Jessica Breland has some days that are better than others, but in the big picture they're all good days now.
The 6-foot-3 forward from Kelford, a small town in northeastern North Carolina, had been expected to be a major inside presence for UNC last season and was high on a lot of All-America lists after a steady junior campaign. But she just wasn't feeling good, her strength and stamina not where they should have been.
Last May doctors discovered she had Hodgkin's lymphoma, which proceeded to steal a year of her young life and put her senior season on hold as she went through chemotherapy and radiation.
It was tough watching from the bench as the Tar Heels went a very disappointing 19-12 and lost in the first rounds of both the ACC and NCAA tournaments, but now the cancer is in remission, and she's on her way back to fully becoming an elite player. ACC sportswriters had faith in her, enough to put her on the preseason All-Conference team.
And so far she has delivered. Starting for UNC (ranked No. 14 at press time) along with classmates and fellow 1,000-point scorers Italee Lucas and Cetera DeGraffenreid in the backcourt, big junior center Chay Shegog and resurgent sophomore wing forward Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Breland has averaged 13.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in the Tar Heels' easy 7-0 start, and made the all-tournament team in Hawaii's Rainbow Wahine Showdown.
UNC is one of two Triangle ACC teams with a measurable shot to win the NCAA title, should both traditional superpower Connecticut and Baylor—with 6-foot-8 behemoth sophomore Brittney Griner—falter.
The other, of course, is Duke, which is No. 5 at press time after winning last season's ACC championship with a 30-6 record and following up with the nation's best recruiting class. N.C. State, which surprised the conference with a 20-14 record, played in the ACC final and earned an NCAA bid in Kellie Harper's first year at the helm after the death of iconic mentor Kay Yow, and the Wolfpack is expected to contend again for an NCAA spot.
Breland is just happy to be back playing basketball, especially winning basketball.
"I've been in remission since halfway through my treatments (which ended in October of '09)," said Breland, who lost 23 pounds and gained back 28 through her ordeal. "I could have played late last season, but it would have been too early.
"I would have been straining myself. I went back on the court for practice but it was definitely a process. But I'm stronger than I've ever been. I'm still trying to get my speed back to where it was two years ago. Just sitting last year at every game was frustrating, watching my team struggle. Even if we won it was hard to watch."
Veteran UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell is glad she's healthy again.
"I don't know if I can actually tell you how good it is to have her back—not just physically on the court, but her leadership and everything else she brings to the table," the coach said. "She's in great shape. But she looks great in practice with her strength level. She'll do something really amazing in practice and I'll realize how much we missed her last year. We don't have cancer hanging over our team now, and that was hard last year.
"If you look back over our years at Carolina, the 'four' [power forward] position is a major position for us. We've had about six kids drafted [by the WNBA], we've had three or four All-Americans at that position—Camille Little, Charlotte Smith, Tracy Reid—and when Jessica was not here last year we did not have a 'four' player."
Lucas said with Breland back, there is no longer a funk attending the team.
"Eighty-four percent of our scoring is back this season, and that was without Jessica," Lucas said. "So knowing we're going to have her presence on the court is going to be really exciting. We're looking forward to this year. Her going through her situation last year definitely had an effect on us. It was definitely a struggle not only for her but for the team. We've always had the talent, but with Jessica back I think we're more consistent."
Duke has continued as a steady force toward the top of the ACC in Joanne P. McCallie's three-plus seasons at the helm, and the Blue Devils got off to a quick 6-0 start, some via double-digit wins against established major programs.
The floor leader—albeit now from the off-guard spot instead of the point—is classy senior Jasmine Thomas, the preseason ACC player of the year. Fellow seniors Krystal Thomas, a center, and wing forward Karima Christmas also start, along with hot-shooting forward Kathleen Scheer, who moved from deep down the bench into a starting role.
Handling the point from game one has been 5-foot-7 freshman Chloe Wells. Among the other freshmen, the 6-foot-3 wing Haley Peters has had the biggest impact, while forward Richa Jackson and guards Chelsea Gray and Tricia Liston also get time as McCallie figures out how to mix 11 talented players.
"I just think the chemistry just happens naturally every day in practice," McCallie said. "We talk about a competitive cauldron and we're pretty serious about it. I think all of [the freshmen] are going to play a pivotal role."
Jasmine Thomas said it's fun to watch the youngsters moving into the plan so quickly.
"This team is better offensively than last season's team was, but not quite there defensively," Thomas said. "Offense is something that's coming natural to this team, but defensively we've got to come in and fine-tune that. Nothing short of what we did last year is acceptable. We want to be as good if not better than last year, and losing in the Elite Eight, we can be better. My goal is to go as far as we can."
The biggest problem N.C. State has is its geographic location. As has happened with a lot of Wolfpack men's teams in the recent past, State is a good, solid team that may be overshadowed by the two national powers a few miles to the west.
Charismatic guard Marissa Kastanek was ACC rookie of the year last season and hasn't lost a beat, while undersized (5-foot-11) but ferocious junior Bonae Holston holds down the middle with fifth-year senior Amber White at the point and sharpshooting classmate Brittany Strachan on the wing. Kody Burke, a 6-foot-2 Californian, is starting at forward and has so far made the greatest impact out of a nice recruiting class.
"We have to be overachievers and play extremely hard, and we've got a group that gets after it," said Harper, whose team started 3-4. "I want to put five people on the floor that can score, and we're getting there. And the kids buy into our defensive philosophy. We're aggressive and we feel like we have to be, being our size. Everybody's on the same page and is working together. We were able to make the NCAA Tournament last year with a team that just willed itself to win, and I was very happy about that."
White said she's familiar with the overachiever role, but her team embraces it. "We want to do better this year," White said. "One heartbeat—on paper we may not be the best team, so we have to outwork our opponents. We hold each other accountable because we need every piece of the puzzle to be the best we can be."