By JOEDY McCREARY
GREENSBORO, N.C. —
There’s once again a clear favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Only this time, it’s not one of the usual three teams.
When the women's basketball tournament starts Wednesday in Greensboro, the team to beat will be the newest member of the conference: Notre Dame, the top seed and one of the nation’s last two undefeated teams.
The second-ranked Fighting Irish (29-0) came into the league and immediately dethroned the three programs that have dominated it in recent years.
A tournament that has craved parity instead has been ruled by Duke, North Carolina and Maryland — who have combined to win every ACC tournament since 1999.
“Notre Dame did what they did, and they’re a very, very good basketball team, and I think you can still look at our conference as a whole — even the teams that aren’t doing particularly well right now are very competitive, in every game,” Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. “They have a chance to win most games, and that says a lot about the parity of our conference.”
The Fighting Irish are the first team to enter the tournament with a perfect record since Duke in 2007. Only two of their conference games were decided by single digits — a seven-point victory at Virginia and a four-point win at Maryland.
“The ACC is the toughest league in women’s basketball, and we have had some great battles and that has prepared us for the postseason,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said.
The tournament was stretched to five days for the first time because of the ACC’s additions of Pittsburgh, Syracuse and the Irish from the former incarnation of the Big East — which for years has held its tournament on campus sites or on Connecticut’s secondary home court in Hartford.
“The neutral court is something we have not experienced in a long time, and I think that makes for just a great tournament atmosphere,” McGraw said. “It’s just a really warm and welcoming atmosphere, which will be a little different from what we’ve faced in the past.”
Five things to know about the ACC women’s tournament:
— MARYLAND’S LAST HURRAH: This marks the last trip to Greensboro for the third-seeded Terrapins (24-5), who have won it twice under coach Brenda Frese. Maryland is headed to the Big Ten next season but Frese says there’s no time for sentimentality with so much on the line. The Terps enter having won eight of nine and tied Duke for second place but lost the head-to-head tiebreaker. “I really like how our team has responded, especially in late February,” Frese said. “We’re completely healthy, the most depth we’ve ever had in our program and we’re really clicking on all cylinders.”
— DEPLETED DUKE: For the second year in a row, second-seeded Duke arrives with injury concerns. The Blue Devils don’t have any healthy point guards after season-ending injuries to ACC co-player of the year Chelsea Gray and sophomore Alexis Jones, and they enter the tournament having lost four of eight while being swept by Notre Dame and North Carolina. Duke (25-5) has its lowest seed since it was the No. 3 in 2009. Coach Joanne P. McCallie calls the situation “not ideal” and is “hoping we can speed things up a little bit on the learning curve.”
— WOLFPACK’S RISE: No. 14 North Carolina State can usually be counted upon to spring an upset in the tournament but the Wolfpack’s biggest surprise may have come during the regular season. Picked to finish 10th in the league, N.C. State (24-6) cracked the top 10 in the national rankings and earned the No. 4 seed in the tournament. First-year coach Wes Moore acknowledged that “there were a lot of doubts” but says “this senior group and the juniors were ready to win.” Senior post players Markeisha Gatling and Kody Burke combine to average 32 points and 13 rebounds, and freshman guard Miah Spencer hits 40 percent of her 3-pointers.
— ORANGE SURGE: Perhaps lost in the shuffle, Syracuse (21-8) had a strong debut season in the ACC, earned the No. 5 seed and will open Thursday against the Va. Tech-Clemson winner.
The Orange were picked to finish seventh in the league but spent five weeks in December in the Top 25 and the unquestioned highlight of the year was a five-point win at North Carolina on Jan. 30. “You know you’re going from a BCS conference to a BCS conference,” Hillsman said, “so you know you’re going to have tough competition.”
— UP-AND-DOWN TAR HEELS: Sixth-seeded and No. 13 North Carolina (22-8) is the only nationally ranked team that didn’t get a double bye and will face either Wake Forest or Pitt on Thursday in the second round. The young Tar Heels had plenty of highs this season — sweeping ranked Triangle rivals Duke and N.C. State — but also lost home games to Virginia Tech and Miami. Associate head coach Andrew Calder says “we’ve been up and down” but that “I feel we have a chance to beat anybody anywhere.”