Not so surprisingly, Miami picked to win

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- After more than a decade of dominance by Duke and North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference, with 10 regular-season women's basketball titles won or shared among them from 2000-01 through '09-10, unheralded Miami dared to interrupt the status quo last season. The Hurricanes stunned the ACC by tying Duke atop the standings.

Heading into this season, Miami's women's basketball team is suddenly more heralded than the Hurricanes' once-mighty football program. Go figure. Miami was even picked to finish above the blue bloods of the ACC in the annual preseason poll of media and team representatives.

"I'm not surprised," Hurricanes senior guard Shenise Johnson said recently. "I'm not shocked. This is what we expected. This is what we wanted. That's why we came here."

It's also what coach Katie Meier told Johnson and senior guard Riquna Williams would happen someday when she recruited them to a program with a history of failure in the ACC. The Hurricanes had finished at or near the bottom of the conference standings in each of their first six seasons except for 2005-06, when their high-water mark was a tie for sixth with a 6-8 record. Miami was 2-12 in conference play three seasons ago and had never finished at .500.

That was until last season, when Johnson and Williams led the Hurricanes to a 12-2 conference record (28-5 overall). Meier was named Associated Press national Coach of the Year along with co-recipients Connecticut's Geno Auriemma and Stanford's Tara VanDerveer (the first time an AP coach's award was shared).

"I'm glad I haven't been proven a liar in recruiting and stuff when I was promising Shenise Johnson and Riquna Williams if they came to Miami they could win an ACC championship and go to the NCAA [tournament]," Meier said.

The Hurricanes earned a No. 3 seed in last year's NCAA tournament but were upset by Oklahoma in the second round.

With all of their starters back -- including Johnson, the ACC preseason Player of the Year, and Williams, an All-ACC preseason selection -- the Hurricanes are expected to repeat as conference champions and make a run in the NCAA tournament.

"I've got better players,'' Meier said. "We have the same hunger, we have the same chip, we have the same everything that's fueled us before."

They also have a post presence that was lacking last season with Shawnice "Pepper" Wilson, a 6-foot-6 center who transferred from Pitt and sat out last season, and a promising freshman point guard, Suriya McGuire. No wonder some preseason rankings list the Hurricanes as high as the top five nationally.

But it's one thing to make it to the top of the ACC, and quite another to stay there over the long haul as Duke and North Carolina have. The Hurricanes still have much to prove. And they know it.

"I wouldn't necessarily say we're a powerhouse like them,'' Johnson said. "We don't have the tradition. We had one good season. We had one great season that nobody expected us to even have."

Now the expectations are much higher.

Top challengers

Duke lost the heart of its team when seniors Jasmine Thomas, Krystal Thomas and Karima Christmas graduated. But with a deep sophomore class, led by guard Chelsea Gray, and the addition of top post recruits Elizabeth Williams and Amber Henson, the Blue Devils are expected to challenge for a third consecutive ACC title. Maryland and Florida State are once again contenders, as well.

Most improved

It wouldn't surprise some to see Clemson step up. The Tigers were picked to finish 11th in the 12-team ACC after their 10-20 record last season (3-11 in the conference). But second-year coach Itoro Coleman has brought in a freshman recruiting class ranked No. 30 nationally by ESPN HoopGurlz, and guard-forward Natiece Ford was one of five players voted to the preseason newcomer watch list in the ACC. The Tigers aren't likely to challenge for the conference title, but this could be a turnaround season for the program.

Preseason player of the year

Johnson, a 5-11 guard who was the ACC Player of the Year in 2010-11 when she averaged 19.6 points per game and 8.3 rebounds for Miami.

Game of the year

If the season comes down to Miami and Duke, then their lone matchup Feb. 24 at Cameron Indoor Stadium could determine the regular-season champion. The Blue Devils have an 8-0 all-time mark against the Hurricanes.

Story to watch

Virginia has a rich history in the ACC, but longtime coach Debbie Ryan retired after last season and was replaced by California coach Joanne Boyle, a former Duke player.

Ryan led the Cavaliers for 34 years and left with a 736-323 record, including Final Four appearances three years in a row from 1990 to 1992. But Virginia had fallen well behind Duke and North Carolina in the past decade. The Cavaliers were 19-16 last season (5-9 in the ACC).

"I don't look at the enormity of it," Boyle said. "I always say Debbie built this program, and it's hers. I just tried to take a job and do the best I can to coach these girls up and add great players to our team in the future and do the best we can."

Comeback story

North Carolina might have a pair of comeback stories this season. Junior center Waltiea Rolle, a 6-6 defensive presence who averaged seven points per game, is pregnant and will miss the start of the season. She is eligible to return as early as Dec. 17. Also out is junior guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who is recovering from offseason right shoulder surgery. She also is due back in mid-December for a team in transition that lost three starters, including leading scorer Italee Lucas, from last year's 28-9 team.

"We've got a really good group of young kids," coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "Right now, we're a team of sort of uncertainties. But as those kids all get more experience and we get Waltiea back and Pratt back out there, the face and the dynamics of our team could change a lot."

Stat to watch

One of the more telling statistics each season is how the ACC performs in its key nonconference games. The ACC was 0-5 against Connecticut last season, for example, with losses by Georgia Tech, Florida State, North Carolina and Duke in the regular season and in the NCAA tournament. Until the ACC can perform better against those critical nonconference opponents, it's unlikely the conference will produce an NCAA champion. A few key games this year: Miami plays at Tennessee on Nov. 15, North Carolina plays at UConn Jan. 16 and Duke hosts UConn Jan. 30. Those matchups will offer a hint at how strong the ACC will be.

Did you know?

In one of the more telling signs of the transition from Duke and North Carolina as the dominant powers to a more balanced conference, this year's preseason All-ACC team does not feature a single Blue Devils or Tar Heels player. Johnson and Williams of Miami, senior forward Cierra Bravard of Florida State, and Maryland senior center Lynetta Kizer and sophomore forward Alyssa Thomas were voted to the preseason All-ACC team.

Going to the Dance

The ACC placed six teams in the NCAA tournament last year. It's a good bet the conference will do the same this year with Miami, Duke, North Carolina, Maryland, Florida State and Georgia Tech.

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