Fresh off her selection last weekend into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw was asked if there was anything else left on her basketball “bucket list.”
“There’s a lot left to do, let’s not even go there,” McGraw said with a groan on Tuesday morning. “Every year I feel like it’s a disappointment, the last two years especially.”
After five straight Final Four appearances from 2011-15 — tied for the second most in NCAA Tournament history — it speaks of how high the bar has been set when back-to-back ACC regular season and ACC Tournament titles (and five straight league championship overall) plus a 66-6 record leave her with an unfulfilled void.
In each of the last two seasons, the Fighting Irish were eliminated by Stanford in the Lexington (Ky.) Regional — 90-84 in the Sweet 16 last year for a final 33-2 mark, and 76-75 last month in the Elite Eight when a last-second drive to the basket by sophomore Arike Ogunbowale was snuffed, leaving the Irish 33-4. The anguish was exacerbated because junior All-American forward Brianna Turner was lost for the season during the second-round victory versus Purdue with an ACL tear in her left knee.
“Just losing so early and coming so close without Bri, it makes it harder,” said McGraw, who won her lone national title in 2001. “I’d rather lose by 15 or 20 than lose by one.”
With a healthy Turner, Notre Dame is plenty capable of another national title run because of three other starters returning and Stanford graduate transfer Lili (pronounced Lee Lee) Thompson — a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who helped end the Irish campaign in 2016 — designated to replace the graduating Lindsay Allen.
Turner’s surgery is scheduled for April 12, but there will be no timetable set for her return until further evaluation is made before the start of practice in October. Rehabilitation for an ACL tear often can take six to nine months, if not longer — and that is not including getting into basketball shape, clearing mental hurdles and other conditioning aspects.
“I want her to be 100 percent,” McGraw said. “I don’t want her to just be cleared to play, because she is too good a player to just go half a year. We’ll wait and see in the fall what that looks like.”
Turner taking a medical redshirt in 2017-18 and returning for a fifth season of eligibility in 2018-19 is not out of the question, but it is not something either McGraw or Turner is exploring as of now.
“That’s a huge decision she will have to take some time thinking about,” McGraw said. “She could miss the year. I told her we weren’t going to [talk about it]. Just focus on one thing at a time: Let’s have surgery, see how it goes, see how the rehab is going, and then in the fall we can take our time to decide.”
Named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year each of the past two seasons, Turner led the team in scoring (15.3 points per game) and rebounding (7.1) prior to her injury, plus she blocked more shots (86) than the rest of the team combined (73).
Four of the top players in the rotation were sophomores or freshmen. Wings Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey averaged 15.9 and 14.6 points per game, respectively, as sophomores while freshmen Jackie Young and Erin Boley — former national players of the year in high school — both came on much stronger in the final weeks of the season as scorers and rebounders.
“Getting one more round was really big for them, to get to the Elite Eight, to know what it is like to play in that game to get to the Final Four,” McGraw said of the younger nucleus. “So they have that experience. Lili Thompson has been in the Final Four, so she gives us that experience.”
Surgery Also For Westbeld
In addition to Turner, junior forward Kathryn Westbeld will undergo surgery in the near future for an ankle that has given her problems since mid-January and left her at what was estimated to be about 60-percent effectiveness.
Westbeld still averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, and her high-post passing (76 assists) was vital to the offense’s flow late in the year. Her rehab is projected to be about four months.
“[The medical team] did an MRI last Monday and determined there was enough damage to have surgery,” McGraw said. “You kind of look back and say, ‘Dang, she was playing’ … It didn’t make it any worse. That was the reason that she played.
“She did play through some pain. Such a mentally tough kid, just wanted to be out there with the team.”
In March 2016, Thompson scored 11 points (shooting 3 of 7 from three-point range), dished out nine assists and had no turnovers in Stanford’s NCAA Tournament upset of the Irish.
The 5-7 Thompson started 96 games from 2014-16 and made All-Pac-12 her last two seasons, averaging 14.7 points per game her final year with the Cardinal while dishing out 295 career assists. Thompson left the basketball program during the summer, but remained in school. She has been officially admitted into Notre Dame.
According to McGraw, Thompson is not quite a pass-first point guard like four-year starter Lindsay Allen was (although Allen averaged 9.6 points per game last year, too).
“She’s very different from Lindsay,” McGraw said. “She’s a scoring point guard, she can play the two, she’s a really good three-point shooter, she can run the team. She’s got good leadership skills.”
Will Defense Improve?
With or without Turner, Notre Dame has enough firepower to continue to score in bunches. But if it wants to return to the Final Four, the defense needs a collective upgrade, especially if the shot-blocking Turner can’t be a security blanket.
All four of this year’s Final Four teams ranked in the top 35 nationally in scoring defense, while Notre Dame was 118th. National champion South Carolina was 19th in field goal percentage defense, while Stanford was ninth and UConn 10th. Notre Dame was 147th.
This is a topic McGraw has spent time reflecting on the past week.
“I wonder sometimes if having the guys at practice gives us less chance to be on defense,” she said of using top male players from campus to compete against in the daily practices. “We work on our offense, they guard us. So if we were working on our offense against ourselves, maybe that would help.”
Bottom line is one achieves what is emphasized.
“I just think we need to focus on it more and it is a mindset that when you’re a scorer, you don’t really have the mindset to defend,” McGraw said of the many prominent scorers on the roster.
Every four years the NCAA permits a college basketball team to travel in the summer to play exhibition games. When Notre Dame traveled to Europe in the summer of 2013, McGraw and her staff discovered true freshman Allen will be their point guard to replace the graduated Skylar Diggins.
This year, from July 31-Aug. 9, the Irish will be on an exhibition tour through Rome and Croatia. This permits the coaching staff to get 10 extra days of practice in the summer, which should be beneficial to Thompson and particularly the two incoming freshman forwards in 6-3 Mikayla Vaughn and 6-2 Danielle Patterson, who will be needed with Turner and Westbeld in rehab.
“I thought we were going to need them anyway, especially defense, which is a weakness of ours,” McGraw said of the freshmen. “The ability to guard on the perimeter will be key for both.
“I really feel good about where we are right now. We have kind of 10 or 11 interchangeable parts, and that is a really good place to be.”
The Irish plan to sign five players in the 2018 class, and this week they learned that New York’s 6-3 Danielle Cosgrove is the fourth. Cosgrove is ranked the nation’s No. 48 prospect by ESPN HoopGurlz and No. 93 by Prospects Nation.
Pledges had already been received from 5-9 Jenna Brown of Atlanta, 5-10 Abby Prohaska of West Chester, Ohio, and Katlyn Gilbert of Indianapolis. Point guard Brown has been ranked among the top 10 players nationally, while Gilbert has been among the top 25.
McGraw said she wants to sign one more post player, and probably another guard as well, in 2018.