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Notre Dame arrives to challenge Duke in ACC

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Muffet McGraw built Notre Dame into a national power while tussling with Connecticut for control of the Big East. Now her Fighting Irish are in the expanded Atlantic Coast Conference and gearing up to fight Duke for the top spot in their new home.

''It really makes us kind of go back and start over,'' the coach said. ''You've got to learn a lot of new teams, the style of play, how is the game officiated here, is it different? There's a lot of new challenges, but I think we really have a great league.''

The Fighting Irish (35-2 in 2012-13) are coming off a third straight trip to the Final Four, which included a win against the Blue Devils (33-3) in an NCAA regional final. With four returning starters, Notre Dame is picked to finish second in the 15-team ACC behind Duke, which is pursuing a fourth league title in five seasons.

''I think we're part of the best conference in the country right now and it's a great experience for our team,'' Notre Dame guard Kayla McBride said. ''We've been to three straight Final Fours and (want to) show Notre Dame is still the same team.''

Notre Dame beat Duke 87-76 in the Norfolk Regional finals, rallying from a 37-31 halftime deficit to give the Blue Devils their fourth straight loss in the regional finals. For Duke, it stung worse than the others considering the Blue Devils lost star point guard Chelsea Gray to a knee injury in February.

Duke returns all five starters and its top seven scorers to continue its recent domination in the league. The Blue Devils have won 56 of 62 regular-season ACC games over the past four seasons, though they want more.

''There was a lot of robbed time, time we thought we'd have,'' Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said of Gray's injury. ''I know as a coach, I felt robbed. ... We're very motivated by what we missed out on, and frankly, we feel like we missed out on a lot.''

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Here are five things to watch in ACC women's basketball this season:

MARYLAND'S FAREWELL: The Terrapins, who won the 2009 and 2012 ACC tournament titles, head to the Big Ten next year. It's also the finale for ACC player of the year Alyssa Thomas, who led the league in scoring (18.8), rebounding (10.3) and assists (5.3). ''By the time it's all said and done, Alyssa could go down as the best player to ever come through Maryland women's basketball,'' Terps coach Brenda Frese said.

HATCHELL'S HEELS: North Carolina returns league rookie of the year Xylina McDaniel and adds a recruiting class ranked No. 1 nationally by ESPN. But coach Sylvia Hatchell, a recently inducted Naismith Hall of Famer, is away while receiving treatment for leukemia. Longtime assistant Andrew Calder is leading the program in Hatchell's absence and said the team will follow her plans until she returns.

BIG EAST ARRIVALS: Pittsburgh and Syracuse are joining the ACC along with Notre Dame, but with lower expectations. Syracuse was picked to finish seventh and returns three starters from a team that won 24 games and made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008. Pittsburgh was picked last in the ACC after a 9-21 season that included an 0-16 mark in its final Big East run.

RETURNING STARS: The ACC boasts plenty of star power. Gray, Thomas and McBride were all Associated Press All-Americans last year, while Duke also returns first-team all-ACC performer Elizabeth Williams and second-team picks Haley Peters and Tricia Liston. Florida State's Natasha Howard, Georgia Tech's Tyaunna Marshall and Virginia's Ataira Franklin are also returning all-ACC first-team picks, while UNC's McDaniel and Wake Forest's Chelsea Douglas are returning second-teamers.

NEW FACES: The ACC has three first-year coaches in Clemson's Audra Smith, North Carolina State's Wes Moore and Pitt's Suzie McConnell-Serio. Smith, a former Virginia player and UAB coach, inherits a program that hasn't had a winning record since 2004. Moore left Chattanooga to lead a program that hasn't been to the NCAAs since 2010. McConnell-Serio has spent the past six seasons at Duquesne and is a two-time Olympian, and former WNBA player and coach.

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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