Irish addition makes ACC even better
But Notre Dame's departure is a big blow to the Big East
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.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR WOMEN'S SPORTS?
How will Notre Dame's move to the ACC impact other women's sports?
Soccer: Imagine if the SEC added USC or Oklahoma in football and you get some sense of what the addition of Notre Dame brings to the ACC in women's soccer. The best soccer conference, with apologies to the Pac-12, just added the only school other than North Carolina to win at least three national championships in the sport. The rich get richer. The ability to pitch recruits on ACC competition, in addition to its own history and academics, should ensure Notre Dame remains a flagship program despite the ups and downs it has encountered since winning the 2010 national championship.
The news is bleaker for the Big East, which lost one of its best programs in West Virginia after last season and now loses its lone link to national championships. Without Notre Dame, the Big East is reliant on well-coached programs like Marquette and Rutgers that don't necessarily have the recruiting reach or resources to compete for titles. If the SEC ever gets serious about soccer the way it did about softball, the Big East just became easier to pick off. -- Graham Hays
Volleyball: The Irish have been a pretty consistent competitor in the Big East. However, that league has never advanced a team to the women's volleyball final four. The ACC has done that just once: last year when Florida State made it. Neither is a "power" league in volleyball, but the ACC should be a bit of an upgrade from the Big East for Notre Dame in terms of competition within the league. -- Mechelle Voepel
Softball: There is little difference between the top tier of the Big East and that of the ACC, each with a handful of programs that can think seriously about reaching the Women's College World Series, although the recent track record of the Big East is better thanks to the likes of DePaul and South Florida. But the bottom of the Big East is a morass of cold-weather schools with little invested in the sport and facilities that would barely pass muster at some high schools.
The addition of Notre Dame doesn't dramatically change the profile of the ACC, still Secretariat-in-the-Belmont distances behind the leading Pac-12 and SEC, as well as a Big 12 down to seven softball members. But far more than Syracuse or Pitt, which arrive with as much chance to be liabilities as assets, Notre Dame gives the ACC another solid, super-regional quality program, one with a newer facility, to continue the conference's gradual improvement. -- Graham Hays
Lacrosse: The Irish finished the 2012 season ranked in the top 10, and they've been to the NCAA tournament seven times in the past decade. But behind Maryland (10) and Virginia (three), the ACC has a combined 13 NCAA titles in women's lacrosse. Should be a league upgrade for Notre Dame.
-- Mechelle Voepel
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.