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Monday November 28th, 2022 6:21AM

No. 7 Louisville is ACC favorite but has lots of challengers

By The Associated Press
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Louisville is the Atlantic Coast Conference favorite again, though fulfilling that lofty projection will require navigating a more crowded group of serious challengers.

After recent seasons in which Louisville and North Carolina State comprised the league’s top tier, 2022-23 begins with several teams poised to make noise. The No. 7 Cardinals have the early advantage, returning a strong mix of veterans and talented transfers after reaching their fourth Final Four last season under coach Jeff Walz.

However, Notre Dame, three-time defending league champion N.C. State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech are ranked ninth, 10th, 12th and 13th, respectively. The conference also sent eight teams to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive time, and each one hopes to upend Louisville’s status as the team to beat.

“I think the talent is very, very good,” Walz said at ACC Tipoff this month. “The coaching is outstanding. I’d rather have that bullseye on me than being that coach that’s on the hot seat.”

The Cardinals will pursue their first tournament title since 2018 with three of their top six scorers back including junior guard Hailey Van Lith (14.4 points, 3.6 rebounds per game), an All-ACC preseason selection who also received votes for the AP’s All-America team. Louisville lost three starters from the Final Four squad that lost to eventual champion South Carolina but added Morgan Jones (Florida State) and Chrislyn Carr (Syracuse) via the transfer portal.

Virginia Tech center and ACC player of the year Elizabeth Kitley leads a squad picked second after reaching the conference tournament semifinal. The 6-foot-6 senior earned preseason player of the year honors along with a spot on the All-American team but looks forward to helping the Hokies reach the top tier.

“I think, as we mature too, every player individually gets better, and that makes us better as a whole,” said Kitley, who averaged 18.1 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks last season. “I think we get more and more dangerous as time goes on.”

HOMECOMING

First-year Syracuse coach Felisha Legette-Jack was hired in March at her alma mater after guiding Buffalo to four NCAA berths during a successful 10-year run. The former Orange All-American and 30-year coaching veteran aims to stabilize a program that went 11-18 (4-14 ACC) last season under acting coach Vonn Read after Quentin Hillsman resigned following an internal review over alleged threats and bullying of players.

“It’s a perfect place for me at this time where I could go back to my alma mater and help heal what’s been done,” Legette-Jack said. “Some great things have been done at Syracuse, but right now it needs that healing potion, and I pray that I can bring it.”

RALEIGH RESET

N.C. State lost All-America post player Elissa Cunane and Kayla Jones from a Wolfpack squad that earned a No. 1 tournament seeding and fell 91-87 to UConn in an epic double-overtime battle in the regional final. Jakia Brown-Turner (9.8 points, 4.6 rebounds) is the ‘Pack’s only returning starter, but they also have Diamond Johnson, named the ACC’s top sixth player.

The ’Pack also added sophomore guard Saniya Rivers — who played in 27 games for South Carolina during its title run — and graduate forward Mimi Collins (Maryland) via the transfer portal.

TAKING THE NEXT STEP

Notre Dame guard Olivia Miles was the lone freshman on the All-ACC first team last season and earned three first-place votes in making the preseason squad. She’s among four returning starters for the Irish after a debut season highlighted by 13.7 points and 7.4 assists per game and the NCAA Tournament’s first triple-double by a freshman — man or woman — in the opener.

“I just think the sky’s the limit for her,” coach Niele Ivey said. “When she stepped on campus, I remember her coming to practice, and she’ll have like an elite finish. I was like, she’s just different. She’s amazing to coach.”

TAKING OVER

Florida State and Virginia also begin with new head coaches, although not really for Brooke Wyckoff with the Seminoles. As interim coach she guided FSU to the NCAA Tournament two seasons ago while Sue Semrau took a leave of absence.

Wyckoff became permanent coach upon Semrau’s retirement in March and looks forward to pursuing a 10th consecutive NCAA berth.

“I’m not starting from scratch, having never stood up on the sideline and coached the game,” Wyckoff said. “I’m very thankful for that and ready to take what I learned, which was a lot in that season, and the season after being an assistant again, and really be a better coach this year.”

Amaka Agugua-Hamilton replaced Tina Thompson in March after three successful years at Missouri State, which she led to NCAA appearances and Missouri Valley Conference titles the past two seasons. The coronavirus pandemic wiped out a third likely berth in 2020.

___

AP women’s basketball: https://apnews.com/Womenscollegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25 and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll

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