Florida State and Notre Dame finished ranked in the AP’s top-10 and held the 11th and 13th spots for points scored per game in the conference. An accolade especially important to Florida State because their 79.0 points per game was the highest scoring average the program had seen in 26 seasons. The Seminoles couldn't get past Notre Dame, though, earning the Irish its fourth straight conference title, but you can expect Florida State to be back to avenge that loss this season. 

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The feat won’t be easy, though, for the Seminoles. After losing by seven points to eventual champion South Carolina, they lost key players in Brittany Brown, Leticia Romero and Ivey Slaughter. Brown ran the point for the team, finishing her senior season ranking fourth in the country with 320 career steals, and sitting in the fourth and fifth ACC spots for steals and assists. Slaughter posted some impressive stats in her senior campaign, snagging 6.5 rebounds per game and shooting for a 52.4 percentage. Romero, a three-time All-American, will certainly be missed in terms of scoring and rebounding, leaving a 4.0 rebound-per-game gap to be filled by Florida State. Romero was also the team’s second highest scorer behind Shakayla Thomas, who will be returning for her senior season.

Thomas has been an impact player for Florida State since first stepping foot onto the court and will be relied on heavily this year to surpass their impactful 28-7 2016-17 record. The forward scored her way into the top-10 in field goal percentage, landing in 6th place at 54.3 percent for ACC conference play. She also was the top scorer on the Seminoles squad last season with 14.9 per game and ended up right behind center Chatrice White in leading the team in rebounding with six per game. Returning with Thomas this year is guard Imani Wright, who tied for the 11th best three-point percentage in the ACC (37.8) in her first season with Florida State after transferring from Baylor after her sophomore year. Wright was a role player in FSU’s game against South Carolina, recording 11 points in the bout.

Notre Dame is coming off a season where captain and then-senior point guard Lindsay Allen led the Fighting Irish to its eighth Elite Eight appearance – Allen’s third in her career with Notre Dame. While at Notre Dame, Allen picked up several accolades and had plenty to add to her basketball resume. The guard started all 149 games of her Irish career and led the team to an astounding 139-10 record over her four years playing. She ended her senior year on the All-ACC first team, ranked second in the nation in assists (282) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.57) and fourth in assists per game (7.62), leading the conference in all those categories. A definitive role player, Allen will be tough to replace, but Notre Dame’s acquisition of former Stanford guard Lili Thompson will give the Irish a point guard who will be able to fill Allen’s shoes. Thompson was 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring while at Stanford, so she will be a sure offensive threat, dishing the ball out and taking some shots for herself.

Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Allen isn’t the only starter who will not make a return this season. Defensive Player of the Year Brianna Turner will sit out this season due to an ACL tear suffered in Notre Dame’s overtime win over Purdue in the second round of March Madness. The Irish will have to make up for the all-around versatility of Turner’s game this season – she was among the top 10 in the conference in field goal percentage (61.9, 1st), blocks (86, 1st and 8th in the nation) and rebounds (247, 7th). But junior guard Arike Ogunbowale will likely shine in Turner’s absence this year, after a solid season earning the tenth spot in the conference in points per game and leading Notre Dame with 15.9 points per contest. Katie Westbeld will assist as well after being a consistent role player last season.

Jan. 28: Virginia at Georgia Tech

Despite both teams missing the NCAA tournament last season, Georgia Tech and Virginia are pretty evenly matched, as displayed in their overtime contest last season. Virginia ultimately got a one-point advantage over the Yellow Jackets, who were nearing the close of a tumultuous regular season that ended just above .500. Although Virginia won that game, Georgia Tech was the team with better luck in the postseason, making it to the Women’s NIT championship game before losing in a triple-overtime thriller against Michigan.

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The Ramblin’ Wreck returns much of its roster from last season, including all of their top scorers. One of whom is senior forward Zaire O’Neil, who led Georgia Tech in scoring with 12.9 points per game and finished her junior season second on the team in rebounding at 5.7 per game. After an injury-riddled sophomore year, O’Neil had a solid season and even put up 21 points in the Jackets’ loss to Michigan. Point guard Imani Tilford will also be back running the point this season after leading the team in assists and steals last year, dishing out 3.2 assists per game and using her quick hands on defense to collect 2.5 steals per game, placing at fifth in the category for the ACC. Francesca Pan also returns for her sophomore debut, after earning the title of ACC Freshman of the Year last season. She led all ACC freshmen in scoring during her rookie season and was second only to O’Neil in scoring on the team. This solid trio along with redshirt senior Elo Edeferioka -- who proved last season that she can crash the boards for Georgia Tech, pulling down six boards per game – and Kaylan Pugh, The Yellow Jackets’ third leading scorer, will be tough for Virginia to stop this year.

