- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Notre Dame's impending departure from the Big East to the ACC will make for yet another identity shift for two leagues with a considerable history of success in women's basketball.
Connecticut, with its seven national titles, unquestionably has been the giant of the Big East and did still have a dominant lead in the series with the Irish. But Notre Dame was one of the few other Big East schools in the past decade that could at times not only look eye-to-eye at that giant and refuse to blink, but actually win. And the Irish were the only Big East program to knock off UConn when the stakes were the very highest: at the Final Four.
You'd hope that UConn's Geno Auriemma and Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw -- who've typically had a good relationship despite a dustup or two -- would opt to continue a nonconference series when the Irish leave.
Notre Dame has an NCAA title of its own (2001), plus three other trips to the Women's Final Four (1997, 2011, 2012). That's some pretty sparkling cred to bring into the ACC, a league that has two past NCAA women's hoops champions -- North Carolina (1994) and Maryland (2006) -- and a program in Duke that for the past decade-plus has at least been consistently knocking on that door.
"It's going to make [the ACC] even more competitive than it already is," UNC women's hoops coach Sylvia Hatchell said of the Irish entry. "It can do nothing but help us, because Notre Dame has been really, really good.
"The [ACC] coaches have been talking about this for a while, so I don't think any of us are surprised that Notre Dame is going to be added. But I do think there will be one more brought in [to get to 16]."
If so, will that be yet another current member of the Big East? Might it even be UConn? ESPN.com reported last year that UConn, behind the scenes, was pursuing a spot in the ACC. Obviously if that happened, the Irish and Huskies would stay league mates.
Hatchell acknowledges a pragmatic approach to all the conference changes, knowing they are dictated by a bottom-line mentality that revolves around football -- even though the Irish aren't officially joining the ACC in that sport.
Still, from a women's sports perspective overall, Notre Dame is a desirable school for any league to have, thanks to top-notch academics and a strong commitment to competitiveness in women's athletics.
Notre Dame's first league affiliation in women's hoops was back in the early 1980s, when the Irish were part of the North Star Conference. In the late '80s, they joined the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, and entered the Big East before the 1995-96 season.
Thus, this isn't quite like some of the other breakups that have happened with the various conferences' team-swapping that has gone on. Notre Dame-UConn wasn't an epically long rivalry between schools like, for instance, Texas-Texas A&M or Kansas-Missouri. But in regard to women's basketball, the Huskies and Irish packed some good stuff into a relatively short time.
As soon as Notre Dame officially negotiates its way out of the Big East, the ACC's reach will stretch not just from New England to the tip of Florida, but also west to that noted coastal town of South Bend, Ind. (Well, maybe if there was a catastrophic ice melt.)
Of course, everyone logically knows that Notre Dame's truest geographical fit wasn't ever actually the Big East, either, but the Big Ten. Instead, though, the Irish will end up in what might appear -- and feel -- like a bloated league that once had such a compact nature.
The ACC was created in June 1953 with Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, Clemson and Wake Forest. Later that same year, Virginia was admitted. South Carolina left in 1971. Georgia Tech came aboard in 1978, then the ACC went to nine teams with Florida State in 1991. And so it stayed for a while.
The first stage of Big East teams' exodus to the ACC came in 2004, when Virginia Tech and Miami moved, followed by Boston College in 2005. West Virginia is now in its first season in the Big 12. Syracuse and Pitt will leave the Big East to join the ACC next year, and then Notre Dame will come aboard.
As a women's basketball league, it's still fair to say the ACC's "heart" remains in the old core of the conference. This coming season, for instance, one of the big questions is who will be the ACC women's hoops favorite: Maryland or Duke? How well will North Carolina recover from a rare year missing the NCAA tournament? Is Virginia closing in on returning to being a top-level contender in the ACC?
But the league's newsmakers in women's basketball are also elsewhere. The two schools that used to be considered the ACC's way-distant outposts -- Georgia Tech and Florida State -- have elevated their women's hoops programs. MaChelle Joseph's Yellow Jackets made the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in 2012. Miami, under coach Katie Meier, has become more of a force in women's hoops.
Syracuse and Pitt are very high-profile programs on the men's side coming into the ACC, but don't have much history as difference-makers on the women's side. We'll have to see if that changes at all in the ACC.
Notre Dame, on the other hand, should be able to enter the ACC and be very competitive, just as it has been in the Big East. There will at first be some new and unfamiliar territory for the Irish, but McGraw is a quick study who will not take long to adjust to ACC foes.
"To add a team that has traditionally been one of the best in the country is exciting," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "You want to play teams who are going to push you and keep raising the bar. I'd much rather play the Notre Dames of the world; it helps you. And attendance-wise, they've drawn extremely well at Notre Dame."
As for the league tournament, the Irish are used to going into "enemy territory" for the Big East event at UConn's home away from home, the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. So it won't be any real adjustment for Notre Dame to play in the ACC event in North Carolina.
The ACC's current contract for its women's tournament to be played at the Greensboro Coliseum runs through the 2014-15 season. That's home territory for the league's North Carolina-based schools, but Frese doesn't mind that and expects that McGraw won't, either.
"The women's coaches in the ACC are very happy with Greensboro," Frese said. "Just because of how they've been able to put fans in the stands there. We've been thrilled with the atmosphere and how it gets your team prepared for playing in the NCAA tournament."
Meanwhile, the likes of Louisville and Rutgers -- both teams that have been to the Women's Final Four -- remain to try to challenge UConn in the Big East. But certainly, the exit of the Irish is a big blow to Big East women's basketball.
16dBonnie D. Ford