The expedition started four months ago at ACC media day in Greensboro, N.C., and now we're headed back there. For the 15th time, the ACC women's basketball tournament will be held at Greensboro Coliseum. For the first time, a team from Indiana will be competing in this event.
Newcomer Notre Dame took the league by storm, going undefeated in the regular season and claiming the ACC tourney's top seed. So what about Duke, North Carolina and NC State, the schools right in the heart of the league?
This season's Total Access series has focused on the three schools in the Triangle, and their journey has been filled with some expected results, some big surprises and a few heartbreaking twists.
Duke, down two point guards due to knee injuries, is still an experienced team trying to dig even deeper, mentally and emotionally, than it already has. Senior guard Chelsea Gray's college career has ended, and sophomore guard Alexis Jones' career has been interrupted. That leaves senior Tricia Liston and the rest of the Blue Devils scrambling to cover the absence of both on court.
Duke -- picked to win the league and considered to have serious Final Four potential back on media day in October -- tied for runner-up with Maryland and will be the No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament.
However, unless the Blue Devils win in Greensboro, it seems unlikely they will get a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Right now, they project as a No. 3 -- and one whose stock seems to be dropping.
NC State has been the biggest pleasant surprise in the ACC: earning the No. 4 seed despite being picked to finish 10th. But the Wolfpack also have been stung by recent knee injuries, both to seniors. Myisha Goodwin-Coleman, the team's top 3-point shooter, and Lakeesa Daniel, who provided needed depth inside, went out with ACL tears on consecutive days in late February. However, two other seniors -- Markeisha Gatling and Kody Burke -- continue to lead the way for the Wolfpack, as they've done all season.
And even though North Carolina is the lowest-seeded of the Triangle teams in the ACC tournament -- at No. 6, after tying for fifth place with Syracuse -- the Tar Heels actually won the Triangle this season. They swept Duke and NC State, the first time North Carolina has done that since 2008. UNC also had a nonconference win over a projected NCAA No. 1 seed, South Carolina.
Yet this same group also lost -- at home, no less -- to Virginia Tech, which tied for the second-worst record in the ACC at 4-12. It has been that kind of anything-is-possible (good and bad) season for freshmen-led North Carolina. Yet considering the youth of the team and the fact that coach Sylvia Hatchell has been out all season battling leukemia, the Tar Heels' ups and downs are understandable.
Now, as we get ready for whatever might happen in Greensboro, let's take a closer look at how the Triangle trio got here.
Tar Heels' peaks and valleys
Classic film buffs, you know this. Everyone else? Either rent it or trust us. In the first part of "All About Eve," Anne Baxter's Eve Harrington is relentlessly obsequious toward Bette Davis' Broadway legend Margo Channing.
But Eve is faking it to the hilt as the doe-eyed, adoring ingenue; in reality she's a ravenous shark out to devour everyone and everything in her zeal for stardom.
OK ... now imagine the exact opposite of the conniving Eve. And there you have Andrew Calder, the Tar Heels' acting head coach with Hatchell sidelined.
Calder has kept Hatchell ever-present in any and every public interaction this season. So much so that you expect that when Calder goes to a restaurant and is asked his order, he says, "Well, Coach Hatchell would want this nice, healthy salad."
Calder's deference to Hatchell is completely sincere. He has been Hatchell's assistant at UNC since 1986 -- before any current UNC player was even born. Calder and Hatchell aren't just co-workers and friends, though; they are really more like siblings, but without the rivalry.
"It's been difficult, because I've known Coach Hatchell for so long," Calder said. "And then she has a serious disease. That stress is the most difficult stress I've gone through ... [after] all she's done for me and my family.
"I feel the team is prepared, so I'm confident when we go out on the court. Coach Hatchell always prepares her assistant coaches to be head coaches one day."
Yet Calder has been in Chapel Hill for nearly three decades, so it was safe to assume he had no plans to be a head coach. Calder is basically a sports fanatic who loves his work and has never minded being in the "background." Yet this season, he had to step forward.
So have his freshmen. But they were ready for that, especially Diamond DeShields. She knew before she ever played a game for UNC that much of the weight of the season would be on her. It's not a role most freshmen are expected to fill, nor would they react well to it if they were.
But DeShields credits her high school coach and USA Basketball experience for preparing her for hitting the ground running in college. She realized that she was a natural-born leader.
"You have to understand that everyone around you is going to feed off what you do," DeShields said of how she has impacted her teammates. "You can't have a bad attitude about it. Your energy is a key element to the team. You have to embrace the role and the pressure and do the best you can."
DeShields averaged 17.7 points and 5.5 rebounds this season. Fellow freshmen Allisha Gray (14.4) and Stephanie Mavunga (11.1) also averaged in double figures, as has sophomore Xylina McDaniel (12.2). Mavunga has also been the team's top rebounder at 8.5 per game. Gray has hit some huge shots from the perimeter and would be the best rookie on nearly any team that didn't also have DeShields.
Hatchell has kept in very close contact with the team and still hopes to be back on the sideline for the NCAA tournament.
