Whole new ballgame awaits Notre Dame, DePaul

Prepare your cheat sheets. College basketball season is about to start and you might need some assistance to keep up with all the changes since last year.

Some of the biggest shifts in the landscape involve teams close to home, such as Notre Dame and DePaul.

Notre Dame, which is not in the East, sure acts like it. The Irish left the Big East after many years only to move into an even more East Coast-centric conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But as illogical as the geography is, this change should suit the Fighting Irish well. The ACC is one of the best women’s basketball conferences in the country. But with the way head coach Muffet McGraw can recruit, Notre Dame, which has been to the last three Final Fours, has the potential to win a string of league championships right away.

And now, the Fighting Irish won’t have to fend off the heavyweight of all heavyweights (former Big East foe and defending NCAA champion Connecticut) to be the top dog in their conference.

Of course, Duke will be a formidable challenge for Notre Dame, which lost popular point guard Skylar Diggins but returns preseason all-ACC selections Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa and Jewell Loyd, the former Niles West star. But, let’s face it, Duke is no Connecticut, which is now stuck in the American Athletic Conference, far, far away from the ACC.

Of course, McGraw is not allowing herself to take much comfort in Connecticut’s new affiliation. She’s concerned about the depth of the ACC.

“There are seven ACC teams that reached the NCAA Tournament last year, and we could easily top that number this year with the development that every team in the league has shown,” said McGraw, whose Irish finished second to Duke in a preseason ranking of the ACC by a media panel. “There’s a reason why the ACC is the best conference in the country and it’s because the competition and quality of play you’re going to see every single night is going to be just outstanding.”

Of course, people used to pile the same kind of praise on the old Big East, which DePaul, also not in the East, used to be a part of.

But now, the Blue Demons are in the new Big East, which is basically the same Big East minus some of the biggest big dogs. Gone are not only Notre Dame and Connecticut but also Rutgers and Louisville, which lost to Connecticut in last year’s national title game.

(Told you a cheat sheet might be necessary.)

Anyway, all of this change also bodes extremely well for DePaul. Recently, the Blue Demons were named the favorites of the new Big East for the upcoming season.

“It’s just fun, it’s a great experience,” DePaul junior guard Brittany Hrynko said of the prospect of being the preseason No. 1 team in the new conference. “It’s going to be real exciting and fun for the fans to watch.”

Hrynko was named the preseason player of the year in the new Big East, which, by the way, is officially just the “Big East.” But in my mind, it’s still “new,” so that’s what I’m going with for now.

Hrynko’s teammate, forward Jasmine Penny, was also named to the all-Big East preseason team and is excited to get a legitimate shot at a league championship.

As good as the Blue Demons have been over the years under longtime head coach Doug Bruno, it’s never been easy for them to overtake Notre Dame, Connecticut, Louisville or Rutgers — all teams that have been to the Final Four in the last 5-6 years.

“I’m very excited and the fact that we got picked No. 1 lets us know that we have a lot of hard work to do,” Penny said. “We look forward to (live) up to that.

“Teams 1 through 10 in the Big East are tough and we’ll have to bring our ‘A’ game every night.”

Coming up: Check back next week for a more detailed preview of DePaul as well as some nuggets from Thursday’s Big Ten media day.

Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

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