Duke favored to win ACC women's hoops again

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The Atlantic Coast Conference has a new look all over in women's basketball - except at the very top.

Once again, Duke is the preseason pick to win the ACC.

The league announced its projections Wednesday during its media day, and two voting groups - the coaches themselves, and a panel of media members and school representatives - picked the Blue Devils to win it again.

It's the ninth time since preseason voting began in 1991 that the Blue Devils were selected as favorites and the 13th straight year they were picked in the top three.

Duke - which overcame a late-season injury to league co-player of the year Chelsea Gray and reached a fourth straight NCAA regional final - to a was voted first on 39 of 57 ballots cast by the panel and by 10 of the 15 league coaches.

Coach Joanne P. McCallie said the Blue Devils are ''very motivated by what we missed out on, and frankly, we feel like we missed out on a lot'' by not having Gray for the March tournaments.

The polls are near mirror images of one another: Notre Dame is second, followed by Maryland and North Carolina.

The panel voters had Georgia Tech and Florida State tied for fifth, while the coaches had the Yellow Jackets fifth and Seminoles sixth.

Both groups had Syracuse seventh, followed by Virginia, Miami, North Carolina State, Boston College, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, Clemson and Pittsburgh.

The Fighting Irish - who beat Duke in the regional finals in March to reach their third straight Final Four - received 14 first-place votes from the panel and the other five from the coaches. They join Pitt and Syracuse as newcomers to the league, and should have an immediate impact on the conference race.

Not since Clemson in 1999 has a team not named Duke, North Carolina or Maryland won the league tournament.

''I think we're part of the best conference in the country, and it's a great experience for our team,'' Irish guard Kayla McBride said, adding that the goal is to ''show Notre Dame is still the same team.''

Duke returns five starters and the top seven scorers from a team that went 33-3, won its third ACC tournament title in four years and reached the NCAA tournament regional finals for the fourth straight year.

''This is our last go-round at it,'' senior guard Tricia Liston said, ''and we want to make the most of it.''

Maryland's Alyssa Thomas was picked by both groups as the preseason player of the year.

''By the time it's all said and done, Alyssa could go down as the best player to ever come through Maryland women's basketball,'' Terps coach Brenda Frese said.

There's plenty of evidence to back up that big claim: Thomas has earned an individual award in each of her three seasons, winning league rookie of the year honors in 2011 and claiming two straight player of the year awards in each of the two seasons after that.

She'll try to make it three in her - and her school's - last year in the conference.

''It's the only conference that we know,'' Thomas said. ''This year, being it is our senior year, we're looking to go out with a bang and give it everything we have left.''

Her Terrapins are leaving for the Big Ten next year and will be replaced by Louisville, which has reached two Final Fours in five years.

Three coaches are beginning Year 1 at their schools: Clemson's Audra Smith, North Carolina State's Wes Moore and Pitt's Suzie McConnell-Serio.

In addition, North Carolina will be without Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell while she steps away to fight leukemia.

Longtime assistant Andrew Calder is filling in for Hatchell, the winningest coach in the history of the ACC tournament after winning it eight times and claiming her only national title in 1994, and will be in charge of a team that has no seniors and one of the nation's best freshman classes that Calder called ''talented but very coachable.''

Calder - who joined rival coach McCallie and UNC players Megan Buckland and Xylina McDaniel in wearing orange ribbons for leukemia awareness - vowed that ''we're still going to play Carolina basketball'' even in the indefinite absence of its matriarch.

''It's been very difficult to begin with, obviously, she's not there,'' Buckland said. ''It gives us motivation, something else to fight for, something else to win for.''


Follow Joedy McCreary on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joedyap

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