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VIRGINIA TECH - SO FAR SO GOOD
Virginia Tech was picked for a 13th-place ACC finish in both the Blue Ribbon Panel and ACC league coaches’ polls, but head coach Dennis Wolf has seen early evidence to the contrary.
”We’re over three weeks into practice, and we haven’t had a bad day,” Wolf said on Wednesday. “I know we were picked 13th – we all get that. But we think we’re a better team, and we’ll just have to see how it plays out when we start playing the games.”
The Hokies return four of their top five scorers from last year’s 10-20 team, including Monet Tellier (13.2 ppg) and Uju Ugoka (12.5 ppg.) But Tech remains a fairly young squad with four seniors, one junior walk-on and eight underclassmen.
Virginia Tech allowed only 56.1 points per game last season, but averaged just 49.3 points while shooting .355 percent from the floor.
“Hopefully, we will continue to be a hard team to score against,” Wolf said. “The key to becoming a better team will be shooting the ball better, and to have a little more balance (offensively). We need some other people to step up so that we are not looking only for Monet or Uju at every critical juncture.”
CLEMSON - ON THE DEFENSIVE
After nearly a decade away from ACC women’s basketball, Audra Smith has hit the ground running as Clemson head coach.
The former Virginia standout player and assistant coach arrived on campus last spring after a nine-year run at UAB that included a total of 39 wins in her most recent two seasons.
“I am so happy to be back in the ACC and to be at Clemson,” Smith told reporters during Wednesday’s ACC Media Day proceedings. “I was drawn to Clemson by the history of the program and the tradition. It’s a true college town with terrific students and fans and an administration that has demonstrated a commitment to women’s basketball.”
Smith’s UAB teams thrived on defense, and she has set about the task of instilling the same philosophy in her new players.
“Everything we do is predicated on defense,” Smith said. “If we can outscore people and score ourselves, those are possessions and points we would not otherwise have had. UAB was a a program that had been down for a couple of years We were able to bring that program back to respectability and, back to top of Conference USA. That is what we want to do here.”
Smith is on the right track according to junior Nikki Dixon, who has led the Tigers in scoring each of her first two collegiate seasons.
“She is a crazy defensive coach,” Dixon said. “That has what has always stopped us. We had a great offensive team, but fell short defensively. I don’t think we fully bought in our left our hearts out on the court. This year is going to be different. Coach Smith has been a blessing. She is committed to making us better players, better people. The thing that has been holding us back has been us.”
VIRGINIA - TOUGHER BUT STRONGER
As Virginia strives to re-establish itself as an NCAA team under third-year head coach Joanne Boyle, the Cavaliers will face more challenges from within the ACC.
Boyle, however, believes the additions of Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pitt will actually aid the Cavaliers’ postseason quest.
“It adds depth to our schedule, and it winds up making the ACC the best conference in the country,” Boyle said. “We hope the NCAA sees that and looks to take nine or 10 teams form our conference not just five or six.”
Virginia met Syracuse last Thanksgiving weekend in the San Juan Shootout, dropping a 74-73 decision at the buzzer. Boyle expects similar close, intense matchups throughout the league in the weeks ahead.
“I hope we push them and they push us – that is what they are here to do and what they are here to do,” Boyle said.
With 15 ACC teams and an unbalanced schedule, Boyle stressed the need to “hold serve” at home and win on the road anytime the opportunity arises.
“There are certain places that are just hard to play,” Boyle said. “Hopefully we will become one of those places, and then become road warriors and snag one or two of those. You do that, and you can set yourself up (for the NCAAs).”
DUKE - ALL FOR ONE
Duke’s five-member senior class arrived in Durham a little over three years ago as the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation. They enter their final season with three ACC regular-season championships, three ACC Tournament titles and a cumulative record of 92-13.
Impressive numbers, but the fact that Tricia Liston, Haley Peters, Chelsea Gray, Chloe Wells and Richa Jackson have remained together as cohesive unit says perhaps even more,
“I think it speaks a lot to the character of our class,” Liston said Wednesday. “Lots of time big recruiting class like that, you lose a player or two. I think it is remarkable how far we have come together.”
Gray, the All-America guard who missed the closing weeks of last season after suffering a knee injury, felt a special bond with her classmates almost from day one.
“Our chemistry started the day we set foot on campus,” Gray said. “We are a family within a part of our big family.”
Head coach Joanne P. MCallie’s goal is to push the Blue Devils one step to the elusive Final Four – and possibly farther.
“It would be very fitting,” McCallie said. “They are an amazing grpup of women. We live in a time where transfers are part of the game. A lot of times people want to do the hard work, they want to take the easy road. This group took the high road, and it has turned out to be is a very special road to be on.”
