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Analysis: How do fifth-years, transfer portal impact ACC women's basketball recruiting?


Virginia Tech head coach Kenny Brooks may have put it best.

“The portal giveth and it taketh away,” he said, rather poetically, at the 2023 ACC Tipoff. “It gives our people the opportunity to build more experienced rosters. It kind of takes away a little bit of the traditional way of building a team with freshmen.”

With more women's players taking advantage of extra NCAA eligibility due to COVID — Notre Dame’s women’s basketball's online roster goes as far as including a separate column next to the academic year to log eligibility — the makeup of ACC rosters has drastically shifted. 

Virginia Tech, which returns both ACC Preseason Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley and Cayla King for a fifth year, is benefiting from it. But how about preseason No. 16 UNC?

After not bringing in any transfers ahead of last season (sophomore guard Paulina Paris was the only new face on the roster), UNC head coach Courtney Banghart reached into the portal this offseason and pulled out three new pieces in Lexi Donarski, Maria Gakdeng and Indya Nivar. They have varied skillsets but all share one crucial aspect— experience. And, in today’s ACC, that’s as important as ever.

One can’t just, in Banghart’s words, recruit your “butt off with younger guys” — it’s simply “irresponsible not to monitor the portal.”

“We’re always attentive to it,” Banghart said. “If the right kid comes into the portal, you’re like, ‘Huh.’ I just didn’t know I’d bat 3-for-3 on it.”

Banghart got all the players she wanted. This is, of course, much to the dismay of coaches like Brooks, who went on to joke at ACC Tipoff, “What do they have, about 12 McDonald’s All-Americans on that team?”

Well, not exactly, but Banghart has called this year’s roster “by far, the deepest team” she’s coached. 

In UNC’s first scrimmage this season, Banghart said she didn’t pick her starters until about 10 minutes before tipoff. For the team’s next scrimmage, it’ll likely be a different group, although Banghart hasn’t decided on exactly who.

It’s an understandably difficult decision when the Tar Heel roster contains two returning first-team All-ACC picks, a former Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, multiple Gatorade Players of the Year across various states and a top-10 incoming first-year class.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Banghart said. “Last year, for a five-game stretch, we had seven kids in uniform. We hope to stay away from that problem.”

For many top-20 programs, being able to tap into the portal each year will become an increasingly important piece of the recruiting puzzle.

“We’re still recruiting high school kids, but at the same time now, because of the one-time transfer [and] you don’t have to sit out, a lot of high school kids aren’t necessarily as interested in developing,” Jeff Walz, the head coach of preseason No.17 Louisville said, later adding, “A lot of players, they’ll just go someplace else, play for a year, get their numbers, perform, be a first-team all-league and then transfer. I’m not saying that’s the right thing to do, but that’s what’s going on, and as coaches, you just have to accept that.”

Wes Moore echoed Walz’s sentiments. The N.C. State head coach said the possibility of throwing out 18-year-olds against 23 or 24-year-olds with extra COVID-19 eligibility has “no doubt” impacted recruiting in the ACC, joking that some of the older players "have been around as long as I have."

So, when you see a drastically different Tar Heel team this season — an older, wiser program full of fresh talent plucked from other Division I programs — don’t be surprised.

In the words of Walz, “The portal’s here to stay.”

“We’ve gotten to the point, we’ve proven it that we can go in the portal if we want to,” Banghart said. “We’re not going to recruit freshmen that can’t help us play.”


@dthsports |

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Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.