CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WDRB) -- The University of Louisville has been home to the ACC women's basketball player of the year for four straight seasons and five of the past six. It has won the past four ACC regular-season championships.
But in this stacked season in ACC women's basketball, whether the Cardinals will be favored to win the league after the departure of two-time ACC player of the year Dana Evans — or even to have the league preseason player of the year — is a matter of debate.
It's not that the program has taken a step back at all. It's that a good league returns a great many of its better players and teams, including an N.C. State team that finished last season ranked No. 3 in the nation and which returns nearly its entire team, as will Florida State and Georgia Tech. Traditional power Notre Dame expects to be strong.
If ACC men's basketball is in a season of transition, ACC women's basketball is as good as it has ever been.
But so, it appears, is Louisville. Jeff Walz begins his 15th season as coach not knowing exactly who will be his next ACC player of the year candidate. But he has more candidates on his roster, perhaps, than he's had since his 2018 Final Four team had three players who either had won — or would eventually win — the honor.
Two of them, Kianna Smith and Hailey Van Lith, traveled with Walz on Wednesday to ACC Women's Basketball Media Day in Charlotte. But Walz has a roster stacked with five former McDonald's All-Americans, some highly-touted freshmen and a couple of transfer portal arrivals who should provide minutes and leadership right away.
"We have more candidates for sure," Walz said. "This could be a year, when you finish and look at our games, where we could have seven or eight different leading scorers in different games. It's not your traditional, 'That's your 19-points-a-game scorer.' I think any night we have eight or nine ... who could get 18 to 20."
The Cards lost Evans to early entry to the WNBA. They also lost forward Elizabeth Balogun, who transferred to Duke.
But they added an impact interior transfer in Emily Engstler from Syracuse, a five-star player out of New York who averaged 10.5 points and 9.1 rebounds a game in winning co-Sixth Player of the Year honors last season. They also added an experienced point guard in graduate transfer Chelsie Hall, who averaged 15.4 points and 4.8 rebounds a game as a senior starter at Vanderbilt.
Louisville returns Olivia Cochran, Liz Dixon and Ramani Parker in the post. They have a wealth of returning guards in Mykasa Robinson, Norika Konno, Ahlana Smith and Merissah Russell, along with Van Lith and Kianna Smith.
And they have a talented freshman in Payton Verhulst. Alexia Mobley, a four-star recruit out of Ohio, brings some height as a 6-foot-2-inch forward.
"The feel of this team is different because our chemistry is already just through the roof," Smith said. "We really enjoy playing with each other. Every practice is full of energy. It's fun. It's light. We compete. I think you'll see that with our team. We're really versatile. We have a lot of experience added with Emily and Chelsie. And obviously, Hailey and Olivia played big minutes last year and Mykasa and me as seniors. And I think you can see that experience."
Van Lith said the biggest change she notices around the team is that as COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, so have the spirits of the players.
"I think the big thing I'm noticing is that the girls are genuinely excited to come to practice," she said. "We can get competitive when we split up, but we're happy for each other's success. It's refreshing to be around a group of girls that's truly excited for each other's success. We genuinely love being around each other."
Walz said that chemistry is no accident. It's not a knock on last season's team. It's just a by-product of what COVID-19 wrought on campuses around the country.
"Right now, what's different is the camaraderie, because we've actually been able to do things together as a team," Walz said. "The past year, you come to practice, and boom, you're on your own. Now we're abler to get everyone together, to do more team activities. And I'm excited to see who that player is who will take that next step. Because that's what we've always had the past 13-14 years. When Angel McCoughtry graduated, it was Shoni Schimmel. And then it was Myisha Hines-Allen, then its Asia Durr, then Dana. So it's going to be fun to see which one. Hailey could easily be that one. Olivia could take that next step. Who is going to take that responsibility?"
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