As the countdown continues to the start of the 2020-21 women's college basketball season on Nov. 25, ESPN.com's panel of experts is making its predictions for all of the nation's top conferences. We continue with the ACC, where the Louisville Cardinals are expected to continue their dominance, but the NC State Wolfpack look to resume the momentum of last season's ACC tournament title.
ACC 2020-21 superlatives
Player of the Year
Mechelle Voepel: Dana Evans, Louisville
Graham Hays: Dana Evans, Louisville
Charlie Creme: Elissa Cunane, NC State
Newcomer of the Year
Voepel: Kamilla Cardoso, Syracuse
Hays: Kamilla Cardoso, Syracuse
Creme: Hailey Van Lith, Louisville
ACC 2020-21 writer roundtable
Are Louisville and NC State national championship contenders?
Voepel: Reigning ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans was a freshman on the Cardinals' 2018 team that reached the Final Four. Louisville lost three starters from last season's team, including WNBA draft picks Jazmine Jones and Kylee Shook, yet still have so much talent that you could see this group making another run to the Final Four.
It would have been interesting to see how far NC State could have gone last season considering the momentum of the Wolfpack's ACC tournament title. Junior center Elissa Cunane, a player of the year candidate, will be even better this season, and sophomores Jakia Brown-Turner and Jada Boyd are likely to have big improvements. The Wolfpack aren't necessarily on the first tier of teams you'd expect to get to San Antonio, but they at least fall into the realm of reasonable possibility.
Creme: I wouldn't pick either to win the national championship, but not including both in the Final Four conversation would be a mistake. And, of course, once you reach the Final Four, anything can happen, especially in a season in which very little seems predictable.
I have some small concerns about the Cardinals losing three starters and having to reconfigure a rotation with a number of players taking on new roles. Coach Jeff Walz's track record suggests that it will come together sooner rather than later, and Evans is a great foundation. My biggest curiosity will be how big of a leap Elizabeth Balogun and Elizabeth Dixon make. Much was made last year of their transfer from Georgia Tech, but their impact, especially that of the 6-foot-5 Dixon, wasn't massive. If one season in the program was enough to get them comfortable, they could become a force even greater than that of the departed Jones and Shook.
The Wolfpack also have a high-caliber centerpiece in Cunane, and Wes Moore has created an offensively balanced system that has made NC State one of the country's most consistent teams over the past few seasons. If Brown-Turner and Boyd make the improvement that Mechelle predicts, and senior Kai Crutchfield can be the everyday point guard to replace Aislinn Konig, then reaching San Antonio is within reach.
Hays: Having already included Arizona and UCLA among the viable contenders out of the Pac-12, I might be accused of having an overly generous tent. But a bit like the 2010-11 season, when Texas A&M ended up winning its lone title, it really feels like that sort of landscape.
Of the two, and actually not entirely unlike that A&M team, I think Louisville is best positioned to be a championship team by spring. Evans might not be a player you build a championship around -- that's a select group of the likes of Candace Parker, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, etc. But the reigning ACC player of the year is capable of being the best player on a championship team -- a significant distinction in this season that doesn't feature a Parker, Stewart or Taurasi.
The question then becomes does Louisville have that case to put around her? We don't know right now. But Walz hasn't shied away from calling this group his deepest team, which gives him a lot of options to find the rotation that works. If Balogun and Dixon continue to develop in their second seasons after transferring, if freshmen Hailey Van Lith and Olivia Cochran are everything the recruiting touts suggest, if junior college transfer Ahlana Smith gets up to speed quickly -- if most or all of those things happen, this is a championship team.
It's a lot of "ifs," but that isn't disqualifying in a season of uncertainty.
How much will Duke and Notre Dame matter this season under notable new coaches?
Voepel: We all picked Notre Dame at No. 4 in our predicted finish, and I think we all agree that the Irish are "back" this season after a tough 2019-20 in which they went 13-18 and coach Muffet McGraw often looked as if she were getting a perpetual root canal. Last season -- and the ensuing pandemic -- seemed to give McGraw clarity that she was ready to retire from coaching and do other things, especially since Niele Ivey, her former player and longtime assistant, was ready to step into the head coaching role after a brief stay with the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies.
Amid all the frustrating losses last season, the Irish had some good moments, including victories over Syracuse, North Carolina and Florida State at the end of the regular season. And they'll bring back almost everyone except point guard Marta Sniezek.
There was a lot of offseason excitement at Duke with Kara Lawson coming in as coach. Frankly, that was going to be the case to a degree no matter who was hired, because the program had become pretty stagnant under Joanne P. McCallie. But Lawson's collegiate and pro success as a player, the additional insight she gained as a broadcaster, and her brief but impactful time with the NBA's Boston Celtics sends her into the Duke job with a lot of knowledge and enthusiasm, if not a lot of actual coaching experience.
