Notre Dame Women's B-Ball Moving Forward In New Phase
There are only two freshmen on Notre Dame’s 2019-20 roster, but you could have fooled head coach Muffet McGraw based on what she gleaned from this year’s summer sessions.
That’s what happens when you lose all five starters to the WNBA Draft, plus two other potential starters in junior Danielle Patterson (Indiana) and Jordan Nixon (Texas A&M), to transfer.
“It seemed like they were all freshmen,” said McGraw of her 10-woman roster, including walk-ons. “It was kind of a feeling among everyone, ‘I’ve really got a shot to play — and in fact I have a shot at starting.’ ”
There were at least two takeaways this summer from McGraw. One was the chemistry was better than she anticipated, in part because of the internal knowledge that the massive makeover will require buying in together as a team.
“For as diverse as they are, they just meshed really well,” McGraw noted. “We had a lot of fun together.”
Second is the Notre Dame audience at home games (sixth in the NCAA last year at 8,434 per game) better not bring their appetite for more free Big Macs at the local McDonald’s whenever the team reaches 88 points. The Fighting Irish scoring average last year ranked No. 1 nationally at 88.6 per game — with Mississippi State second at 86.2, and only two other Power 5 Conference teams finished in the 80s.
It might more routinely be “60s Night” at the games.
“We’re nowhere near the offensive capabilities that we had in the past, so I’m hoping we can play really good defense because we’re not going to score that many points,” McGraw said. “It’s going to be a complete reversal.”
Whereas the 2018 national champs and 2019 national runners-up knew they could outscore 99.5 percent of the competition without emphasizing defense, this group recognizes it will have to lean more heavily on it.
“I did talk about [defense] a lot,” said McGraw of the 2018 and 2019 juggernauts, “It just wasn’t a buy-in from the team. This summer we already had at least three or four people who took charges. Last year it was going to be Abby [Prohaska], and the year before it was going to be Kathryn Westbeld and Koko [Nelson]. I feel like in that way there is more team defense.”
Starting Five Projection
The two main certainties in the starting five are Stanford graduate transfer Marta Sniezek at point guard and junior Mikayla Vaughn in the post.
A 50-game starter for the powerful Cardinal, Sniezek was sidelined last season because of ulnar collateral ligament surgery, plus torn ligaments in her right thumb.
“Marta is just sort of a natural leader, always has played the point so she’s always been in charge,” McGraw said. “What makes her a really good leader is she’s a collaborator. She did not come in and immediately try to take over. She allowed everybody to have her own voice.”
The 6-3 Vaughn — the top returning scorer (3.3 points per game) and rebounder (2.4) from last year — thrived off the bench as a freshman early in 2017 during hard-fought road wins versus Oregon State and Western Kentucky before tearing her ACL. On occasion she has battled some tendinitis but remains highly active.
“Last year I don’t think she ever really got back to where she was,” McGraw said. “When she was back this summer, she was ahead of where she was as a freshman. I thought she was the most improved player coming back. She’s always been smart and worked hard, but now she was scoring a lot more off the pick and roll, which is a big part of our offense.
“We’re definitely leaner in post than we want to be. Four guards probably will have to be the answer all year.”
Maybe the biggest X-factor could be 5-10 sophomore guard Katlyn Gilbert, who took a medical redshirt last season following shoulder surgery. Yet in the Vancouver Showcase she provided a glimpse of her abilities against a 29-5 Gonzaga team during an 81-65 Irish victory when she scored 14 points (5-of-8 shooting from the field) and grabbed five rebounds in 33 minutes.
“I’m expecting big things from her,” said McGraw of the former McDonald’s All-American. “Just watching us play this summer, she could be somebody we want to give the ball to at the end of the game and is really capable of scoring a lot of different ways. She’s going to be hard to guard. I think she might be our best player coming back even after missing all that time.”
Speaking of McDonald’s All-Americans, 6-2 forward Sam Brunelle and 5-10 wing Anaya Peoples both will be called upon for instant impact as freshmen. Brunelle was a top-5 recruit and is the archetype of a stretch four with her three-point shooting.
“She can also play inside, but she shoots it so well I don’t want to put her on the block too much,” said McGraw of the potential future face of the program from a player perspective.
Peoples is a wing but also the next option behind Sniezek at point. She also has a knack for rebounding, including eight in the McDonald’s All-Star Game in which she tied for team-high scoring honors with 11 points.
“And a good defender too,” pointed out McGraw about Peoples. “She and Marta can provide some pressure up top.”
Prohaska Leads Bench
Nobody on the 2019-20 roster played more last season than the 5-10 Prohaska with 549 minutes off the bench (Vaughn was a distant second with 364). To McGraw, Prohaska is the prototype instant-energy spark off the bench.
“Abby is our leader in training,” the head coach said. “She will be a good leader for us eventually.”
North Carolina graduate transfer guard Destinee Walker, yet another former McDonald’s All-American, has missed virtually all of the past two seasons with injury setbacks but is expected to be cleared to fully participate once practice begins around the Oct. 1 target date.
At 6-4, sophomore Danielle Cosgrove is the team’s tallest player, but she too is far more a stretch four (35 of her 48 shot attempts last year were from three-point range). Similar to Jessica Shepard last year, she shed about 20 unwanted pounds from last season while monitoring her nutrition habits, and is working with assistant Carol Owens on her post game.
“It’s a mind-set,” McGraw said. “Instead of pick and roll she wants to pick and pop [outside]. We’re really focusing on her being inside more, but still certainly trailing threes.”
Former walk-on Kaitlin Cole has been placed on scholarship as a senior, while another walk-on, Nicole Benz, enters her junior season. McGraw plans to add a couple more walk-ons this fall.
The 2018 national champs finished the season with only seven available scholarship players after beginning the year with 10, so McGraw is used to walking on egg shells in terms of roster management and dealing with injuries.
“Until that first person sprains an ankle or something happens, I think we’ll be full speed ahead,” she said.
2019-20 Non-Conference Schedule
A salty 12-game non-conference schedule includes eight NCAA Tournament teams from last year and five league champions.
Nov. 5: at Fordham — Reigning Atlantic-10 champs.
Nov. 8: Loyola Maryland — Natalie Achonwa to be inducted into Ring of Honor for this game.
Nov. 11: Tennessee — "Big Monday" matchup on ESPN, with Vols under new coaching regime.
Nov. 14: Michigan State — Lost to ND 91-63 in second round of 2019 NCAA Tournament.
Nov. 20: Toledo — Finished 21-12 last year with 72-56 loss to Irish.
Nov. 23: at Michigan — Advanced to second round of NCAA Tournament.
Cancun Challenge on Thanksgiving weekend in Cancun, Mexico Nov. 28-30):
Nov. 28: Florida Gulf Coast — Reigning ASun Champion.
Nov. 29: South Dakota State — Summit League Champion that advanced to Sweet 16.
Nov. 30: South Florida — Defeated Ohio State, Oklahoma and UCLA early before major injury hit the program.
Dec. 4: Minnesota — ACC/Big 10 Challenge.
Dec. 8: at UConn — Perennial superpower and team to beat.
Dec. 11: DePaul — Reigning Big East champ.
Notre Dame also will host Guelph in an exhibition game Dec. 21 before going on Christmas break.