Duke emerging as ACC favorite

The fact that North Carolina post player Jessica Breland had to sit out this season after battling cancer changed the dynamic of the league for 2010. The Tar Heels with Breland would have had the edge to win the ACC title. With her out, Duke looks to be the favorite.

The Blue Devils lost nonconference matchups with Texas A&M and Stanford and still have a meeting with top-ranked UConn, which is in Durham, N.C., on Jan. 18. Duke relies on point guard Jasmine Thomas to set the tone in every way. But as the rest of the Blue Devils continue to mature this season, they should take some of the burden off her.

It's not a big year for seniors in the ACC, with the notable exception of Virginia guard Monica Wright, a strong candidate for first-team All-American honors and the league's top WNBA prospect.

Dance fever

The league sent six teams to the NCAA tournament last season, but the only one still around after the early rounds was Maryland. No. 1 seed Duke -- "set up" by the selection committee for a made-for-TV drama at Michigan State -- lost to coach Joanne P. McCallie's former team in East Lansing, Mich. The Terps, also a No. 1 seed, had another "drama," as they met Louisville and former Maryland assistant Jeff Walz in the Elite Eight. Maryland's loss there meant that four of the ACC entrants into the NCAA tournament lost to teams seeded worse than them.

From what we've seen in nonconference play, it doesn't project that the ACC will have any No. 1 seeds in 2010. But depending on how ACC play pans out, the league could be in line to get at least six bids again, with Georgia Tech and Florida State again in the mix. And in what feels like a "growing" year for the league, that wouldn't be bad.

Question to answer

How good -- or not so good -- is Maryland? WNBA first-round draft picks Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver graduated from last season's Elite Eight team. Drey Mingo and Marah Strickland transferred. Dee Liles, expected to carry the Terps this season along with Lynetta Kizer, had academic issues and was dismissed from the program. That left Maryland with an 11-player roster that had nine freshmen or sophomores. So there have been growing pains. Maryland lost in a shocker at Towson on Dec. 10. The Terps' other loss wasn't so surprising: at Mississippi State in November. Maryland opens ACC play on the road, facing NC State and Virginia. Can the youngsters -- led by freshman Diandra Tchatchouang of France -- extend the Terps' streak of six NCAA appearances in a row?

Team to watch

Guess which team has the league's current No. 1 and No. 3 scorers. If you haven't checked out the ACC yet this season, you'll be surprised: It's Miami (12-2). Riquna Williams leads the league at 22.1 ppg; fellow sophomore Shenise Johnson is at 18.5. Last season, the Hurricanes went 13-17 overall and 2-12 in the ACC, but young players who got experience on that team are showing what they learned. Duke grad Katie Meier, who took over as Miami's coach for the 2005-06 season, hopes to get her first NCAA tournament bid with the Canes. Their last appearance in the Big Dance was in 2004.

Player to watch

With Breland out, more focus goes on UNC's guards. And in her third season, Italee Lucas might be ready to become a consistently elite player. She's leading the Tar Heels in scoring (16.5 ppg) and must continue to carry the weight of being UNC's most reliable (without much backup) 3-point threat. She and fellow junior Cetera DeGraffenreid have to keep shepherding a young but talented team.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.