With the loss of top scorers Haley Gorecki and Leaonna Odom, the Blue Devils have no one back who averaged in double-figure scoring for them last year. But Lawson and a strong staff, which includes former head coaches Tia Jackson and Beth Cunningham, have some talent to work with and the energy of a fresh start for a program with massive potential.
Creme: Because of their name recognition and charisma, the new coaches will matter as fans follow their respective transitions. But on the floor this season, only Notre Dame is going to truly impact the wider women's basketball landscape. The Irish are an NCAA tournament team again, although they are still a sizable distance from the national championship conversation. Within the ACC, Notre Dame is very relevant after taking a year off from that status. Watching how the young talent grows under Ivey as a young coach is compelling given the shoes she is filling and the program's recent history of success.
Duke will matter again with Lawson in charge, just not this season. The talent level has fallen off too much and has been deteriorating for some time. Lawson will need time to replenish it. The Blue Devils would have been an NCAA tournament team last season after a February resurgence, but that was almost entirely due to Gorecki and Odom. Once Lawson and her staff establish that recruiting foothold, there is no reason Duke can't one day soon rival the level reached at the height of the Gail Goestenkors tenure.
Hays: Both programs matter a great deal this season, although I'll join the chorus that Notre Dame is far more likely to win games.
You can even put Florida State in this discussion because interim coach Brooke Wyckoff is clearly going to be a permanent head coach somewhere, whether that's as Sue Semrau's eventual successor down the road or at another school. Between Ivey, Lawson and Wyckoff, the ACC continued to shift away from a coaching old guard to a younger generation that is often heavily influenced by the WNBA. But in this case, with Ivey and Lawson, it's also influenced by the NBA. Neither coached in that league for long, but it will be interesting to see if their approaches -- from communication to analytics to strategy -- are influenced by their experiences in other basketball environments. In that sense, while Duke is a work in progress, it will be among the most interesting teams to watch this season no matter how competitive it is.
On the court, yes, Notre Dame is the better bet (and would have been under McGraw). Mikayla Vaughn is coming off surgery and won't be ready for the start of the season, so it's a bit of a misleading stat, but there aren't many programs in the country who return four double-digit scorers this season. And two newcomers with familiar last names -- transfer Dara Mabrey and freshman Maddy Westbeld -- could be among the most productive additions in the league.
Syracuse has one of the best stories in the sport with Tiana Mangakahia's return, as well as a strong recruiting class. But it was also 16-15 a season ago. How good are the Orange?
Voepel: With playmaking and scoring from guards Mangakahia and Kiara Lewis, an all-ACC player last season, plus one of the best recruiting classes the Orange have ever had, this should be a really good team. How fast the freshmen come along could mean a lot. Last season's record was an anomaly for coach Quentin Hillsman's program; it was the first time since the 2008-09 season that Syracuse didn't win at least 22 games. Expect things to be more back to normal this season.
Creme: Syracuse will be much better and could even be good enough to compete with Louisville and NC State for conference supremacy. Mangakahia isn't just a great story. She's a great player, one that improves the Orange exponentially. She makes others better. Two seasons ago Mangakahia averaged 16.9 PPG and 8.4 APG and Syracuse went 25-9. Now Lewis won't be asked to do quite as much and should be more efficient. Veterans like Emily Engstler and Digna Strautmane will get more open shots. What better way to incorporate talented freshmen like 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso and 6-2 Priscilla Williams than to have Mangakahia, the nation's assist leader in 2018, getting them the ball.
Hays: I hope Mangakahia is exactly the electrifying player she was before she was diagnosed with cancer, but I also have too much respect for the fight she already went through just to get back to the court to assume she immediately returns as if nothing happened. That said, and as Charlie noted, her greatest attribute was making those around her better. So everything she provides this season probably has a multiplier effect -- it's not just the value she adds but that she makes everyone else 5, 10, 15, 25 percent better on the offensive end.
North Carolina is going to be much improved in Courtney Banghart's second season. As we've discussed, Notre Dame has everything in place for a bounce-back season. Louisville and NC State are obviously excellent. The ACC is going to have its share of challenges this season. But a 70 percent winning percentage, which had effectively become par for Syracuse under Hillsman, should again be well within reach.
What's the biggest Bracketology question in the ACC?
Creme: After the top-four -- Louisville, NC State, Syracuse and Notre Dame -- which teams make the NCAA tournament?
The list of possible entries is long. Boston College, Georgia Tech, Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech could all be in the mix. Not all of them will ultimately reach NCAA tournament status because this season will be so conference-game heavy. Their resumes will be built by playing each other, making those games some of the most Bracketology-worthy to watch.
How wide open is this race? Graham and Mechelle picked North Carolina fifth and sixth, respectively, and I picked the Tar Heels eighth. The coaches and media also differed, with a third- and fifth-place finish predicted.
Boston College and Georgia Tech indicated they could be programs on the rise at different points last season, but were probably going to fall short of making last year's NCAA tournament.