Five Questions On Notre Dame Women’s Basketball
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the Notre Dame women’s basketball program recognized that with the loss of five record-breaking starters and a pair of transfers, the 2019-20 campaign would involve a reconstruction phase.
That attrition was further exacerbated with three more health setbacks before and during the season:
• A knee injury that sidelined junior center Mikayla Vaughn for nearly two months.
• A preseason pulmonary embolism diagnosis that shelved sophomore guard Abby Prohaska, although she began to practice late in the year.
• Shoulder surgery in mid-January on freshman guard Anaya Peoples, who still made the All-ACC Freshman Team with her all-around play.
The result was a 13-18 record, capped by a 67-65 loss to a woeful Pitt team that was 4-25 overall and 1-17 in the league March 4 in the ACC Tournament.
It was an astounding fall from superpower status during the 2010-19 decade that featured seven trips to the Final Four, an NCAA title in 2018 and a near miss in 2019.
Since joining the ACC in 2013, the Irish had posted a 108-6 record (.947 winning percentage) in the league, including 17-1 in the postseason tournament that it had won five out of six times prior to this year.
Improvements began to show while the Irish were 6-3 from Feb. 2 to March 1, highlighted by a 70-67 upset at No. 19 Florida State March 1. They were finally playing freely without getting caught up in what once was and living up to those standards.
Then collapse against Pitt was the final exclamation point of head coach Muffet McGraw’s second losing season (14-17 in 1991-92) in 33 years.
What will the 2020-21 lineup look like?
Still young, but much more seasoned and with more options to turn to on the bench with the return of Peoples, Prohaska and an incoming freshman class of five players, four of them rated among the top 50.
Look for the starting lineup to feature senior center Vaughn (who has a fifth year of eligibility in 2021-22), this year’s trio of All-ACC Freshmen Sam Brunelle, Katlyn Gilbert (medically redshirted a year earlier in 2018-19) and Peoples, plus Destinee Walker, who was approved a sixth year of eligibility after missing two seasons at North Carolina with injuries.
Walker’s 14.5 points per game paced the team, although her shooting (37.2 percent from the field) often was feast or famine.
Brunelle averaged 13.9 points and 5.8 rebounds, Gilbert 13.6 points — and the 5-11 Peoples in just 17 games paced the team in rebounding with an 8.1 average to go with 12.6 points per game.
Vaughn contributed 10.6 points and 7.0 rebounds in the 20 games she did play in while basically “playing on one leg,” per McGraw.
Who will be the new point guard to replace Marta Sniezek?
The Irish pursued the nation’s two top point guards in Paige Bueckers (No. 1 player overall per ESPN HoopGurlz) and Caitlin Clark (No. 4), a duo who signed with Connecticut and Iowa, respectively.
Notre Dame did land 5-7 Alasia Hayes, ranked No. 44 overall by ESPN HoopGurlz — but 130 by Prospects Nation.
McGraw has had freshmen take over or share point guard duties in the past with Skylar Diggins in 2009-10 and Lindsay Allen in 2013-14, but those were McDonald’s All-Americans who also had proven veteran talent around them to significantly lighten the burden.
“She is definitely going to add something in terms of her ability to defend,” McGraw said of Hayes. “She’s fast, she’s going to be able to get the ball up the floor, help the pace of our team, but as a freshman it will be difficult to come in a starter.”
Thus, Gilbert will be turned to first, and she had experience there in high school.
“She’s our most versatile player and we will need her in a lot of different spots … she has the basketball IQ to do it,” McGraw said.
Peoples also was classified as a point guard recruit by some scouts, but her strong rebounding and low-post skills is what McGraw wants to showcase.
“It’s just a lot for her to figure out,” McGraw said of Peoples playing the point. “And really, I love her posting up on the block. We can still do some things for her inside, but I don’t want her to have the added pressure of her bringing up the ball.
“She can definitely handle the ball and eventually we’d like to get to the point where we were with Arike [Ogunbowale], Jackie [Young] and Marina [Mabrey] — where whoever gets it goes. They’ll all bringing the ball up. We don’t need to rely on just one person.”
Which freshmen can provide the most impact next year?
While Hayes could help, it is 6-3 Madeline Westbeld who boasts an all-around skill set that made her the lone McDonald’s All-American (and No. 23 player on ESPN HoopGurlz) among the quintet signed.
Notre Dame became a superpower from 2010-19 by consistently signing top-five players — Diggins, Jewell Loyd, Brianna Turner, Arike Ogunbowale, Jackie Young, Jessica Shepard (not even including Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa, the Mabreys and older sister Kathryn Westbeld).
Brunelle is the lone player on the current roster who falls into that top-five category.
Guard and three-point specialist Alli Campbell (No. 25 on ESPN) also could find a niche, but she might experience even more growing pains than Brunelle, maybe the best pure shooter in the nation’s 2019 recruiting haul who didn’t begin to find her rhythm until late in the year.
“It takes some time for a freshman to adjust to the speed of the game,” McGraw said. “Coming from a team where she didn’t get challenged a lot defensively to playing this pace, it took her a while to figure things out, how to use the screens a little better, not rushing her shot.”
Meanwhile, 6-5 Nat Marshall suffered an ACL tear as a senior and probably won’t be cleared until September or October to even practice, per McGraw. It would be premature at this point to declare whether she would take a medical redshirt.
Is the squad looking to add a transfer or graduate transfer?
McGraw stated earlier this year that with college sports becoming more free-agency oriented and transfers becoming much more common, she is inclined to take the full 15 on scholarship allowed by the NCAA.
She reevaluated her stance on that later, stating that 12 or 13 might be the best compromise. With the five incoming freshmen and no departures from the current seven returning scholarship players, that would put the number at 12.
An intriguing figure could be 5-7 Dara Mabrey, younger sister of Marina (2015-19) and current Irish assistant Michaela (2012-16). After converting 155 threes and averaging double-digit scoring her first two seasons at Virginia Tech, she put her name into the transfer portal earlier this week.
Purportedly she wants more of a point guard role — but who would she replace in next year’s lineup, and would she even be given a waiver to be eligible right away?
More alluring would be Maryland’s 6-5 Shakira Austin, who also is in the transfer portal after a sophomore season in which she averaged 12.0 points and 6.8 rebounds while earning second-team all-conference notice for the Big Ten champs.
She was the nation’s No. 4 prospect in 2018 and had Notre Dame among her four finalists with the Terps, Connecticut and UCLA.
What are realistic expectations next year?
Begin with a winning season, placing among the top four in the ACC and returning to NCAA Tournament action with what should be a more seasoned, deeper and hungrier outfit.
For now, it’s about patching the wounds and recovering from the aftershocks.
If the squad is blessed with good health, then advancing to the Sweet 16 is conceivable as well.
But in the last three years, a lot of other programs have risen to the top echelon with UConn — South Carolina, Oregon, Baylor, Louisville, Stanford, among them — and Notre Dame’s recruiting has not matched the game-changing star power it had from 2010-19 (see above).
If the recruiting can pick where a top-10 player is landed annually at different spots, then in two or three years the Irish can return to Final Four contention.
But anticipating another run of seven Final Fours in nine years would be unrealistic. That 2011-19 era will be viewed 40-50 years from now the way the halcyon years of 1940s Notre Dame football (or even 1964-80 or 1988-93) are now.