ACC women’s basketball this season could turn out to be all about three groups of teams.
The best programs in the league – Duke, North Carolina, Maryland and newcomer Notre Dame.
The solid programs in the middle. Count Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia and newcomer Syracuse in that group.
The six programs that have either never made a run at the top or are going through extended rough patches. N.C. State will be in that group along with Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Boston College and newcomer Pittsburgh.
No coach in that group has more than two seasons of experience at the school, and there are three newcomers in the Wolfpack’s Wes Moore, Clemson’s Audra Smith and Pitt’s Suzie McConnell-Serio.
All 15 coaches will tell you the ACC is the nation’s best conference. And those groups could be extremely important come ACC tournament time, as the top four seeds won’t have to play until the third day of the tournament and the next five will have first-round byes in the five-day event in Greensboro.
The Tar Heels will start the season without Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell, who is receiving treatment for leukemia. Her long-time assistant Andrew Calder will run the show.
“There are a lot of really good things we’re looking forward to,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who won the 2001 NCAA title and whose team has played in three straight Final Fours. “It’s kind of a change of scenery, in a way.
“We’re not all that familiar with the philosophies of some of the coaches, the officials, the style of play and what it’s like to go to some of those venues. I think there’s a little bit of apprehension and anxiety until you see it.”
The Irish (No. 6 in The Associated Press preseason poll), who placed senior guard Kayla McBride and forward Natalie Achonwa and sophomore guard Jewell Boyd on preseason All-ACC teams – are picked to finish second in the league behind No.2 Duke, which has won three of the past four ACC tournaments.
The Blue Devils’ season ended in the NCAA’s Elite Eight the past four seasons, including an 87-76 loss to Notre Dame in March.
Duke has impressive depth as all five members of its No.1 recruiting class of 2010 are contributing as seniors, including starters Chelsea Gray – who missed the rest of last season after a Feb. 17 knee injury – Tricia Liston and Haley Peters.
Dominant center Elizabeth Williams was the ACC Freshman of the Year two seasons ago and sophomore guard Alexis Jones was most outstanding player of the ACC tournament last season. With the incoming No.2 recruiting class in the country, Duke is favored to go to the Final Four for the first time in eight years.
“We’ve got a lot of reasons for wanting to do well as a team this year,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “But every year is a new year. Whatever you’ve done in the past is really not relevant to the year ahead, which is now.”
No. 8 Maryland, picked third, is in its final season in the conference. The Terps won the ACC tournament two years ago and the NCAA title in 2006 under coach Brenda Frese. Senior forward Alyssa Thomas was ACC Player of the Year last season and is the preseason player of the year.
No. 12 North Carolina, picked fourth, returns sophomore All-ACC forward Xylina McDaniel and has the No.1 recruiting class in the country, led by forwards Diamond DeShields and Stephanie Mavunga.
“It’s about every day doing our best and getting better every day,” Calder said. “We have a chance to be very special. The girls have been working extremely hard. We’re talented. If we can get that chemistry we have a chance to be very special if we come together.”
FSU was picked fifth, followed by Georgia Tech, Syracuse, Virginia, Miami, N.C. State, Boston College, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, Clemson and Pitt.
“We have five seniors (led by center Markeisha Gatling, forward Kody Burke and shooting guard Myisha Goodwin-Coleman) that I hope are hungry and want to get a start on getting N.C. State women’s basketball back to where it can be,” said Moore (558-169), who is the only coach in history to get teams into the NCAA Division I, II and III tournaments. “(N.C. State lost) a lot of close games last year. We’ve got to be physically tough enough and confident enough to win those close games.”