NOTRE DAME - NEW LEAGUE, NEW RIVALS
Notre Dame has appeared in three straight NCAA Final Fours. The road to a fourth now runs through the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the Fighting Irish are anxious to make their debut.
“I was very excited when word first came that we would be playing in the ACC,” senior guard Kayla McBride said. “We get opportunities to play great teams with great players. We’re all eager for the new task at hand.”
Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw called the move to the ACC “refreshing.”
“We had a great experience in the Big East, but it will be new challenge to face different programs and some teams that we’ve never seen before,” McGraw said. “It is almost like going back and learning fundamentals – What is the style of play? How is it officiated? What is it like to play in the different venues?
“But I’m especially excited by the academic piece of this conference. I’m so proud to be part of a league that for the past seven years has been at the top of the power conferences in terms of academics.”
Notre Dame built an intense conference rivalry with fellow perennial power Connecticut, and defeated the Huskies in seven of the pat nine meetings. That will be missing in the ACC, but McGraw sees the void filling quickly.
“I think we will get that kind of rivalry going with Duke and some of the other teams – maybe North Carolina and some of the others, “McGraw said. “We have a pretty good rivalry going with Louisville, which comes into the league next season. I think we will find new rivalries with a lot of great teams.”
NC STATE - MOORE APPLAUSE
Add NC State first-year head coach Wes Moore to the long list of those applauding the NCAA’s emphasis on cleaning up physical play in the post.
“I think the NCAA Tournament last year opened a lot of eyes,’ said Moore, whose.768 career winning percentage ranks eighth among active women’s coaches.” I’ve always felt that when you got into the NCAA Tournament, it was a slugfest and they just let it go. I don’t know if they decided they didn’t want a “free-throw-a-thon” or what, but it made the game awfully ugly.”
Wolfpack senior forward Kody Burke echoed her new coach’s sentiments.
“If you are driving to the goal, get knocked to the floor and nothing called, that definitely takes you out of the flow of the game,” Burke said. “Knowing now that these things will be called will make it easier. On the nights your jump shot might not being falling, if you know you can still help the team.”
GEORGIA TECH - MAKING THE ADJUSTMENT
Georgia Tech teams in the recent past have thrived on physical play. NCAA rule changes include emphasizing limited physical contact in the post and allowing freedom of movement, but 11th-year head coach MaChelle Joseph believes her team is prepared.
The Yellow Jackets played a European exhibition tour in August, and Joseph said the experience proved invaluable.
“Under the FIBA rules they play under over there, you literally cannot touch the person with the ball,” Joseph said. “I think it helped us understand the game and how it is going to be called in the ACC.”
Admittedly, there was a period of adjustment.
“I think it opened our eyes, as a team that has been very physical in the past,” Joseph said. “But I like the new rules. I like the 10-second backcourt rule (similar to the men’s game). I think it is going to be good for an aggressive, pressing team like Georgia Tech.”
MARYLAND - LAST GO-AROUND
Maryland is preparing for its final year as an ACC member, but senior Alyssa Thomas – a two-time conference Player of the Year and the 2011 Freshman of the Year – will end her college career without having played in another conference.
“The ACC has been great,” Thomas said. “It’s the only conference that we know. There have been a lot of great rivalries and competition. We are looking to go out with a bang and give it everything we have left.”
Thomas was asked Wednesday that, barring injury, if she foresaw anything preventing her from claiming a third straight ACC Player of the Year honor.
“The only thing that can stop me is not working hard,” said Thomas, who led the ACC in scoring, rebounding and assists last year. “If I try my best and keep working, I think I stand a pretty good chance of getting it again.”
Should Thomas indeed reach that goal, she will further solidify her status as one of the ACC’s greatest women’s players.
“I don’t think anyone has been asked to do more than we have asked her to do in her first three years,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “With her power and her skill set and versatility … the way she can move around to all five positions on the court is truly remarkable.
“She has to rank up there.”
BOSTON COLLEGE - ONE YEAR WISER
As Erik Johnson begins his second season as head coach at Boston College, he believes his team’s strong finish to the 2012-13 season can provide a springboard to better things.
The Eagles finished 12-19, but closed the regular season with a win over Georgia Tech and scored a win over Virginia in the first round of the ACC Tournament. The Eagles then battled 15th-ranked North Carolina gamely in the quarterfinals before coming out on the short end of a 62-57 score.
“The ACC Tournament, we really try to look at as just another game, but the reality is that it is the ACC tournament is best and most watched in all of college basketball and the biggest stage of the season,” Johnson said.
“We played really well against Virginia, and we turned around to face North Carolina on 24 hours rest. We didn’t even play well in the game, but we played competitively –we got tougher. It’s great when you are playing your best but even when you are struggling, if you take care of certain things, you can still be in games. Those are huge things to learn.”
