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Duke remains favorite in ACC

Maryland senior Alyssa Thomas is a national player of the year candidate. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

It's a season of three "hellos" and a big "goodbye" in the Atlantic Coast Conference. New to the league are Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the breakup of the "old" Big East.

Exiting after this season -- and this is still hard to believe -- is Maryland, which will move to the Big Ten in 2014-15.

The ACC now is more far-flung than ever, but the team expected to win the league this season is right in the heart of ACC territory. Duke has finished first or tied for it the past four seasons, and won the ACC tournament crown three of those years.

Duke point guard Chelsea Gray returns from a knee injury that cut short her junior season, and she's one of five seniors who hope to get the Blue Devils to the Women's Final Four.

A team that has advanced that far the past three seasons -- Notre Dame lost in the NCAA final in 2011 and '12, and in the semifinals in '13 -- might challenge Duke for ACC supremacy.

Maryland, behind star Alyssa Thomas, hopes to go out with one more ACC championship. The Terrapins' last league tournament title was in 2012, and they last finished atop the regular-season standings in 2009, when they tied with Florida State.

North Carolina has received a lot of hype for its top-rated freshmen class. Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell is temporarily stepping aside as she undergoes treatment for leukemia, while her longtime assistant Andrew Calder runs the team.

Five ACC teams advanced to the NCAA tournament last season: Duke, North Carolina, Maryland, Florida State and Miami. Notre Dame and Syracuse also made the NCAA field in their last season in the old Big East.

So enjoy the first season of new ACC rivalries being established -- Duke versus Notre Dame is likely the cream of that crop -- and appreciate the last season of the league rivalries that Maryland engaged in over the years.

Predicted order of finish

1. Duke (33-3 in 2012-13): Depth, experience, scoring options, good defense. The Blue Devils would appear to have all the bases covered. Duke has a better nonconference schedule this season than last, and that will give the Blue Devils good preparation for what they hope is a very long NCAA tournament run. Junior center Elizabeth Williams returns as the team's leading scorer (15.2 ppg); she's one of four Blue Devils who averaged in double figures last season.

2. Notre Dame (35-2): No more league rivalry with UConn; the Fighting Irish now give ACC women's basketball another powerhouse. The Irish lost point guard Skylar Diggins to graduation, and senior forward Natalie Achonwa is out the early part of this season after knee surgery. But the Irish have leadership from guard Kayla McBride (15.9 ppg), and a lot of young talent ready for bigger roles.

3. Maryland (26-8): Tianna Hawkins has moved on to the WNBA. But national player of the year candidate Alyssa Thomas (18.8 ppg, 10.3 rpg) returns for her senior season. Four other Terps who started double-digit games last season are also back, as are guards Brene Moseley and Laurin Mincy, who missed all or most of last season with knee injuries. Lexie Brown and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough are two of the rookies whom coach Brenda Frese thinks could make a quick impact.

4. North Carolina (29-7): Big guard Diamond DeShields leads the top-ranked freshman class that is expected to shoulder a lot for the Tar Heels right away. The leading returning scorers are sophomore forward Xylina McDaniel (11.3 ppg) and junior guard Brittany Rountree (7.2 ppg). The Tar Heels have high hopes, but it might take a little while for them to jell on court.

5. Georgia Tech (14-16): After a Sweet 16 run in 2012, the Yellow Jackets had to do some rebuilding last season. Now they have four starters back, led by senior guard Tyaunna Marshall (18.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg). Junior guard Sydney Wallace (9.8 ppg) looks to take another step forward, and the freshmen should get their chance to contribute -- especially if they can live up to coach MaChelle Joseph's defensive standards.

6. Syracuse (24-8): Last season, the Orange were 11-5 in the Big East and made their second NCAA tournament appearance under coach Quentin Hillsman. Three starters are back from a team that fell in the NCAA first round to Creighton, led by sophomore guards Brittney Sykes (8.9 ppg) and Brianna Butler (7.2 ppg). The Orange must make up for the loss of center Kayla Alexander (17.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg), and will look to their freshmen to give them a lift entering ACC play.

