All eyes on ACC's traditional powers

Leonor Rodriguez is one of five seniors on fourth-seeded Florida State. AP Photo/Phil Sears

Last year, Georgia Tech came achingly close to being the first team since Clemson in 1999 to break up the Duke/North Carolina/Maryland monopoly on winning the ACC women’s basketball tournament.

This year, is there anyone outside those three that can actually take home the trophy from Greensboro, N.C.? Probably not.

It looks like there will be five ACC teams in the NCAA tournament: Duke, UNC, Maryland, Florida State and Miami. The only road into the Big Dance for the other seven teams -- which all have losing records in the league -- is by winning the tournament and automatic bid, which seems extremely unlikely.

So then what is at stake in Greensboro? Florida State and Miami, both 11-7 in ACC play, would like to bolster their NCAA résumés a bit with at least one more win. North Carolina, the No. 3 seed, wouldn’t mind another shot at top-seeded Duke, which beat the Tar Heels twice in the regular season.

And Maryland, which has won more ACC tournament titles than any program (10) will try to add to that total as the school’s time in the league nears an end. No matter how geographically and traditionally illogical it is, the Terrapins will be moving to the Big Ten. That’s expected to be in 2014.

The Terps held off Georgia Tech 68-65 in last season’s championship game. Despite injuries and graduation taking such a toll on the Terps this year, they’ve still earned the No. 2 seed.

“I’m obviously very proud of our team in terms of how we've battled through the adversity this season,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “Never using injuries as an excuse, just really playing to get better. Obviously [with] the play of Tianna Hawkins and Alyssa Thomas, we've been fortunate.”

The Terps lost twice to Duke -- the first time when the Blue Devils still had point guard Chelsea Gray, and the second after Gray had suffered a season-ending knee injury. Maryland also lost at North Carolina in early January, and at Florida State on Feb. 28.

That win was much-needed by the fourth-seeded Seminoles, who’ve been inconsistent. They have victories over the Terps and Tar Heels in their last eight games, but also losses to NC State, Virginia Tech, and Virginia. The Hokies are the last-place team in the ACC.

So what gives with the Seminoles’ highs and lows?

“I don't know exactly why that is,” Florida State coach Sue Semrau said. “But at the same time, I know that we're capable of a lot. That's a mystery to me and to my staff. Maybe it plays in a little bit to human nature.

“Certainly having five seniors going into the ACC tournament, this being their last chance at it, I think the excitement level is high.”

North Carolina’s program has nine ACC tournament titles, but the last was in 2008. That one was the fourth straight league tourney title for the Tar Heels, who’ve been pretty steady this ACC season. Their only ACC losses were the two to Duke, plus at Maryland, and at Florida State.

“These kids have really worked hard, and we are very balanced,” UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “Our seniors have done a great job. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt is not really a point guard, but we've played her at point guard and she's accepted that role and just done a fabulous job for us. And I'm just so proud of her because this is the first time she's been healthy since she's been here at UNC.”

Ruffin-Pratt leads the Tar Heels at 14.8 points per game. Meanwhile, UNC’s Xylina McDaniel was named ACC freshman of the year; she averages 12.4 points and 7.2 rebounds.

Ultimately, though, this still seems like Duke’s tournament to win, despite the loss of Gray -- who was having an All-American season -- on Feb. 17 when she was hurt against Wake Forest.

The Blue Devils’ only ACC loss came at Miami on Feb. 28 to a Hurricanes team that really needed that win for their NCAA tournament hopes.

Duke has won the ACC tournament title seven times, two of those with Joanne P. McCallie as coach. The Blue Devils are hosting the NCAA tournament’s early rounds this year, and they seem pretty secure as an NCAA No. 2 seed regardless of what happens in Greensboro.

Of course, Duke would like another ACC trophy. But McCallie is looking at more the big picture for both the Blue Devils and the ACC. As in, getting a team to the Final Four. The last ACC team to make it that far was North Carolina in 2007; McCallie took her Michigan State team out of the Big Ten that far in 2005.

“The days of talking about the ACC and the Final Four are past days, not more the current ones,” McCallie said. “So I think it's extremely important that we get teams to the Final Four and the biggest stage.”

How they play in Greensboro might help in that process for the Blue Devils.