Notre Dame women's basketball: Balanced powers await Irish women

Curt Rallo

Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw has enjoyed the view of the Atlantic Coast Conference the past two seasons. That view has been from the top of a ladder as McGraw was cutting down nets to celebrate the Irish advancing to the Final Four. Notre Dame thumped Maryland, 80-49, in the 2012 Raleigh Regional championship game. Last season, No-tre Dame beat Duke, 87-76, to claim the Norfolk Regional crown. McGraw now gets to see all of the ACC women’s basketball teams, up close this winter. Notre Dame officially joined the ACC on Monday in all sports except football and hockey. The Irish will play five football games against ACC opponents each season. The ACC lineup for 2013-2014 will be Notre Dame, Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. Louisville replaces Maryland, which is leaving for the Big Ten, in 2014-2015. Adding Notre Dame to the ACC for women’s basketball now gives the conference three teams that have reached have won national championships — Notre Dame (2001), North Carolina (1994) and Maryland (2006). When Louisville joins in 2014-2015, the ACC will add five Final Four appearances in the last four seasons in the Irish and Cardinals. “With us joining the league and then Louisville, you’re going to have five top 10-caliber teams (Notre Dame, Louisville, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina),” McGraw said. “You’re going to have a really strong group at the top, and then really good teams in the middle. Miami has been in the top 10 recently, Florida State, Georgia Tech have been ranked, then, you add Syracuse, they’ve been ranked, that’s eight teams right there that have been in the top 25 recently.” Former Purdue star Stephanie White, an ESPN analyst and assistant coach with the WNBA champion Indi-ana Fever, believes the Irish will fit in well in the ACC. “I think Notre Dame has great balance,” White said. “They have terrific athletes one through five who are able to play to play in a half-court game because they are able to execute so well. They’re also very athletic and are coachable in the transition game. When you’re transferring into a league that has a little bit of a different style than the league you came from, to be able to have that balance to be able to play in any type of arena, is good. I think Notre Dame has that. “It’s an athlete’s league. The ACC is a lot more perimeter-oriented and up-and-down the floor. It’s fast-paced, up-tempo basketball. There are teams in the Big East that played like that as well, but the Big East was a very balanced league, where you could run the halfcourt offense and execute in the halfcourt, play a halfcourt ball game, but also transition. I think that because of the way Notre Dame likes to push the ball in transition, they will seamlessly transition into the ACC perfectly.” McGraw doesn’t see a need for the Irish to change their style going into the ACC. “We played their best teams the past two years, and our style has been effective,” she said. “The ACC is similar to the Big East in that there’s tremendous talent and great guard play. I think there’s an emphasis on offense. North Carolina and Maryland are high-scoring teams. Duke is more known for defense.” Joedy McCready of the Associated Press covers Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Wake Forest. He also covers the ACC Tournament in Greensboro. McCready said that Notre Dame will help make the ACC the premiere conference in women’s basketball. Four of the top five recruiting classes from this past season – 1. North Carolina, 2. Duke, 4. Notre Dame, and 5. Maryland — belong to ACC teams. “The league has been characterized over the years by North Carolina, Duke and Maryland,” McCready said. “Those are the three schools that have virtually won every tournament championship. They have ruled the roost.” Maryland leads the pack with 10 ACC Tournament championships, followed by Duke (9) and North Carolina (8). Clemson (1999) is the last team outside of Maryland, Duke and North Carolina to win the ACC women’s basketball tournament title. Clemson, North Carolina State and Virginia have also won ACC Tournament titles since the event began in 1978. By contrast, the Big East balance of power long has been tipped to Connecticut, which has won 17 Big East Tournament titles since the even started in 1984, including 16 of the last 20. Notre Dame ended a five-year UConn reign by winning its first Big East Tournament crown last season. While the Big East Tournament has routinely been played on Connecticut’s home court in Hartford, Conn., the ACC Tournament is held in Greensboro, N.C. Instead of more than 14,000 Connecticut fans and maybe 100 Irish fans in attendance for the title game, ACC attendance is more balanced. “Greensboro is a very special place for the tournament,” McCready said. “It’s really cool. They embrace it very strongly. There will be a lot of enthusiasm for the tournament, and that will increase with Notre Dame and Lou-isville and their established reputations becoming part of the ACC. Maryland brings a lot of fans, North Carolina will pack the place, Duke will have plenty of fans. In the quarterfinals, there will be eight teams there, but a good chunk of them will be North Carolina fans … but you will see plenty of baby blue. “The ACC is a little closer from 1-to-12 than other conferences as a whole. Nationally, you have your elite and everybody else is trying to catch them, but in the ACC, the lower-rung teams have a better shot of knocking off the higher seeds. There’s always one pretty good upset in the ACC Tournament.” McCready expects the Irish to hit the ACC ground running. “On paper, it looks like Notre Dame will fit right in,” McCready said. “Last year, they came down to Raleigh and beat Maryland to get to the Final Four, and then last year, and, of course, Duke saw what Notre Dame could do this year in the regional final. It looks like Notre Dame will be a very good fit. “I talked to (former Notre Dame athletic director and current Duke athletic director) Kevin White a few weeks ago and I asked him if he thought the expectations for Duke would change with the new schools coming into the ACC. The ACC Tournament has also been a competitive, very difficult tournament with the three power schools at the top. You bring Notre Dame into the mix, and then in a couple of years bring Louisville into that mix. He said that all of the schools will be challenged.” Stephanie White expects the Irish to make the ACC more competitive. “It’s a league that’s continued to be divided,” White said. “Maryland has had tremendous success, Duke, North Carolina has had a down couple of years, but they have the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation coming in. Miami, Georgia Tech, Florida State have been in and out of the Top 25. There are teams who can certainly compete, and there are upsets that can happen. The league is becoming much more balanced. I think you’ll see upsets in the ACC. “It’s a good fit. I think one of the really unique things about a team and program like Notre Dame, I’m not sure that there’s a league out there that is not a good league for them, because they’re so balanced. I think they will transition very easily into the ACC. I think it benefits the ACC as much as it benefits Notre Dame.” One area that will be impacted by the Irish jump to the ACC will be recruiting. “Notre Dame will definitely start to recruit different areas,” White said. “Notre Dame is a team that is a little bit unique, like a Duke or a Stanford or a Vanderbilt or a Northwestern. There’s a certain type of student-athlete that they go after. I think that they will maintain national recognition in recruiting in terms of who they target, but I think they will be a little more visible in ACC country, and some of those players who have not thought about Notre Dame before, the ones from the ACC area will say, ‘Maybe we ought to give Notre Dame a look.’ Athletes who thought Notre Dame may not be an option for them will now consider Notre Dame.” McGraw said that the players who have committed to Notre Dame in the past year have all had positive comments about the Irish leaving the Big East for the ACC. “Everybody is excited,” McGraw said. “The recruits are excited for the caliber of talent that’s in the league. There are some great players. I think, recruiting-wise, being in the ACC will help us in some very talent-rich areas like Atlanta and Florida and other places in the southeast that we’ve never really gotten into very much. Playing in those places, it will help us attract more recruits from that part of the country.” After dealing with a couple of years of uncertainty about a conference – speculation ranged from the Big 12 to the Big Ten to joining up with the ‘Catholic 7’ – McGraw is delighted to call the ACC home. “This is definitely the best solution for us,” McGraw said. “And with the addition of Louisville next year, the ACC is going to be the best conference in women’s basketball.”

With the departure of Skylar Diggins, Notre Dame will turn to Kayla McBride for more on-court leadership next season.