GREENBORO, N.C. — GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Atlantic Coast Conference women's basketball coaches grumbled rather publicly last season that they and their programs weren't getting much national respect.
The proof of their consternation was that Virginia and North Carolina were the only ACC teams to be ranked consistently through the season, and only three league teams received bids to the first 64-team NCAA tournament.
Then North Carolina's Charlotte Smith sank a three-pointer at the buzzer to win the league's first national championship -- a 60-59 victory over Louisiana Tech -- and respect came out of the woodwork.
"We're probably the top conference in the country. I don't think you see people filling their schedule with ACC teams," Maryland coach Chris Weller said. That may be true, but if the statements coming out of yesterday's Operation Basketball preseason media briefing are to be believed, the nine ACC schools will do this year what they did last year: beat up on each other.
"I know I said this last year, but it's really true this year: We're all clumped together and all of us had such great recruiting years that the conference race this year is going to be dead even," Georgia Tech coach Agnus Berenato said.
The Cavaliers and Tar Heels were the overwhelming favorites to take the first two slots in the league race in a media poll.
Virginia (27-5, 15-1), which won the regular-season title last year and advanced to the Mideast Regional semifinals, returns all of last year's starters, including preseason ACC Player of the Year pick junior center Wendy Palmer, while losing no regulars and adding talented freshmen.
North Carolina (33-2, 14-2) lost two starters but returns Smith, a 6-foot-1 senior forward who is favored for national Player of the Year honors, sophomore guard Marion Jones and swing player Tracy Reid, who won preseason Rookie of the Year honors yesterday.
The next six spots in the league appear up for grabs. For instance, while there is a 111-point gulf between second-place North Carolina and third-place Clemson in the poll, the third through eighth spots are separated by 87 points.
Maryland drew the fifth spot, behind fourth-place Duke, mostly because the Terps (15-13, 8-8) must replace their three leading scorers and rebounders from last season, and blend six newcomers, including five freshmen.
"We'll be very, very inconsistent for quite some time," said Weller. "The future could be next week or next year. It's a big mystery."
ACC WOMEN'S POLL
The Atlantic Coast Conference women's basketball preseason poll, as voted by media covering the league:
No. Team .. .. .. .. .. .. Points
1. Virginia (27) ... .. .. 355
2. North Carolina (14) ... 342
3. Clemson ... .. .. .. .. 231
4. Duke ... .. .. .. .. .. 24
5. Maryland .. .. .. .. .. 194
6. N.C. State ... .. .. .. 157
7. Georgia Tech . .. .. .. 155
8. Wake Forest .. .. .. .. 144
9. Florida State ... .. ... 43
Player of the Year: Wendy Palmer, Virginia.
Rookie of the Year: Tracy Reid, North Carolina.