Oct. 26, 2010

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - Duke always seems to wear a target when it takes the basketball court, no matter the gender. That won't change this year.

The Blue Devils once again can expect everyone's best shot this season now that they're the preseason favorite to win another Atlantic Coast Conference women's title and have the league's preseason player of the year, guard Jasmine Thomas.

"That's where we want to be, always," coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "Duke basketball, across the board, is pretty interesting, so that's where we want to be. But at the same time, the flip side of it, it's a beauty contest ... and what's more important is what we create for ourselves."

Seven months after the Blue Devils claimed their sixth ACC tournament title, they were proclaimed as the overwhelming favorites to win another one.

Duke received 24 of a possible 32 first-place votes in the conference's preseason poll released Tuesday. The Blue Devils were followed by rival North Carolina, which was voted first on six ballots, and Florida State, which received two first-place votes from the panel of media members and school representatives. Duke and the Seminoles shared the regular-season title last season.

"If we're ranked No. 1 (in the league), that puts a target on you, but it's ultimately what we expect of ourselves," said Thomas, who averaged 16 points and had 100 steals in leading Duke to a 30-6 finish and a spot in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament.

"And we expect to be No. 1, even when we're not ranked No. 1. Because rankings ... that's what other people think of us. What we think of ourselves is what drives us and what motivates us."

Maryland was fourth, followed by Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, Boston College, Miami, Wake Forest, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Clemson.

"This year, the biggest thing is there's so much balance," North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "I was thinking, 'OK, how are teams going to be picked here?' because I don't think there's any one team that really stands out from the rest. ... The big thing is going to be, how do young players blend and who can stay healthy?"

At the league's preseason media day at the Greensboro Coliseum, the hot topics included how Kellie Harper can follow up her successful debut season at N.C. State, how traditional power Maryland will come back after missing the NCAA tournament - and, of course, North Carolina forward Jessica Breland's successful fight against cancer.

Breland is back on the court and healthy enough to make the preseason all-conference team along with Thomas, Florida State's Courtney Ward, Miami's Shenise Johnson and Boston College's Carolyn Swords.

That, after Breland missed last season to fight Hodgkin's lymphoma. Without her, the Tar Heels finished under .500 in league play for the first time since 2001 and went one-and-done in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments.

"More than anything else, just not having cancer hanging over our team, like it was last year," Hatchell said. "That was hard, emotionally, for our players. It was every day. You just try to do uplifting things for her and for the players, but that was always there. But that's over with."

The Terrapins hope one of the nation's youngest rosters will be able to help them bounce back after they missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003.

Maryland has five freshmen on its senior-free roster, but coach Brenda Frese said this team reminds her of the group that won the 2006 national championship. That year, two of the program's biggest names - Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman - were freshmen.

"You can't rush a process," Frese said. "You can't say how quickly it's going to come together, but I love the intangibles. ... I just have never been one to (say), 'We're going to set these kinds of expectations.' You have to grow into them."

With the Tar Heels enduring a decidedly un-Carolina-like season, and Maryland also struggling, the power void atop the conference was filled by Florida State and N.C. State.

The Seminoles set a school record with 29 victories, made it to the NCAA's regional finals for the first time and claimed a share of the regular-season title for the second straight year.

N.C. State, meanwhile, got hot at the league tournament, advancing to the title game as the No. 6 seed and reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since its inspirational run under late coach Kay Yow in 2007.

"Just the whole tournament experience for us was huge," Harper said. "They know what they can do now, and they want more. As a coach, you couldn't have a better mindset from your players. They got a taste. They want it again."

The ACC's newest coach also was waiting for her newest arrival.

First-year Clemson coach Itoro Coleman was due to give birth to her third child at any time. She said she's been having contractions - but they weren't yet close enough to cause concern - so she insisted on riding along during the 3-hour drive from South Carolina to central North Carolina.

"I've been labeled crazy. I could either come here and go through all this, or I would be back at home setting up for practice," Coleman said with a smile. "If anything happens, there's hospitals along the way."