LONG BEFORE THE END OF LAST SEASON—WHEN THE Miami Hurricanes (28--5; 12--2) went from worst to first in the ACC, achieved a top 10 ranking for the first time since 1992, won an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 1993 and honored only their second All-America—Katie Meier wondered what she had gotten herself into. A star at Duke in the late '80s, a decade before the Blue Devils became a national power, Meier was used to challenges: She had spent her coaching career resurrecting programs, first as a Tulane assistant and then as Charlotte's head coach. "I've rebuilt everywhere I've been, so it was something I was prepared for," says Meier. Yet she'd never experienced anything quite like what she faced in her first year in Coral Gables, 2005--06. That year three ACC teams—Duke, North Carolina and Maryland, the eventual champion—made the Final Four. "Your spirit would break a bit because you'd play the Number 1 team in the country and the Number 3 team and then the Number 4 team and that was just your week," Meier says.
Leaning on a group of inherited seniors, Meier won a respectable six league games and 17 overall that first year. But the Hurricanes would finish at or near the bottom of the conference in each of the following four years. Despite that dismal performance, Meier coaxed some very good players to come to Miami. The first was Riquna Williams, a raw but athletic 5' 7" guard who had earned letters in basketball, track and flag football at Pahokee (Fla.) High. She arrived in the fall of 2008. "She wasn't on the AAU circuit in a big way," says Meier. "She was at a couple events where you sat there biting your nails hoping no one else saw her, because it wasn't like you had to see her twice."
In the same class was Shenise Johnson, a 5' 11" McDonald's All-American who had led Rush-Henrietta High to three New York Class AA public school state titles. Johnson liked that Meier told her all the things that were wrong with her game. "When I made my visit, we clicked immediately," says Johnson. As a freshman in '08--09, Johnson was the only player in D-I to lead her team in points, rebounds, assists and steals, even as the Hurricanes won just two league games. "I won't lie: I really wanted to leave that year," says Johnson.
Last season Miami's high-intensity, disruptive style finally clicked. The Hurricanes won all but two of their conference games, good for a share (with Duke) of the ACC regular-season title. Williams (21.7 ppg) won the ACC scoring title while runner-up Johnson (19.6 ppg) was named an All-America. "We were really narrow in our focus," says Meier. "In the huddles I barely talked. The players said it: 'We're finishing this, close the door.'"
Then the Hurricanes' biggest weakness was exposed in the NCAA tournament against Oklahoma. With no true post player to challenge her, Sooners center Joanna McFarland more than doubled her usual production, with 12 points and 15 rebounds in Miami's 88--83 second-round loss. Enter 6' 6" center Shawnice (Pepper) Wilson, a top 25 recruit from the class of 2008 who had turned down Meier to play at Pitt. When she decided to transfer after two years, Miami was the first place she looked. "When I told Coach Meier I was going to Pitt, she didn't say, 'You're making a mistake,' " Wilson recalls. "She said, 'You're a great player, and if anything changes call me.' None of the other coaches said that to me, and it really stuck out."
Meier is happy to have Wilson on board. "Without putting too much pressure on her, I think Pepper transforms our team," she says.
Even with all this talent, Johnson says the team's underdog mentality is intact. "We're so competitive right now people are getting hurt in pickup," she says. "The trainers had to give us a big talk. But we all know if we want to accomplish anything, we have to stay hungry."
WHO ELSE IN THE ACC HAS SOMETHING to prove? Perennial contender Duke (32--4; 12--2) hasn't been to the Final Four since 2006. Could this be the year? Even after the graduations of Karima Christmas, Jasmine Thomas and Krystal Thomas, who combined for 32.2 points and 18.5 rebounds last year, the Blue Devils are loaded with talent, thanks to two straight No. 1 recruiting classes. Joining sophomore starters Haley Peters, a 6' 3" forward, and Chelsea Gray, a 5' 11" point guard, are 6' 4" Amber Henson, the sister of North Carolina star John Henson, and 6' 3" center Elizabeth Williams, the nation's top prospect. "The question for us is not production but maturity—understanding what it takes to be ready," says coach Joanne P. McCallie. "How quickly we understand that and how quickly we grow together will determine how dangerous we can be."
Last year Maryland (24--8; 9--5) had no seniors but did have admirable defensive tenacity and size: with nine players 6 feet or taller, the team outrebounded opponents by 12.1 boards a game, the fifth-largest margin in the country. The Terps weren't much of a threat from the perimeter, however, shooting what coach Brenda Frese calls a "horrendous" 27.6% per game. Frese hopes sophomore Laurin Mincy will provide an outside threat to complement the inside force of 6' 4" senior center Lynetta Kizer (13.2 ppg; 7.8 rpg) as well as 6' 2" sophomore forward and ACC Rookie of the Year Alyssa Thomas (14.5 ppg; 7.3 rpg)." Laurin will surprise people," says Frese. "She can shoot the three, pull up and get to the rim. She's not one-dimensional."