When the 37th ACC womens basketball tournament tips off at 1 p.m. at Greensboro Coliseum on Wednesday, it will be the biggest and deepest in conference history.
The next five days will determine if its the best.
Newcomer Notre Dame is the No. 1 seed with a 29-0 record (16-0 ACC). No. 3 seed Maryland (24-5, 12-4) gave a good account of itself during its final regular season in the ACC the Terps will leave for the Big Ten and will be replaced by Louisville next season.
Good news for Triangle fans is no matter what happens this week, all three area teams seem sure to make the NCAA tournament. No. 2 seed Duke (25-5, 12-4) and No. 6 seed North Carolina (22-8, 10-6) are expected to open that event on their home courts. Also in will be No. 4 seed N.C. State (24-6, 11-5), which was picked 10th in the conference under first-year coach Wes Moore.
UNC will be the first Triangle team to play this week, taking the court Thursday at 8 p.m. to take on the winner of Wednesdays first-round game between Wake Forest (14-15, 5-11) and Pittsburgh (11-19, 3-13).
N.C. State will play its first game Friday at 11 a.m., and Duke will play Friday at 6 p.m.
All three teams have faced major challenges.
Freshman-laden No. 13 UNC learned just before October practice began that coach Sylvia Hatchell was diagnosed with leukemia.
Long-time assistant Andrew Calder has directed the Tar Heels, with Hatchell possibly returning to the sidelines for the NCAA tournament. UNC swept Duke and N.C. State this season, but lost to three unranked conference teams at home.
Were just trying to get better every day, Calder said. Weve been up and down and I take responsibility for the down parts. Were talented and we feel like we have a chance to beat anyone anywhere. Were looking forward to getting into the tournament and showcasing our skills.
Freshman wing Diamond DeShields (17.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg.) leads UNC, followed by freshman guard Allisha Gray (14.4, 5.3), sophomore forward Xylina McDaniel (12.2, 5.8) and freshman center Stephanie Mavunga (11.1, 8.5).
No. 14 N.C. State, which was never very deep, suffered back-to-back injuries when senior guard Myisha Goodwin-Coleman tore her ACL on Feb. 20 at Duke. Teammate Lakeesa Daniel had the same thing happen in practice the next day.
Its just been a great ride, Moore said. Weve had to battle and scratch for every win, but weve won the games that we needed to win to stay in that top four spot. Weve obviously suffered some tough injuries here in the last week or two, but the kids have held it together. We come into the tournament still searching a little bit as to how we want to adjust due to the injuries but at the same time excited about the opportunity. Im pleased that we were able to get the double bye and hopefully we can go into the tournament rested and ready to play.
Senior center Markeisha Gatling (17.2, 7.1) leads N.C. State, followed by senior forward Kody Burke (15.1, 6.0).
No. 10 Duke, the defending champion, was ranked as high as No. 2 nationally before injuries decimated its point-guards. Senior Chelsea Gray was lost for the season with a broken kneecap Jan. 12 against Boston College, and sophomore Alexis Jones suffered a torn ACL Feb. 23 at Notre Dame.
Dukes losses this season have been to No. 1 Connecticut, and twice each to Notre Dame and UNC.
It has been a tremendous challenge, said Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie, whose teams have won at least three NCAA tournament games each of the past four seasons.
Senior guard Tricia Liston (17.9, 5.4) leads the Blue Devils, followed by junior center Elizabeth Williams (13.9, 7.3) and senior forward Haley Peters (10.8, 7.7).