Johnson, a former BC assistant who coached four years at Denver, characterized his first year back in the ACC as a learning experience.
“I got smarter with this team,” Johnson said. “I take responsibility for some of the earlier losses last season. You need to know your team, and I don’t think I can say I fully knew them at the start of last year. I am just glad they stayed with me.”
PITT - RIGHT AT HOME
During the six seasons she worked as head coach at Duquesne, Suzie McConnell-Serio viewed Pitt as a crosstown rival.
Now, as she begins her first season as head coach of a Panthers program entering its inaugural ACC season, she believes that gives her an edge as she seeks to revive a program that struggled lost a total of 43 games over the last two seasons.
“Having coached against Pitt for the last six years, I understand what the program has gone through,” she said Wednesday. “I understand the players’ personalities, and that helps me put them in a position where they can thrive. We know what was in the past. Our goal now, every day in practice, is to get better.”
Though she starred as a player at Penn State, McConnell-Serio is a Pittsburgh native who already feels a keen sense of loyalty to her new employer.
“I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, I love my hometown and this university is unbelievable,” she said.
McConnell-Serio says she has tried to create a family atmosphere at every level at which she has coached. Many coaches espouse that philosophy, but few have their sister alongside as associate head coach. Kathy McConnell-Miller makes her second stop at Pitt after formerly working under former head coach Kirk Bruce, who currently works as Pitt associate athletic director for sports administration and is the father of another current Pitt assistant, Carmen Bruce.
Pitt was picked to finish 15 in both the Blue Ribbon Panel and ACC Coaches preseason polls, but McConnell-Serio remained unfazed.
“Respect is earned,” she said. “We have not been in the ACC, and coaches look at a team that has not won in Big East the past two seasons. That is exactly where I expected us to be picked, so there’s no surprise. Theirs is nowhere else for us to go but up.”
ACC SENIOR ASSOCIATE COMMISSIONER NORA LYNN FINCH - TAKING ON THE BEST
The numbers don’t lie: ACC women’s basketball teams are set to collectively play the most challenging nonconference schedule in the history of the league.
“We will play more teams that are currently ranked in preseason and more teams that played in last year’s NCAA Tournament than ever before,” ACC Senior Associate Commissioner Nora Lynn Finch said.
ACC preseason favorite Duke will play a league-high seven such games, beginning with a road trip to California on Nov. 10. Road dates at Kansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky are also on tap, along with a date with Connecticut in the Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 17.
“Seven of those games , with four on the road – what in the world are they thinking,” Finch said jokingly.
In addition to the strong non-conference schedule, Finch is excited about an expanded ACC Tournament format that will now feature 14 games and evening tip times for both the Saturday semifinals and Sunday championship game. Saturday’s games are set for 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. starts, while the Sunday night game tip at 7 p.m. and be televised nationally by ESPN.
“Live on ESPN at 7 o’clock, straight out of SportsCenter – it has the potential to be the largest ever television audience for an ACC women’s championship game,’ Finch said. “ This will be a new challenge for Tournament Town (Greensboro) with the Saturday and Sunday night games, but I have every confidence they will meet that challenge in maintaining what has been, not just in our eyes but by consensus, the best women’s basketball tournament in America.”
NORTH CAROLINA - STILL THE COACH
With Hall of Fame head coach Sylvia Hatchell hospitalized and undergoing treatment for leukemia, long-time associate head coach Andrew Calder has taken the reins and is running the team on a day-to-day basis. But Calder made one thing clear as he met with reporters at Wednesday’s ACC Media Day proceedings.
“This is Coach Hatchell’s team,’ Calder said. “She is still the one implementing the game plans. I am going to try to coach the game through her eyes and have the team play the way she thinks this team needs to play in order to be successful.”
Calder said Hatchell watches videos of each day’s practice, often within the hour after their conclusion. Although he is currently unable to visit her every day on a daily basis, they talk frequently by phone.
“And our talks are all about practice,” he said. “She called today, and the talk was about practice. She is very much still involved with this team.”
ACC Senior Associate Commissioner Nora Lynn Finch noted Hatchell’s absence in her opening remarks at Wednesday’s ACC Media Day at Greensboro’s Grandover Resort.
“We welcome a lot of new faces this season, but today is a very different media day in that one face is missing,” Finch said. “Sylvia’s absence is the most significant change in our media day as we start our season.
“But I know this about Sylvia Hatchell: She is a fierce competitor, on the basketball court and in the game of life, and leukemia has no chance to win. She is at one of America’s finest cancer treatment centers, and that, combined with her faith, is going to get her through this.
“She is going to be known for how she fought this disease, and we are going to see her back on the bench by the end of this season. You can take that to the bank.”