7. Florida State (23-10): The Seminoles lost four starters, but the one who is back -- senior forward Natasha Howard (12.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg) -- is expected to have a big season. Florida State lost to Baylor in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. For the Seminoles to make their ninth NCAA appearance under coach Sue Semrau, they will need a lot from six newcomers, four of them freshmen.

8. Virginia (16-14): This is coach Joanne Boyle's third season in Charlottesville; the Cavaliers are looking for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010. Their leading returning scorer is Ataira Franklin (14.3 ppg), and two other senior guards -- Kelsey Wolfe (injured knee in February) and Lexie Gerson (sat out last season after hip surgery) -- return from injuries. This is expected to be a guard-oriented team, but forward Sydney Umeri is a freshman who could be an impact player soon.

9. NC State (17-17): New coach Wes Moore will implement a new system but have experienced players to do it; the Wolfpack bring back four starters from a team that went 7-11 in the ACC last season under Kellie Harper. Leading the way is senior forward Kody Burke (13.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg), and senior center Markeisha Gatling should play a big role as well. Moore took his Chattanooga team to the NCAA tournament last season, but the Wolfpack's most recent NCAA appearance was 2010.

10. Miami (21-11): The Hurricanes made the NCAA field last season despite having lost two players who went on to the WNBA. But can they do it again this season, with only two starters back? They lost their three starters who averaged double-figures scoring, so points are going to have to come from somewhere else. Also, the Canes don't have a lot of size. The good news is that coach Katie Meier has been pretty good at finding answers in her eight years in Miami, which include five postseason appearances.

11. Wake Forest (13-19): Demon Deacons alum Jen Hoover went 5-13 in her first season as Wake's coach. With three starters lost, the Deacs don't appear any closer to making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1988. Still, Hoover has a lot of energy, and Wake did win one ACC tournament game last season before falling to Maryland in overtime to end their season. Senior guard Chelsea Douglas (14.6 ppg) is Wake's top returner.

12. Boston College (12-19): Four starters return for coach Erik Johnson in his second season in charge of the Eagles. Leading the way is senior guard/forward Kristen Doherty (12.3 ppg). Boston College hasn't made an NCAA appearance since 2006, when Cathy Inglese was still coach. The Eagles were 5-13 in the ACC last season, although they did pick up an ACC tournament win over Virginia.

13. Pittsburgh (9-21): Let's look at this optimistically: The Panthers' first season in the ACC really can't go any worse than their last in the Big East. They were winless -- 0-16 -- in league play last season, and that ended Agnus Berenato's 10-season stay as coach. She was replaced by Pittsburgh native Suzie McConnell-Serio, who moved across town from Duquesne, where she won at least 20 games five of her six seasons. All five starters return for the Panthers.

14. Clemson (9-21): The Tigers also have a new coach this season, although she is quite familiar with the ACC. Audra Smith played for Virginia's three Final Four teams in 1990-92 and also was an assistant with the Cavaliers for several years. She takes over at Clemson after nine seasons as coach of Alabama-Birmingham, and has five starters back from a squad that went 5-13 in the ACC last season.

15. Virginia Tech (10-20): Dennis Wolff enters his third season as coach of the Hokies, who have not made the NCAA tournament field since 2006. They have four returning starters from a team that went 4-14 in the ACC a year ago. Senior guard Monet Tellier (13.2 ppg) is their leading returning scorer -- but this is a team that just doesn't score much. In Wolff's two seasons, Virginia Tech has averaged 51.7 and 49.3 points per game.

Players to watch

Alexis Jones, sophomore, G, Duke: When star Chelsea Gray was lost for the season in February, then-freshman Jones stepped forward and filled in well for her. Jones averaged 9.5 points and had 144 assists. On a team where much attention will go to the upper-class players, opponents might be burned a lot by Jones.

Jewell Loyd, sophomore, G, Notre Dame: She had a terrific rookie season for a Final Four team, averaging 12.5 points. She's expected to be a big factor again for the Fighting Irish, who will be hosting a regional this season.

Xylina McDaniel, sophomore, F, North Carolina: She clearly has a lot of ability, and now she wants to prove she can stay focused and not let emotions get the best of her. McDaniel averaged 11.3 points and 7.1 rebounds as a freshman, and she'll need to be a team leader with so many new players at North Carolina.