Notre Dame again picked as favorite in ACC women's hoops

(AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Notre Dame's grip on the top of the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference might be slipping a bit.

Nonetheless, for the fourth straight year the Fighting Irish are picked to win the ACC. No team in league history has swept both the ACC's regular-season and tournament championships in five consecutive years.

Coach Muffet McGraw played the role of gracious front-runner Thursday during ACC Media Day, though her program has been head and shoulders about the competition since the Irish joined the league in 2013-14.

"I think the ACC is a tremendous conference. I think we have some of the best players in the country. I think we have some of the best teams in the country," McGraw said. "It's going to be incredibly difficult. I think we've really got to be ready and really go to work. ... We're not looking at what's happening at the end" of the season.

McGraw may not be, but others are.

The Irish received 35 of 60 first-place votes league coaches and a panel comprised of media members and school representatives. Notre Dame was picked first by eight of the league's 15 head coaches in results also announced Thursday.

Still, the 58 percent of the first-place votes Notre Dame received from the media panel marked its smallest percentage in any of the years it has been picked to win the league.

Notre Dame was voted first on 81 percent of the ballots last year, 80 percent the year before and 93 percent in 2014-15. The Irish were picked second to Duke in their first year in the league.

The voting has been spot on, except for that second-place prediction.

The Irish have dominated the conference, rolling up a 74-2 record in regular-season ACC games and then going 12-0 in the league tournament while winning both the regular-season and tournament titles in each of the four years they've participated in it.

They are clearly the new alpha program of their new league.

Notre Dame has had its share of elite players, of course, but it hasn't exactly monopolized all the talent. The ACC has had 25 players taken in the WNBA draft over the past four years, and three programs - the Fighting Irish, Duke and Florida State - each had four players selected during that span.

The Irish certainly have been the best at winning with the players they do have, filling a role that once was shared by three programs - Maryland, Duke and North Carolina, who combined to win every ACC Tournament from 2000-13.

The Terps left for the Big Ten after the 2013-14 season, the Tar Heels have been rebuilding since their entire star-studded 2013 recruiting class transferred out and the Blue Devils went through a brief downturn of their own before last season's return to the top 10 in the national rankings.

Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie called 2016-17 a "motivating season" that included a victory over eventual national champion South Carolina and a late-season 10-game winning streak that propelled her team back to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence.

"I think it made us kind of hungry to be even closer, stronger, better together," McCallie said. "It was part of the process of getting to this season, and now trying to do what we want to do and be a special team."

That might mean catching up to Notre Dame.

Both the panel and the coaches picked Louisville to finish second, Duke third and Florida State fourth. The Blue Devils and Seminoles each received 10 first-place votes by the panel and three first-place votes from the coaches.

The best player in the league may not be on the Irish roster this season.

The panel of media members and team representatives selected Duke guard Lexie Brown as the preseason player of the year, while the coaches picked Louisville guard Asia Durr.

Duke (Brown and Rebecca Greenwell), Louisville (Durr and Myisha Hines-Allen) and Notre Dame (Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale) each had two players picked to both groups' all-ACC preseason teams.

"With this team in particular, I think it's going to be about us staying locked in, never looking too far ahead," Brown said. "I think this team can be super-special, but there are distractions everywhere. And I feel if we are locked in ... as long as we are locked into each other, listening to (McCallie) ... that can lead us right to the Final Four."

NOTES: The ACC also announced it will move to an 18-game league schedule starting in 2019-20, with the move coinciding with the launch of the ACC's ESPN-branded television channel.

Updated October 19, 2017

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