MIAMI - TURNING IT UP
There might be time to blink when watching Miami in action this season – but just barely.
“You might want to wear a helmet when you come to see us play because the ball is going to be flying all over the court,” head coach Katie Meier said. “We don’t have a ton of size, so we are committed to a dribble-drive, fast paced offense.”
That means, said Meier, “a four-guard offense every time we step on the court, and we’re going to have to live and die by it.”
Meier said the style of play is inspired in part by that of Memphis coach John Calipari’s Derrick Rose-led teams, and also somewhat resembles that run by North Carolina last season. So far, junior Suriya McGuire has found the pace to her liking.
“It really fits my style of play,” McGuire said. “It really gives us a lot of freedom. We have the ability to determine what we are going to do on the court. It just depends on how aggressive we want to be.
There are still Xs and Os involved, Meier said, but the Hurricanes must be better prepared to employ what they’ve learned on the fly.
“It doesn’t mean we don’t coach in practice,” Meier said. “We educate, so that when we get to games and can say, “What do you see, what do you feel, what do you read?’
“I have always told my teams: ‘Here’s the canvas, paint your own picture.’ And they will.”
FLORIDA STATE - WINNING AGAIN
Now that Florida State has re-established itself as a winning program and an NCAA Tournament team, veteran coach Sue Semrau has no desire to revert back.
The Seminoles won 23 games last season and earned a spot in postseason play, one year after a nightmarish 2011-12 campaign that saw them limp to a 14-17 finish and post a 6-10 mark in ACC play.
“I don’t even remember that season now,” Semrau said Wednesday. “Last year, I remembered it a lot.”
All-ACC forward Natasha Howard (12.7 points, 7.5 rebounds per game) is the only returning starter from last year’s team, but Semrau believes “the culture has been re-established.”
“And the kids understood we had to re-establish culture,” Semrau said. “Our kids did that and Natasha was a huge part of that, and it is so huge now for her to be part of the carry-over to this season.
“I don’t want to set bar too high because we will be playing a number of freshman –and freshmen are freshmen. But I do believe we are back. I love this team.”
SYRACUSE - THE ORANGE MAKE THEIR ENTRANCE
Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman has watched a lot of ACC basketball over the years. He’s watching even more now, but there is a big difference.
“I’m not getting a lot of sleep sitting up at nights watching all these teams on Synergy, trying to figure out their tendencies and how to match up,” Hillsman said. “In the past, I’ve watched ACC teams just because I loved the game. I was sitting in my house watching, not breaking down film, analyzing and making adjustments.”
As he guides the Orange into their initial ACC season, Hillsman knows what it will take to compete.
“We need to be a bit more athletic,” Hillsman said. “We have to play faster and get up and down the court with the rest of the teams in this conference.”
The Orange already knows what it takes to win. With a 24-8 record last season, Syracuse posted the program’s best winning percentage in 33 years and the fourth-most wins in the history of the program.
Hillsman noted that Syracuse lost almost 5,000 points in career scoring to graduation. But returnees include a pair of 2013 All-Big East Freshman Team selections in Brittney Sykes and Brianna Butler. Syracuse also boasts three point guards in sophomore Cornelia Fondren, senior Rachel Coffey and freshman Alexis Peterson.
“Three point guards is a luxury that’s rare,” Hillsman said. “And we have players coming back who were huge part of the success we had last year. I don’t see (the loss of key scorers to graduation) as a huge problem.
“Our expectations are high. A lot of coaches try to understate their teams and not put pressure on them. We put pressure on them. Winning is important, and we push our team to win.”
WAKE FOREST - YOUTH WILL BE SERVED
Wake Forest enters the 2013-14 season minus four of its top six scorers from last season and with a roster that includes six freshmen.
“We lost five seniors who meant a lot to this program and put in a lot of hard years and sweat into the success we have had in the past,” second-year head coach Jen Hoover said. “But we’ve refreshed our roster.”
Hoover anticipates some of her returning letter-winners to stepping up to play bigger roles, but she has been pleased with what her freshman corps has shown in practice.
“The great thing is, they don’t know any better,” Hoover said. “They bring it every day. They play hard, and they are getting better by going against (Wake’s veteran players) every day. That has made them grow up even faster.”
Of all the freshmen, Hoover said Jill Brunori, a 6-foot-1 forward from Hilton Head, S.C., might be the most pleasant surprise. Brunori has been practicing in at full speed despite suffering a torn ACL last December that caused her to miss most of her high school senior season.
“We thought she might be the one who came in a little behind because of the injury, but she is not behind in any way, shape or form,” Hoover said. “Bodies are usually flying when she gets in there going after rebounds, mixing it up, and those bodies usually aren’t hers. She has a refuse to fail attitude, and she is going to be a lot of fun to watch.”