Notre Dame Women's Basketball Reconstruction: 3-Point Play
The last time a Notre Dame basketball team — men’s or women — lost its entire starting five from the previous year, Richard “Digger” Phelps was in his first season as head coach of the Fighting Irish.
That was in 1971-72, the season after the starting trio, led by No. 1 overall NBA pick and all-time leading scorer Austin Carr, graduated. Combine that with key injuries that season and no freshman eligibility allowed yet, Phelps and his Irish endured a 6-20 initiation.
Now in her 33rd season at Notre Dame, head coach Muffet McGraw is not anticipating such a precipitous decline in 2019-20 after seeing the departure of a full WNBA lineup (plus two reserves to transfer) that helped win the Irish the 2018 national title and lose by one point in the title game versus Baylor last spring.
Notre Dame led the nation in scoring with an 88.6 average, of which 82.1 is gone, with 6-3 junior center Mikayla Vaughn’s 3.3 average the tops in the current lineup.
In a promotion offered by the school, those in attendance at a women’s home game could purchase a free Big Mac when the Irish reached 88 points — which they did in 11 of the 15 regular season home games this season.
Don't expect anything to come free this year. A 66-point effort might be more realistic this time.
“Our goal is to be a really good defensive team,” McGraw said. “We’ve had to teach a lot more where sometimes we’re trying to pump the brakes, because we forget things they don’t know because we just assumed that they know.”
McGraw and her staff expect Notre Dame to continue its streak of 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances (fourth longest in the nation). However, data such as having won eight straight regular season conference titles in either the Big East or ACC and a 90-5 conference record in the ACC — including 48-0 at home — likely will take a hit.
Never mind having advanced to the Final Four seven of the past nine years.
Part of that is because of a brutal non-conference slate that begins at reigning Atlantic 10 champion Fordham on Nov. 5. Of the 12 non-conference games on the schedule, eight are against teams that made last year’s NCAA Tournament, and five are league champions.
The schedule was made with the thought that guard Jackie Young — the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft — would return for her senior season.
“The bar is high here,” McGraw said. “We’re expected to be a great team and we will be. It’s just a question of when.
“We are definitely going to have some hiccups early on, we’re going to hit some bumps in the road … By the time we get to January (the start of conference play), I think we’re going to be a much better team. By the time we get to March we will be a very good team.”
The more modest team goals for now are to finish in the top four of the 15-team ACC in order to receive a double bye in the conference tournament, and to earn home court for the NCAA Tournament again as a top 16 team.
Conditioning work was a problem early on because Vaughn was battling some knee issues while sophomore guard Katlyn Gilbert — redshirted last year after undergoing shoulder surgery — battled an ankle issue. She was cleared recently but then pulled a muscle that will keep her from going full speed at practice until after the Oct. 19-27 fall break. Plus, no one on the roster is used to playing extended minutes, or at least in the past year they haven't.
To help replenish the lineup, graduate transfers Marta Sniezek (Stanford) and Destinee Walker (North Carolina) have enrolled. Yet even there former McDonald’s All-American Walker also has missed virtually all of the past two years with various injuries and is working on her stamina, Meanwhile Sniezek — who had 50 career starts and was a two-time Pac-12 All-Defensive honorable mention pick — also took a medical redshirt last season.
To aid mental and physical toughness, McGraw brought in a military crew Oct. 3-4 to implement “The Program” which stresses leadership and communication. It was a first for McGraw, who was inspired by it when the Notre Dame fencing program introduced it a couple of years ago and credited it with helping win a national title.
It included a four-hour session one day, followed by another challenge from 5 to 8 a.m. the next.
“We finished the program, which was something that every team doesn’t do,” McGraw said. “It’s just how much you can take mentally when you have to do it over and over and over again because it wasn’t perfect.”
It should serve as a model to follow in 2019-20
It’s clear that in addition to Sniezek at point guard and Vaughn in the post, the two McDonald’s All-American freshmen — 6-2 forward Sam Brunelle and 5-10 guard Anaya Peoples — will be called upon for major roles.
In a scrimmage against the men’s practice team last Tuesday that was open to media, Peoples was the standout because she provides a lot of flexibility — she is the next option at point guard behind Sniezek — can post up, finds different ways to score while adept with both hands, rebounds well and takes immense pride in her defense.
“Anaya Peoples is playing really well right now,” McGraw said. “Lot of versatility, can score a lot of different ways and she’s our best defender. Sam’s our best shooter, [and] best three-point shooter.”
The Army crew also singled out Brunelle as a future leader with her personality traits. She emceed the open practice event last week with the audience while introducing the team, and already comes across as a polished pro. Her aspiration is to one day be on the ESPN crew as the next Kara Lawson or Rebecca Lobo, and she unquestionably will be a fan favorite.
McGraw knows inconsistency will plague the two freshmen this season, but it has to be part of the growing experience.
“I expect them to be in the top three in scoring…do a lot of good things even on the days they’re not playing well,” she said.
The third top scorer is expected to be Gilbert once she is healthy. Gilbert likewise was a McDonald’s All-American.
“Katlyn can be our best player,” McGraw said. “She’s got the tools, I think she’s got the talent, the work ethic, has it all.”
Sophomore guard Abby Prohaska is projected to provide instant energy off the bench, as she did last season, while Walker can provide scoring punch.
2. Sizing It Up
The unit will primarily have a four-guard look, which makes the high-energy Vaughn a crucial figure in the low post as a rebounder or even in the high post as a passer in the Princeton motion offense. A high-energy player, it will be imperative for Vaughn to stay out of foul trouble.
Through the preseason work so far, McGraw has complimented Vaughn as someone “doing exactly what we need her to do,” in regard to crashing the boards, defending the post and converting a high percentage of field goals inside, especially off the screen and roll.
Sophomore Danielle Cosgrove has reshaped her 6-4 frame much like Jessica Shepard did last season with much better nutrition habits, although like Brunelle she is more of a stretch four figure whose forte has been along the perimeter.
“We don’t have a lot of size,” McGraw acknowledged. “We’re not going to make anybody’s ‘All-Lobby’ team just walking through.”
3. Finding An Identity
This will have to be achieved primarily during the non-conference portion of the schedule as all the new faces learn to blend with each other. In one four-and-a-half minute stretch in last week’s open practice, the Irish committed seven turnovers.
Because the team does not possess the veteran firepower on offense of last year’s crew, McGraw is most concerned about the squad not being able to stop the bleeding when other teams get on a 6-0 scoring run that quickly can become 12-0 or even more.
“We’ll use all our timeouts,” McGraw said. “We have a lot to learn in reading situations…We’re turning the ball over quite a lot. We’ve got to scrimmage more in practice.”
In addition to the nine scholarship players that includes current senior and former walk-on Kaitlin Cole, three walk-ons were added to the roster to join guard Nicole Benz: 5-8 sophomore twins Margaret Murdock and Catherine Murdock, and 5-11 freshman forward Kathleen Keyes.