With more depth than ever, Duke is ACC favorite

Updated: November 7, 2005, 8:41 PM ET
By Beth Mowins | Special to ESPN.com

Duke and North Carolina will continue to dominate the ACC. But Maryland, NC State and Florida State will make waves, too. A look at how the conference race might shape up:

The favorite

With the return of All-America guard Monique Currie and previously suspended point guard Lindsey Harding, Duke is favored to return to the top of the ACC. Currie, who redshirted 2002-03 because of a knee injury, decided to stay and play for a national championship instead of going on to the WNBA. Harding is back after sitting out last season for an unspecified team rules violation.

Duke is stronger than ever because of a 13-player roster that is loaded with talent, size and speed. Coach Gail Goestenkors has never had so many options and can play several different combinations in several different styles.

Currie and Harding are joined in the backcourt by sharpshooting Jess Foley and national high school player of the year Abby Waner. Wanisha Smith and Waner's sister, Emily, a transfer from Colorado, will also battle for playing time.

ACC MISCELLANEOUS
Two former ACC players are back to coach in the conference. NC State grad Christy McKinney leaves Rice to take over at Clemson while former Duke standout Katie Meier departs Charlotte for Miami.

It's the start of a new era at Virginia, where four-year starters LaTonya Blue and Brandi Teamer have left. Point guard Sharnee Zoll leads the Cavaliers, who are seeking their first ACC regular-season title since 2000.

Wake Forest hasn't finished in the upper half of the ACC in 18 years -- but that could be changing soon. The Demon Deacons welcome the best group of recruits in school history (ranked fifth in the nation by one publication). The newcomers are headlined by All-Americans Yolanda Lavender and Deidre Naughton.

Mistie Williams, Alison Bales and Chante Black form the front line. The threesome rebounds well and will disrupt opponents with their shot-blocking ability. Bales has worked on her conditioning, so she should be better on the fast break this year.

Three of five losses last year were to North Carolina. To win the ACC, Duke has to figure out how to handle Tar Heel guard Ivory Latta, who burned them badly in the ACC tournament, ending Duke's five-year stranglehold on the championship.

Two regular season matchups and a potential ACC title tilt with Carolina could not only determine the conference kingpin, but the overall top seed in the NCAA Tournament as well.

The challenge for Duke will be to keep everyone happy with all 13 players pushing for playing time. The challenge for Currie will be to stay focused during the season and not worry about an elusive NCAA championship. The Dukies are hopeful Currie's foot injury from last season won't slow her down next March.

Contenders

Two starters are gone from North Carolina's Elite Eight squad that went 30-4. But an excellent core returns to Chapel Hill, including All-America candidates Ivory Latta, Erlana Larkins and Camille Little.

Carolina will continue its course of high-pressure defense and a fast-paced offense that propelled the Tar Heels to the top of the ACC last year. They punish teams with quickness, and often force foes to turn over the ball. Then they outrun opponents to the offensive end to shoot and crash the boards.

Latta directs the show and is one of the top point guards in the country. Larkins is a star in the making who is quickly becoming one of the best post players in America. Forwards Little and La'Tangela Atkinson provide scoring punch and rebounding.

Last year, Rashad McCants helped the UNC men's team win a national title. This year, his little sister, Rashanda, a 6-foot-3 freshman, moves into the starting lineup for the Carolina women.

The Achilles' heel for UNC in recent years has been playing at a slower speed. Opponents who control the tempo and force a half-court game have found success against the Tar Heels.

The Maryland Terrapins have undergone a transformation under fourth-year coach Brenda Frese -- from ACC pretender to ACC contender. Maryland's young talent is as good as anyone's in the country. The big question is at the point, where the Terps -- who were 22-10 last season -- will probably rely on freshman Kristi Tolliver.

Tolliver will have plenty of support, with weapons on the perimeter and in the post. Junior guards Shay Doron and Kalika France are good off the dribble and can get to the basket. Forward Crystal Langhorne was the only player in the ACC last year to average a double-double, en route to garnering ACC rookie of the year honors.

Tolliver arrives to take over the point after an All-America high school career. Fellow rookie Marissa Coleman might also step into the starting lineup. Maryland gets a big boost with the return of sophomore center Laura Harper, who got hurt early last year after a promising start to her collegiate career.

Maryland won eight of the first 12 ACC titles. But the Terps haven't been on top since 1989, and haven't played for the ACC championship since falling to Virginia in triple-overtime in 1993. That could change this year if Harper stays healthy and France plays with a consistency she showed as a freshman but lacked as a sophomore.

At NC State, forward Tiffany Stansbury returns as a force inside, along with Khadijah Whittington and Marquetta Dickens. Billie McDowell, Ashley Key and Rachel Stockdale are back to patrol the perimeter. Gillian Goring, a 6-7 transfer who originally signed with UConn, could be an intriguing addition.

The Wolfpack, 21-8 last season, have interchangeable parts with good depth. The team is quick and defends well. But State must improve on last year's 1-4 combined record against Duke, UNC and Maryland to get a shot at the ACC title.

Florida State, 24-8 last season, has had some recent success against those teams, and if you are looking for an upset, this is your team. FSU has taken down the last two champs in regular-season play, surprising UNC last year and toppling Duke two years ago.

The Seminoles are coming off their best season since joining the ACC with a fourth-place finish and a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. They also trumpet the return of point guard Shante Williams, who missed last season after a freshman campaign that placed her on the ACC all-rookie team.

FSU will have to replace the scoring of guard Roneeka Hodges, but look for Alicia Gladden to have a breakout season for the Seminoles.

Boston College is the unknown entity in its first season in the ACC. The Eagles are a perennial top-25 team with expectations of a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Last year, BC finished fourth in the Big East behind Rutgers, UConn and Notre Dame.

But Boston College, 20-10 last season, suffered heavy losses with the graduation of guards Jess Deveny and Claire Droesch. Returnees Sarah Marshall, Brooke Queenan and Kathrin Ress have a lot to prove.

Last season, Virginia Tech and Miami left the Big East to join the ACC. Both teams struggled under the weight of high expectations and finished below .500 in the league.

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

Beth Mowins

Women's Basketball
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.