Notre Dame didn’t lose a conference game in its first season in the ACC, and if prognosticators at the conference women’s basketball media day are right, there aren’t going to be many losses this time, either.
The Irish got a combined 52 of 56 first-place votes from the media-oriented Blue Ribbon panel and the conference coaches, becoming the runaway choice to repeat as conference champion on Wednesday at Grandover Resort.
Duke was picked to finish second with conference newcomer Louisville third and North Carolina fourth in the 15-team conference, while the media picked N.C. State to finish ninth and the coaches 10th.
“I don’t think we were surprised at our success,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw, who will have preseason conference player of the year Jewell Loyd and preseason all-conference guard Lindsay Allen back to lead her team. “I think we always expect to win, but I think going into the NCAA championship game (unbeaten) was a bit of a surprise.
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“And we lost some good players off last year’s team. But we’re building around a pretty good player in (Loyd). She is just a phenomenal athlete and a great basketball player. I think she’s a pro player right now.”
Most of the top teams suffered graduation losses in the offseason. Notre Dame lost WNBA first-round draft picks Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa, while Duke lost a five-player senior class that was rated No. 1 nationally when it was recruited, including first-round draft picks Chelsea Gray and Tricia Liston.
“They’re keeping me young; I’m about to hit 50,” said Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie, whose center Elizabeth Williams was named to the 10-player, preseason all-conference team. “It’s my 23rd year as a head coach and eighth year at Duke, and I’ve never been more rested and excited to coach a team. I kind of feel like it’s hard to talk about predictions or what’s going to happen. This team has paid the price in conditioning and there’s evidence they can be special.
“We have to keep this team tight and smart and there are frankly no limits. We want to push people hard, for sure. The key is how the freshmen respond to it. We’re just demanding effort and execution. We definitely have first-year people who can help us.”
Duke redshirt freshman Becca Greenwell and freshman Sierra Calhoun were named to the conference’s newcomer watch list.
North Carolina lost no seniors, but ACC freshman of the year Diamond DeShields transferred to Tennessee. Tar Heels Allisha Gray, Stephanie Mavunga and Xylina McDaniel were named preseason all-conference.
“They’re a whole lot better than we were two years ago,” said UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell, who missed all of last season after being diagnosed with leukemia but is back at full strength. “When I go to practice now I’m like, ‘Wow!’ I’m so excited to be back out there. This time last year I was laying over there in the cancer center not knowing if I was going to make it or not. I’m glad to be here, there’s no question about that.
“This team has leadership, experience, depth and great chemistry. Now we have to have a great game plan to implement all that. I just don’t want to mess them up. Last year they went to the Elite Eight and missed the Final Four by three buckets.”
N.C. State lost five seniors, including first-round draft pick Markeisha Gatling and third-round pick Kody Burke, leaving some big holes in the paint.
“You’ll see a lot of 3s – we pretty much shattered the N.C. State record for made 3s last season,” Wolfpack coach Wes Moore said. “But we lost our three top post players and I’m not sure who our starting power forward and our starting center will be. Hopefully those kids will grow and get better in a hurry.
“I do think we’re going to have to try to create more offense off our defense this year. We’ll have to create more opportunities to get some easy points.”