How long the Tar Heels will last in the Big Dance this season is anyone's guess. Sweeping Duke was a season highlight, but the Tar Heels also had a three-game losing streak -- against Syracuse, Miami and Georgia Tech -- in late January/early February that exposed flaws. UNC's defense is not as good as it will be when these players mature; for now, the Tar Heels are mostly relying on being able to outscore opponents.
All in all, North Carolina's season has been about what most observers would have guessed: When the Tar Heels are hitting shots, look out. When they aren't ... well, it might not be pretty. But they'll keep shooting.
Duke's difficult detours
There isn't a women's hoops program that's more complicated to talk about than Duke. Because "success" in Durham is defined in very different ways by different people.
The Blue Devils have made it to the NCAA Elite Eight for the past four seasons. That's success, right? Depends on your point of view. To fans who expected a Final Four trip by now during coach Joanne P. McCallie's tenure, the regional final has been a frustrating roadblock.
But considering what the Blue Devils have been through this year, the Elite Eight might be a reasonable goal for 2014. Sadly, in retrospect, Gray never really looked completely like her old self this season, after rehabbing from a knee injury that cut short her junior year.
She was medically cleared to play, but too often seemed a bit stiff and even uncomfortable. Considering the original injury was in February 2013, should Gray have redshirted this season? It's easier to say now, perhaps that would have been a good idea.
Instead, she competed in 17 games before reinjuring her knee on Jan. 12 against Boston College. That then thrust Jones back into the primary point guard role, something she adjusted to well last season.
Then when Jones was hurt in a loss Feb. 23 at Notre Dame, Duke was left with limited options in running the team on court. Liston will handle a lot of the point guard duties. But as the team's leading scorer (17.9), Liston was more suited as the player being set up for opportunities.
So Duke has had more adversity than anyone anticipated, and that includes senior guard Chloe Wells' leaving the team, although it was not officially announced. What was a deep squad at the start of the season has shrunk, but there is still a lot of talent in Durham, including some younger players who are getting more opportunity.
But for seniors Liston, Haley Peters and Richa Jackson, this is it. Junior center Elizabeth Williams might feel a similar sense of urgency, considering her bond with the seniors.
But can that translate into playing well enough to challenge the team that's the heavy favorite to win in Greensboro? Notre Dame beat Duke by 21 points at the start of February, and by 11 at the end of the month.
For that matter, though, it's also a question of whether Duke can even make it to the final and get another shot at Notre Dame, should the Irish get there too.
The Blue Devils are coming off a four-point loss at North Carolina in a regular-season finale in which both teams traded runs. Duke, at its best, is really not that kind of squad. Rather, the Blue Devils on all cylinders control the pace of games and don't have to rely on playing catch-up.
But Duke isn't going to be on all cylinders -- at least not all that it expected to have. The Blue Devils will have to make the best of what they do have. Which is more than a lot of teams. Just not as much as Duke wishes it had right now.
NC State's new coach, Wes Moore, joked at media day that his team was tied for first in the ACC before the season started. Of course, that was a 15-way tie, but ...
Moore certainly didn't want to oversell the Wolfpack, a team that went 17-17 last season and lost in the second round of the WNIT. Coach Kellie Harper was let go after four seasons. Then Moore, who had once been an assistant at NC State and had also applied for the Wolfpack job when Harper got it in 2009, was hired to come to Raleigh.
Moore, who'd gone 558-169 in 24 previous seasons as a college head coach, is hardly at his first rodeo. He saw his new group of seniors working hard last summer, determined to adjust quickly to his system.
"I feel very fortunate to have stepped into a situation with a great senior class," Moore said. "One with talent, but also a willingness to buy in."
He knew he wouldn't have to overcome emotional resistance to players upset with the coaching change. The Wolfpack seniors were pragmatic. They were willing to do whatever they needed to win.
While Moore was aware of all this, he also understood that the ACC was a difficult league. The Wolfpack had gone 7-11 in the league last season, and that was before Notre Dame joined the ACC.
NC State went 13-1 in nonconference play, then started the league slate with a 67-61 victory over Syracuse. That game seemed to set a tone that the Wolfpack were going to be competitive throughout the ACC season.
And they were. NC State finished 11-5 in league play, with its losses to UNC (twice), Duke, Miami and Notre Dame.
In the loss to the Blue Devils, NC State also lost Goodwin-Coleman to her knee injury. The next day in practice, Daniel went down. Goodwin-Coleman's ability to stretch the defense with her perimeter shooting (a team-high 79 3-pointers this season) is a big loss, as is her leadership. Daniel didn't see as much court time; she played behind Gatling, who along with Burke earned all-ACC honors. But she gave the team a lift off the bench and was always ready when called.
"We've just got to keep adjusting," Moore said. "We were picked 10th in the conference, and there were a lot of doubts. But these kids have given me everything they've got; they have great attitudes.
"I hate it for [Goodwin-Coleman and Daniel] individually. The ACL is a dreadful thing in women's basketball. But unfortunately, that's the way life is. You get knocked down, you gotta get back up. And these kids have done that all year long. I'm extremely proud of being in that top four [in the league]. The players deserve a lot of accolades for that."