The Cavaliers, despite going 19-12 in the regular season, were knocked out of the second round of the NIT in a six-point loss to James Madison. UVA’s 2016-17 leading scorer Breyana Mason is the only player from last year’s team not returning this year, but her empty spot may be something Georgia Tech may be able to capitalize on – only if, by some freak happening, sophomore Dominique Toussaint digresses from her electric freshman debut. Toussaint ended her career debut for the Cavaliers on the All-ACC Freshman Team and ranked third among ACC freshmen in scoring. Now-sophomore Jocelyn Willoughby joined Toussaint on the All-ACC Freshman Team last season and started all 33 games of the season, averaging 9.8 points per game, settling just below Toussaint in the scoring rankings for ACC freshmen. Willoughby also led the team in rebounding – the first freshman to do so since 2002 and the first guard since 1980. The sophomore pair will have it covered on offense while senior J’Kyra Brown will keep the defense solid. Brown recorded 22 steals last season and will be assisted in defensive efforts by freshman Brianna Tinsley and Virginia’s resident shot-blocker, 6-foot-9 Felicia Aiyeotan.

Feb. 18: Clemson at Virginia Tech

This matchup coming in the last leg of the regular season includes two teams that displayed great potential last year, but couldn’t quite find the missing piece to make an NCAA tournament appearance. The last time Virginia Tech and Clemson went head-to-head was for the first round of the ACC tournament, where the Tigers took it to the final seconds to beat Virginia Tech 67-66 and earn their first ACC tourney win since 2014. But this wasn’t the first time in the season the programs met. Virginia Tech started their season on a 14-game undefeated stretch and extended it to 15 in an eight-point victory over Clemson. Both teams struggled in league play last year, so each will be hoping that this game will complement a winning season.

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The Hokies routed a very good Tennessee team before the start of conference play but couldn’t seem to develop the same rhythm when put up against ACC teams, although coming close on many occasions. Luckily, for Virginia Tech, they will have a squad returning and could be dangerous to compete with this season. Redshirt junior Regan Magarity returns this year after serving as the Hokies’ double-double expert last season, finishing with 15 games where she recorded double figures in multiple categories, the second-most double-doubles in the ACC. Although her team couldn’t capitalize on wins in the league, Magarity was one who certainly tried to get the team there. She was the only player in the conference last year to average a double-double during conference play (13.8 points, 10.3 rebounds). She will be relied upon this season for her ability to crash the boards and put up big numbers in games.

Another player who will lead Virginia Tech and maybe even the NCAA this year is Hokies starlet Chanette Hicks. Hicks had a stupendous sophomore season and will, without a doubt, take over in the ACC this year. The junior guard set a few records and posted eye-catching numbers in the 2016-17 season, earning the top spot in the ACC and 2nd place in the nation for total steals. She was among the top-10 in the conference for scoring, leading her team with 16.1 points per game and was third in the league for assists as well. Hicks made a huge improvement from her rookie season and Hokie fans can expect her to only get better this year.  The Hokies struggled with depth last season, but with a few talented freshmen, players returning from injury and those able to play after sitting out due to transfer rules, Virginia Tech may have the bench that can alleviate some pressure off Magarity and Hicks, as well as replacing some minutes that were assigned to the graduated Sidney Cook.

But hoping to hand the Hokies a loss while improving their record is Clemson, a team that even national champion South Carolina’s head coach Dawn Staley regarded as looking more cohesive last season. Rebounding from a 4-26 record in 2015, Clemson was eager to prove themselves as a serious ACC contender, starting the season with the first winning record the program had seen since 2004. Leading that team last year was the triple-threat of Nelly Perry, Danielle Edwards and Aliyah Collier. All three will return to play this season. Perry led the team in scoring with 12.7 per game last season, but Collier had a truly breakout season. The junior stepped into more of a leadership role last season and it translated to her play. Collier lead the team in rebounding with 7.9 boards per game and made an impact on both ends of the court as the team’s second leading scorer. She, along with Edwards, can be expected to be big in games like this one versus Virginia Tech.

Edwards was the X-factor in last season’s win over the Hokies, with a clutch free throw during the final seconds of regulation to avoid the game going into overtime. She leads her team in shooting from the charity stripe, sinking 84.4 percent of shots taken. Although only 5-foot-7, Edwards has been a beast on the boards and holds the No. 3 spot on the team in rebounding. Keeping Virginia Tech from earning second-chance points will be vital for Clemson to win in this matchup. Tigers guard Jaia Alexander is another guard who can grab rebounds and has several games where she pulled down 10-plus rebounds. Coming off the bench and making a large impact last season was Kobi Thornton, who was a superb rebounder and will be tough to get around in the post.