ACC is Blue Devils' playground

Chelsea Gray will give Duke a decided advantage at point guard in every ACC game. Lance King/Getty Images

Three consecutive ACC regular-season championships, league tournament titles in two of the past three years and three straight trips to the Elite Eight make for an impressive recent résumé. Duke seems to have this ACC thing licked. It's getting to the Final Four that has remained the issue in Joanne P. McCallie's five years as coach.

Duke just can't seem to get over the hump against the nation's elite. In those past three seasons of otherwise great success, the Blue Devils are a combined 0-7 against Notre Dame, Connecticut, Stanford and Baylor. The later three have each taken a turn ousting Duke one game shy of the Final Four.

This season might be Duke's best chance. In Chelsea Gray and Elizabeth Williams, McCallie has the best point-post combination she has ever coached, and that most programs ever see. If Williams is completely pain-free from the right-leg stress fracture that plagued her in the NCAA tournament last spring (she did miss Duke's two exhibition games), the ACC Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year should be even more of an offensive force after averaging 14 points per game last season.

While point guard is a deep, talented position nationally, it isn't in the ACC. Gray has an opportunity to dominate in league play. She is already one of the three or four best lead guards in the country, and she grew as a scorer from her freshman to sophomore seasons.

With Haley Peters, Tricia Liston, Allison Vernerey and incoming freshman Alexis Jones, there is also a level of experience and offensive skill sets that Duke hasn't had for a while. Gray is not limited in who she can get the ball to. Having an ability to score more easily in big games will be what ultimately enables Duke to take that big, elusive next step.

The first of those big games will come in league play. As part of the new 18-game ACC schedule, the Blue Devils will meet Maryland at least twice. The Terps likely will be the lone challenger to Duke's crown.

Gray will have a decided advantage in those matchups, as Maryland heads into the season without a true point guard, following Brene Moseley's ACL injury, but the Terrapins are the rare team that can attack Williams in waves along the baseline. Alyssa Thomas is the league's best player, while 6-foot-3 senior Tianna Hawkins, 6-4 sophomore Alicia DeVaughn, 6-4 freshman Malina Howard and 6-2 freshman Tierney Pfirman make the Terps unique and dangerous.

Predicted order of finish

1. Duke (27-6 in 2011-12): The Blue Devils have the best inside-outside duo this side of Waco in Elizabeth Williams and Chelsea Gray. Joanne P. McCallie can also boast a supporting cast as well-rounded, deep and experienced as she has had in Durham. A fourth straight ACC crown is likely if Williams is healthy all season. That's when the fun will begin in Durham.

2. Maryland (32-4): If Brenda Frese can figure out the point guard situation after the season-ending injury to Brene Moseley, this could be a Final Four team. Alyssa Thomas is one of the five or six best players in the country, and Tianna Hawkins could be one of the most underrated.

3. Georgia Tech (26-9): The Yellow Jackets are coming off the best season in school history but must replace two of their top three scorers. Fortunately, MaChelle Joseph's team relies more on defense and forcing tempo than it does on pure scoring. For that she has the versatile Ty Marshall.

4. North Carolina (20-11): These are different days in Chapel Hill and the Tar Heels still aren't ready to once again challenge for a league title. Exactly how much they do bounce back will depend on the development of sophomore Brittany Rountree and freshman Xylina McDaniel. A smaller lineup might mean a return to more, or at least more effective, running.

5. Virginia (25-11): Coach Joanne Boyle might have to piece things together for a while. Injuries have robbed her of some depth and it might not be until ACC play begins that everyone will be at her disposal. The health of returning point guard China Crosby, following her second ACL tear, is the big one to watch.

6. Miami (28-5): The Hurricanes didn't quite meet expectations with their runner-up finish in the ACC and a second-round NCAA tournament exit. Now the two players who helped coach Katie Meier elevate the program -- Riquna Williams and Shenise Johnson -- are gone. Morgan Stroman's return from an Achilles injury that cost her the final 13 games of last season will go a long way to determining how this one goes for the Hurricanes.

7. Florida State (14-17): The Seminoles expected to play in the NCAA tournament last season. Instead, their very disappointing season ended after just one game in the ACC tournament. To reverse that, Sue Semrau will need better play from all four of her returning starters, including more offense from junior forward Natasha Howard.

8. NC State (19-16): Marissa Kastanek is the Wolfpack's lone senior, and she might need to increase her scoring output (12.9 points per game) if NC State is going to make it back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.

9. Wake Forest (20-14): Jen Hoover was one of the best players in Wake Forest history and now she's in charge of steering the program after one season as the coach at High Point. She will be relying heavily on guards Lakevia Boykin and Chelsea Douglas.

10. Clemson (6-22): With 10 freshmen and sophomores, the Lady Tigers are the youngest team in the ACC. Nikki Dixon is one of the sophomores, and led the team in scoring a year ago with 12.4 points per game.

11. Virginia Tech (7-23):
Veteran coach Dennis Wolff is hoping the arrival of juco transfer Uju Ugoka can help an offense that didn't have a single player shoot better than 38 percent from the field (minimum 50 attempts).

12. Boston College (7-23): Four starters are back at BC, but new coach Erik Johnson has his work cut out. He inherits a team whose best win was over Virginia Tech, which had the worst defense in the ACC, and has just one double-figure scorer (Katie Zenevitch, 10.5 ppg). The Eagles are a long way from competing for anything beyond ninth or 10th.

Players to watch

Natasha Howard, junior, F, Florida State: Howard and Maryland's Alyssa Thomas entered the ACC at the same time with a similar level of pub. To this point, Thomas has clearly become the better player. While that is more complimentary of Thomas than it is a criticism of Howard (she did lead the ACC in double-doubles and was on the conference's all-defensive team), the junior forward could stand to be more consistent on the offensive end. If she finds that next gear this season, Howard could find herself on a short list of preseason player of the year candidates next year.

Laurin Mincy, junior, G, Maryland: Mincy was the Terps' best 3-point shooter and top perimeter scoring threat a year ago, but this season she might have to play at least some at the point because of the injury to Brene Moseley. How she adapts to the added responsibility and how Brenda Frese adjusts her rotation to plug that hole might be the keys to Maryland's season.

Haley Peters, junior, F, Duke: Nearly every truly great team has a third weapon to go with its two superstars. Last season at Baylor, Destiny Williams was the third musketeer. Peters could be that for Duke. She is a double-figure scorer (10.8), the Blue Devils' second-leading rebounder (5.6), and a good shooter (51.2 percent from the field and 43.9 percent on 3-point attempts). And her versatility allows coach Joanne P. McCallie to use her in different spots.