- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Favorite: North Carolina
Duke has dominated the ACC for the past four or five years, but expect North Carolina to return to the top of the conference in 2004-05.
The Tar Heels were a fun, successful team last season, and return three key starters, including Camille Little (7.9 rpg, 51 percent from field) and Ivory Latta (61 3-pointers, 3.5 apg, 1.9 spg), who each averaged 14 points during phenomenal freshman seasons. Junior La'Tangela Atkinson averaged a team-high 8.1 rebounds and ranked third in scoring with 9.9 points per game.
The Tar Heels' starting five should be loaded with talent, as other key returners include seniors Leah Metcalf (7.0 ppg) and Nikita Bell (9.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg), both of whom started at least 16 games last season.
As usual, UNC is an extremely athletic and quick team. The Tar Heels' ability to hit the perimeter jump shot and play stingy defense are the keys to success. And it never hurts to have a good rookie class on board.
A tough nonconference schedule that includes UConn, Penn State and Villanova should help the Tar Heels get prepared for March. Don't bet on this older, wiser and more experienced UNC squad to lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament -- as it did to Middle Tennessee last season -- again.
Contenders: Duke, Maryland
Early on, Duke was my preseason No. 5. However, that seems a bit high after point guard Lindsey Harding (6.8 ppg, 4.9 apg, 4.5 rpg) was indefinitely suspended Nov. 3 for violating team rules.
Right now there are just too many questions, starting with who will replace All-American Alana Beard. She and Iciss Tillis combined for 32.2 points and 12.1 rebounds last season. Beard also was the top defender in the nation.
Monique Currie (12.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg) is one of the top players in the nation and is expected to have a big year and step up in Beard's absence. But without Harding and Brittany Hunter, who transferred to UConn in the offseason, things could get tough. Jessica Foley, who could end up playing point guard at times, needs a great year, and Mistie Williams needs to be a consistent threat in the paint.
Two more key questions are how much sophomore Alison Bales has developed her game since last season, and can Wynter Whitley -- who walked away from the game for personal reasons after playing in just four contests last season -- be a difference-maker? She was an All-ACC Freshman in 2001-02 and a second-team All-American in high school.
Maryland sophomore guards Shay Doran (13.5 ppg) and Kalika France (11.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg) might combine for one of the top young backcourts in the nation. Last season, they were the Terps' two leading scorers and should continue to carry the bulk of the load.
Underclassmen, in fact, will continue to be a big part of Maryland's success, and coach Brenda Frese expects her rookies to make an immediate impact. There will be no introductory phase. These freshmen -- keep an eye on 6-foot-3 post Crystal Langhorne, who ranked as high as eighth best prospect, and 6-4 forward Laura Harper, who ranked 15th in the recruiting race -- must come in and contribute right away.
Maryland went 8-8 in conference play a year ago, finishing 18-13 overall. Don't be surprised if the Terps win 20 games this season.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
Duke has ruled the ACC for the past few years. But North Carolina hopes to return to the top of the conference.