Duke's accomplishments in Joanne P. McCallie's first five seasons have been impressive. The coach is hoping her Blue Devils can take another step.
"We're still learning each other," McCallie said. "There are no limits, I think, to what we can do. Pursuing championships at every level is what we want to do. But paying the price to do that is going to be always interesting, and the months of October, November, December are really pretty critical to sort of lay the framework for that."
The Blue Devils (27-6) are the preseason favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference again over Maryland, the reigning tournament champion. Georgia Tech, Virginia, North Carolina and Miami are all hoping to stay within reach of the Blue Devils and Terrapins near the top of the league standings.
Duke has won three straight ACC regular-season championships, consecutive league tournament titles in 2010 and 2011, and has reached the NCAA tournament's regional finals for the past three years. The Blue Devils return four starters and their top six scorers from last year's team, which lost to Stanford to fall a win shy of returning to the Final Four for the first time since losing to Maryland in the NCAA title game in 2006.
Duke is led by a pair of preseason all-ACC picks in junior guard Chelsea Gray and sophomore forward Elizabeth Williams.
"We don't really think about those rankings," junior Haley Peters said. "It's nice, but we want to be there at the end of the year. ... I don't think we're a team that's going to get caught up in that. I think that's something that we've grown in a lot."
Maryland (31-5) returns Alyssa Thomas, who as a sophomore became the first underclassman to win both the league player of the year and tournament MVP honors. Thomas, an Associated Press first-team all-American and the preseason pick to repeat as the league's top player, is joined by preseason all-conference picks Laurin Mincy and Tianna Hawkins as returnees from a team that lost to Notre Dame in an NCAA regional final.
"As talented as Alyssa Thomas is, she knows she needs her teammates," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "It's been fun to watch her continue to grow. She knows this year her job's a lot easier. She can penetrate and kick to a Katie Rutan who can hit a wide-open 3-point shot. She can feed it inside to Tianna Hawkins. ... That has evolved in her growth, and I think you saw that last year."
The Terrapins' most pressing concern is finding a point guard after losing Brene Moseley to a season-ending knee injury during a preseason scrimmage.
Georgia Tech (26-9) was picked to finish third in the league and returns preseason all-ACC pick Tyaunna Marshall from a team that reached the ACC tournament final for the second time in program history along with the NCAA round of 16. The third-place predicted finish is the highest for the Yellow Jackets in the league's preseason poll.
Virginia (25-11) and North Carolina (20-11) are picked to finish fourth and fifth, with the Cavaliers playing in the WNIT last year and the Tar Heels failing to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001.
Miami (26-6) finished second to Duke in the ACC regular-season standings last season and was picked to finish sixth in the league, followed by Florida State, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Boston College.
The league also welcomes two new head coaches. Erik Johnson replaces Sylvia Crawley at Boston College after four years at Denver, while Jen Hoover replaces Mike Petersen at Wake Forest after a year at High Point.