Notre Dame Women’s Basketball Repeats History Of Past Men’s Teams
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A Repeat Of Notre Dame Basketball History, Men & Women

For eight straight years at Notre Dame from 2012-19, the scene was relatively unchanged on Selection Monday for Fighting Irish women’s basketball.

There would be a gathering at Club Naimoli in the upstairs of Purcell Pavilion overlooking the basketball arena, with a spread out banquet feast, season-ticket holders in attendance and the announcement from ESPN on when the No. 1-seeded Fighting Irish would play.

Former Notre Dame men's basketball coach Digger Phelps
In 1971-72 and 1981-82, DIgger Phelps went through similar rebuilds as Muffet McGraw this past year. (Fighting Irish Media)

In all eight years, Notre Dame earned a No. 1 seed — the longest streak in the nation.

With or without the cancellation of this year’s NCAA Tournament because of the COVID-19 threat, one could surmise in November that the No. 1-seed streak would end.

In December, the hope still remained to receive an NCAA Tournament bid for the 25th straight year.

By mid-January, though, even a winning record was no longer in sight.

Although the Fighting Irish gathered themselves just enough to finish the regular season on a 6-3 run, a head-scratching loss to Pitt — 1-17 in the league — in the ACC Tournament put the final exclamation point on a nightmare campaign that saw Notre Dame finish with a 13-18 overall record.

How could such an enormous fall occur from one year — when reigning national champion Notre Dame lost by one point in the 2019 national title game — to the next?

It was confluence of perfect-storm factors that have been rehashed many times, including in yesterday’s story.

No program, no matter how prominent, can withstand so many enormous setbacks. This has happened to the best of them.

• Three-time national champion Roy Williams’ North Carolina Tar Heels this year finished 14-19, culminated with an 81-53 blowout to Syracuse in the ACC Tournament prior to its cancellation.

• The NBA’s Golden State Warriors — a finalist each of the past five years and the champion in three — owned the league’s worst record (15-50) when league play was suspended earlier this month.

• In 1991 and 1992 Duke captured national titles under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, and was runner-up in 1994 — and then suddenly plummeted to 13-18 (the same record as the Irish women this year) in 1994-95, finishing last in the ACC with a 2-14 ledger.

In the women’s game, Louisville in 2009 finished as the national runner-up with a 34-5 record — but a year later was 14-18 (5-11 in the ACC).

However, this season reminded us so much of two Notre Dame men’s basketball campaigns the past 50 years under Richard “Digger” Phelps, another demonstration of how history can so often repeat itself even if we might not recognize it at the time.

1971-72: 6-20 Record

Glory Days: From 1968-71, the Notre Dame program under head coach John Dee had risen to top-10 prominence.

After upsetting No. 1 and four-time reigning national champ UCLA (89-82) in January 1971, it was even projected as a bona fide national title contender with the presence of No. 1 NBA pick Austin Carr, plus No. 17 selection Collis Jones and No. 55 choice Sid Catlett.

Alas, the Irish were upset in overtime in the Sweet 16 by Drake, and less than two months later Fordham’s 29-year-old Phelps was selected to replace Dee, who had fallen out of favor with the administration. In addition, Phelps' 26-3 Fordham squad had upset the Irish 94-88 that season.

How Did It Fall Apart in 1971-72?: In addition to Carr, Jones and Catlett, the other two starters — point guard Jackie Meehan and center John Pleick — also graduated.

Just like the Irish women last year, seldom does one see all five starters leave in one fell swoop. And then add in the following factors:

• A motorcycle accident over the summer ended the basketball career of returning captain Doug Gemmell.

• A blood clot that nearly ended his life forced star sophomore center John Shumate (freshmen were ineligible per NCAA rules until the 1972-73 school year) to take a medical redshirt season.

• In his final recruiting cycle in 1971, Dee did sign a pair of dynamic guards in Gary Brokaw and Dwight Clay — but again, the NCAA did not permit freshmen to compete on the varsity level until the following year, so they too could not suit up.

Thus resulted the sudden 6-20 meltdown, including back-to-back defeats of 94-29 and 114-56 to Indiana and UCLA, respectively.

How Did They Recover?: Once Shumate was healthy again in 1972 and Brokaw and Clay were eligible to compete as sophomores, Notre Dame made a strong rebound in year two under Phelps with an 18-12 record against a brutal schedule.

In an era where only 25 NCAA Tournament teams were taken, the Irish were the runners-up in the 16-team NIT field in 1973 with upset wins over USC, Louisville and North Carolina before losing on a last-second bucket by Virginia Tech.

A year later with a lineup that included first-round selections Shumate, Brokaw and freshman phenom Adrian Dantley, Notre Dame finished the regular season 24-2 and ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak before getting upset in the round of 16 by Michigan.

1981-82: 10-17 Record

Glory Days: From 1974-81 under Phelps, recruiting was at an all-time peak while Notre Dame became a top-five to top-10 program, highlighted by reaching the Final Four in 1978.

How Did It Fall Apart In 1981-82?: Just like 10 years earlier, an enormous wealth of talent departed at once.

• Seniors Orlando Woolridge, Kelly Tripucka and Tracy Jackson were the Nos. 6, 12 and 25 picks in the 1981 NBA Draft.

• Freshman center Joe Kleine, transferred to Arkansas, where he would develop into the No. 6 overall NBA pick his senior year.

• Sophomore forward Tom Sluby, a former McDonald’s All-American recruit, was declared academically ineligible after December.

• Only one senior was on the team (guard Mike Mitchell).

Although the team still had a future first-round point guard in John Paxson, plus three other former McDonald’s All-Americans, it never quite meshed and the departures became impossible to replace.

The Irish began 2-9, including back-to-back home losses to Murray State and Northern Illinois. A program that averaged 23 wins and 6.5 losses the previous eight years suddenly was 10-17.

How Did They Recover?: It took three years before Notre Dame returned to the NCAA Tournament, and even then the program was never quite the same under Phelps.

The Irish signed a five-man freshman class after that 1981-82 debacle, including future first-round pick Ken Barlow and fellow big man Tim Kempton.

Epilogue

Just like in that 1981-82 season for the men, McGraw signed a five-woman class for the coming season, highlighted by McDonald’s All-American and Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year Maddy Westbeld, a forward.

It also would seem logical that Virginia Tech junior guard Dara Mabrey — sister of Irish assistant and former player Michaela Mabrey and 2015-19 record-setting Irish three-point shooter Marina Mabrey — might have some interest after having placed her name in the transfer portal.

The influx of talent combined with the return of a young nucleus that included three players on the ACC All-Freshman team (forward Sam Brunelle and guards Katlyn Gilbert and Anaya Peoples) should put Notre Dame back on the winning track next season.

There is less parity in the women’s game than with the men, which makes a stronger comeback in 2020-21 more likely.

However, it would be naïve to believe that McGraw and Co., will instantly be at the same level they were from 2011-19 when they made seven Final Four appearances.

Ranking among the top four in the ACC and returning to the NCAA Tournament, with a potential run at the Sweet 16 would be more realistic for now.

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