Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks knows that his team rose to a different level than ever before a year ago.
The Hokies won their first Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and reached the Final Four for the first time in program history, losing 79-72 to eventual national champion LSU in the semifinals.
He and his players also know doing it again will likely be harder.
“We can’t look at what we did last year and say, `Hey, let’s just do it again,’” Brooks said. “I think that’s a discredit to what we did last year and how hard it was. This is a new team, but we have tremendous possibilities, and we’re looking to build on that, but it’s going to take a little bit of time.”
The No. 8 Hokies are the highest-ranked ACC team to start the year, but have plenty of company in the AP Top 25. Notre Dame is 10th with North Carolina, Louisville and Florida State 16th through 18th.
The schedule also is difficult, with last year’s Player of the Year Caitlin Clark and No. 3 Iowa looming in the second game of the season in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a date with fellow All-American Angel Reese and defending national champion and top-ranked LSU in Baton Rouge on Nov. 30.
The timing of the Iowa game is not ideal for a team that has just three players back, although they are three of the best off last year’s team, but Brooks said: “I just felt like it was going to be a tremendous opportunity for not only our program but for women’s basketball in general,”
The LSU game will do the same, and “will help us prepare for a very rigorous ACC schedule," he said, "because the ACC this year is just going to be ridiculous.”
Eight of last year’s 10 All-ACC players are back, including the Hokies’ two-time ACC player of the year Liz Kitley and Georgia Amoore.
There also are teams expected to make great strides, including Duke and North Carolina State, which both brought in McDonald's All-Americans, and even Virginia in the second year under coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton. The Cavaliers' 12-0 start last season was their best in nearly two decades before injuries came in droves.
At Notre Dame, if Olivia Miles can return at some point from a season-ending knee injury, she’ll team with Sonia Citron to give the Fighting Irish a potent 1-2 punch. Miles averaged 14.3 points and Citron 14.7 while playing point guard.
The Irish did an overseas tour of Greece and Croatia in the summer, and will need passports again when they open with No. 6 South Carolina in France on Nov. 6.
“To be able to showcase women’s basketball, the first time men’s or women’s collegiate game being on display in Paris, is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience” also great for the growth of the game, Irish coach Niele Ivey said.
Like Virginia Tech, North Carolina has three starters back, including Deja Kelly, who has averaged 15 points over her three-year career and has led the Tar Heels in scoring in each of the past two seasons. Iowa State transfer Lexi Donarski made 55 3-pointers and averaged just better than 12 points and two assists and will help.
“This is a league where stars come because stars want to play stars,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said.
Louisville lost its best player when Hailey Van Lith transferred to LSU, but coach Jeff Walz brought in Sydney Taylor, who averaged 16.1 points and made 104 3-pointers for Massachusetts last season, and Kiki Jefferson, an 1,800-point scorer from James Madison. The team also played four games on a 10-day trip to Toronto.
The blending will still take time with seven newcomers on the roster, Walz said, but it was a head start. “Players are starting now to be able to see, okay, during those four, this is what she does well; here’s how I can enhance what she does well.”
Florida State already knows what its best player does well. As a freshman last year, 5-foot-8 guard Ta’Niya Latson averaged 21.3 points to lead the conference. She scored at least 30 seven times and helped the Seminoles lead the ACC in scoring.
The tandem of Latson and Makayla Timpson, who averaged 13.2 points and 8.8 rebounds, could be as formidable as any in the league, and may have to be as coach Brooke Wyckoff looks to replace four fifth-year seniors off last year's team.
A trip to Europe helped bring the team together, she said.
“I think experience counts for so much, knowing what it takes,” Wyckoff said.
UNDER THE RADAR
Little was thought of Virginia before last season, when they came off a 5-22 record, but that 12-0 start stuck out. Graduate student forward Sam Brunelle expects more of the same.
“I think we’re going to be the unexpected team that’s going to be around,” Brunelle said. “We’re going to give you a hard time, so you better be ready for us.”
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