SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame ventures into a womens basketball season like none that has come before.
The Irish jump into a new league as they begin play in the Atlantic Coast Conference after 18 years in the Big East.
Its definitely a completely new world for us, especially the seniors, senior forward Natalie Achonwa said. It kind of adds into the whole fresh new team. We get a fresh new conference. Were clean-slating it from here, might as well start out with a bang.
Notre Dame, which tips off the season Saturday at home against UNC Wilmington and begins ACC play at home against Clemson on Jan. 5, is coming off its best regular season in school history, going 35-2 before ending with an 83-65 loss to Connecticut in the NCAA tournament semifinals.
The Irish, who reached the NCAA championship game in 2011 and 2012, appear to have the necessary weapons to compete in a new league.
Notre Dame returns four starters in Achonwa, forward Arial Braker and guards Jewel Loyd and Kayla McBride. The Irish also return seven of their top eight scorers from last year, though they did lose leading scorer Skylar Diggins to graduation.
While Notre Dame will insert freshman point guard Lindsay Allen into Diggins spot in the starting lineup, coach Muffet McGraw said she is glad to have a veteran group making the move to the ACC.
Im very happy that we still have this senior class going in whos got the experience of playing at a lot of tough places throughout the country, McGraw said. Whether its at Tennessee or some of the venues in the Big East, weve played at a lot of places. They should be familiar with going on the road.
The Irish will also be familiar with some of their new ACC opponents.
Pittsburgh and Syracuse also begin play in the ACC this season after leaving the Big East.
And the Irish have recent tournament history against the ACC, defeating Duke 87-76 in last seasons Elite Eight, and beating Maryland 80-49 in the Elite Eight in 2012.
But for the most part, Notre Dame will be facing unfamiliar teams in Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.
The ACC is a new challenge for us, McBride said. Its going to be new teams, faster teams, teams that we dont know as well as we did in the Big East. But it should be a lot of fun.
I think you have to be aggressive when you first enter a new conference. At the same time, we are going to be learning a lot. Its new teams. We played Duke last year, Maryland two years ago, but we really dont know much about these teams. We have a great coaching staff, and they are going to be well prepared.
The Irish will get a break from playing their biggest rival with the move.
Notre Dame and Connecticut are not scheduled to play this season after the two teams have met four times in each of the last three seasons.
Its disappointing, McGraw said. We certainly wanted to play them. And looking at the best rivalry in womens college basketball, Im sure ESPN is not happy that we are not playing either. We are looking to be able to get them on the schedule next year. We were certainly willing to do it this year, but they werent able to.
Even though Notre Dame will only play UConn if the teams end up matched up in the postseason, the Irish still have plenty of challenges ahead.
The ACC sent five teams to the NCAA tournament last season, and that number becomes seven when Syracuse and Notre Dame are added in from the five the Big East sent to the tournament.
I think there is a little bit of apprehension and anxiety until you really get to see them in person, McGraw said. I think it is a great time for us to go into a new conference, especially one that is going to be the best in womens basketball.