Notre Dame women picked to win ACC
GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Atlantic Coast Conference looks a lot different in women's basketball these days — especially at the top.
Two of the top three teams in the league's preseason poll announced Wednesday weren't even in the conference two years ago.
Defending champion Notre Dame — which has yet to lose an ACC game — is the consensus preseason favorite, while Louisville was picked third by both the league's coaches and a panel of school representatives and media members.
It's made for an interesting blend of traditional ACC powers and newcomers who fit right in: All four teams have reached the Final Four during the past decade, either from the ACC or the Big East.
"The league's like the Final Four," said North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell.
Notre Dame received 38 of 41 first-place votes from panel members and 14 of 15 votes from the coaches.
Both groups had Duke second, followed by the Cardinals and North Carolina.
The Blue Devils, a top-three pick for the 14th straight year, had won or shared the regular-season title in four straight years before they were unseated last year by the Irish.
Notre Dame went 37-1, rolled to a 16-0 mark in conference play, claimed the league tournament title and reached its fourth straight Final Four in its inaugural season in the ACC.
"We have been so close for the last four years, and I think that while we're proud of what we've accomplished, we know that we really want to make that next step," coach Muffet McGraw said.
Sitting next to preseason player of the year Jewell Loyd, McGraw said, "She's been there twice now. She wants to win the ring. ... That's important for all of us. That's what our goal is."
Loyd was the choice of both groups for the top individual honor after averaging a team-best 18.6 points, earning the MVP award at the ACC tournament and helping lead the Irish to the NCAA tournament championship game, where they lost to Connecticut.
Notre Dame, Duke, Louisville and UNC have combined to reach nine Final Fours since 2006 — including those four by Notre Dame and two each by the Cardinals and Tar Heels.
"You look at the teams in there that's been to the Final Four, there is no doubt — and I can't imagine anybody would even challenge this league as far as the best league," Hatchell said. "There's no doubt it's the best women's basketball league in the country."
Louisville hopes its first year in the ACC goes as well as Notre Dame's did.
The Cardinals return two starters, including all-ACC preseason pick Sara Hammond, from a team that lost to eventual national champion Connecticut in the American Athletic Association title game. They then lost to the team they've replaced in the ACC — Maryland — in the Louisville Regional final.
The ACC marks Louisville's third conference in three years, prompting coach Jeff Walz to quip, "I'm hoping there's not a fourth one after this.
"For the players, it's a great time because you're getting to go places you haven't been before," he added. "Our players are excited about our trip to Duke, about our trip to Virginia. ... It's a lot of positive things. But I do hope that this is it. We plan on being here for a long time."
There wasn't much turnover among league coaches this offseason. The only one of them who wasn't here a year ago is Hatchell — a Hall of Famer who's back after a season away to fight leukemia.
"I'm so excited to be back out there because at this time last year, I was laying over in the cancer center not knowing if I was going to make it or not," Hatchell said. "I'm glad to be here, no question about that."