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Monardo: Diggins must lead a team without proven starters

Joseph Monardo | Thursday, November 1, 2012

After playing in the past two national title games, the Irish have firmly placed themselves among the country’s most talented and successful teams two years running. Despite graduating perhaps the best class in program history, the No. 7 Irish have the pieces to make another postseason run this season.

The loss of former Irish forward Devereaux Peters and former Irish guards Natalie Novosel and Brittney Mallory leaves three big holes in the starting lineup. The three players combined to make 242 career starts. Although the Irish return only two starters – senior guard Skylar Diggins and junior guard Kayla McBride – Notre Dame returns eight players, most of which have considerable experience.

The Irish also welcome in a highly touted three-person freshman class. Guards Hannah Huffman, Jewell Lloyd and Michaela Mabrey compose what has been ranked as high as the third-best incoming class in the nation. Lloyd is fourth in the ESPN HoopGurlz rankings while Mabrey and Huffman are 33rd and 52nd, respectively. Mabrey captured a gold medal with the FIBA Americas U18 Championships in August. The freshman guard led the team in assists while averaging 12.8 points and 4.0 rebounds per game.

As promising as the new names in the Irish lineup look to be, success for this year’s team relies most prominently on the returnees. The team’s aspirations begin and end, of course, with Diggins, the Preseason Big East Player of the Year.

The unquestioned leader of last year’s very experienced Irish squad, Diggins will be called upon to take her leadership to another level this year. She has already earned herself a spot on the Wade Trophy preseason watch list, but the Irish will need their point guard to play well enough this season to earn serious consideration as the Wade Trophy winner at the end of the season.

Joining Diggins as the only other senior on the team is reliable guard Kaila Turner. But the Irish backcourt goes much deeper than the two seniors.

McBride is a returning starter who can do it all from the wing. The shooting guard can be a deadly scorer, but equally important for the Irish is her ability to use her size to contribute on the boards. McBride led last year’s team in rebounding among returning players with 4.6 per game. Sophomore guard Whitney Holloway is the final Irish guard with game experience. Sophomore guard Madison Cable, who missed last season due to injury, and the three freshmen will be added to the mix to give the Irish plenty of options on the perimeter.

The depth of the back is paired with a frontcourt that is shallower and smaller than Irish coach Muffet McGraw might like. The Irish faced a similar situation last year, and that was with Peters, who averaged 9.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game to lead the team by far in both categories. However, all three of this year’s bigs return with experience. Leading the unit will be junior forward Natalie Achonwa, who showed her offensive abilities from the block last season. The Ontario native also played a pivotal role in helping Canada make its first ever quarterfinals appearance in the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Junior forward Ariel Braker and sophomore forward Markisha Wright return to provide Achonwa with assistance down low.

Even with a lineup punctuated with inexperience and hindered by lack of size, Notre Dame’s aspirations for this season should be high. Already in the top 10, the Irish could reasonably challenge for the Big East tournament title and the NCAA national championship title. Picked to finish second in the Big East by the conference’s coaches, Notre Dame will have to battle No. 2 Connecticut twice for the right to repeat as Big East regular-season champions (and if recent history is any indication, the two powers will square off at least once more in postseason play).

And of course, No. 1 Baylor presents the biggest obstacle – literally. Senior center Brittney Griner, the reigning Wade Trophy winner, leads a Lady Bears squad that returns the entire starting lineup from last year’s title team.

So a third straight trip to the NCAA finals might be a tall order, but does anyone think that will stop Diggins and the Irish from trying?

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu