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Monardo: Significance of the matchup goes well beyond revenge

By Joseph Monardo | Tuesday, December 4, 2012

On April 3, as the Irish title hopes faded away, the falling confetti glittered as it descended to the floor of the Pepsi Center in Denver. Baylor had handled Notre Dame for the second time of the season to push its sparkling record to 40-0 and capture the national championship.

Eight months and two days later the teams will meet again, this time in the Purcell Pavilion. Not much has changed for the No. 3 Lady Bears except their record – which was blemished by a two-point loss to Stanford on Nov. 16. Baylor relies on returnees as its seven leading-scorers. No. 5 Notre Dame, on the other hand, relies on a mix of experience and youth after graduating three starters from last year’s runner-up squad.

The new faces on this Irish team have taken the mentality of their veteran teammates in at least one respect: Notre Dame is in search of revenge. And the head coach likes it.

“I do,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think that’s a natural reaction when somebody beats you. I mean, we still felt that way when we went to UCLA – they beat us two years ago and we hadn’t forgotten that one. So I don’t like them to forget about the losses, I like them to carry a little bit of that with them. If it helps us play better and motivates us, then that’s great.”

Last season the Irish traveled to Waco, Texas in November to participate in a showdown between No. 1 and No. 2. The Irish entered the game trailing the Lady Bears in the polls and left it trailing on the scoreboard. After the early-season loss to Britney Griner and Co., last year’s title game was supposed to be Notre Dame’s shot at redemption. Now with their third game against Baylor in barely over a year the Irish have another chance to exact revenge.

But this game is about more than revenge, really. It’s even about more than beating the Lady Bears. This game will give an indication of what this year’s Irish can be.

After reaching consecutive national championship games and bringing in a highly-touted freshman class (with another highly-ranked class slated to arrive next year), there is little doubt the Irish program is among the nation’s best. But tonight’s matchup will deliver some evidence as to the likelihood Notre Dame’s April arrival to New Orleans for its third-straight Final Four.

In collegiate women’s basketball, being in the top-10 doesn’t necessarily qualify a team as elite. That is to say, the performance gap between the title contenders and those teams filling out the rest of the poll’s top spots is significant. Baylor proved this when it handed No. 6 Kentucky a 34-point loss on Nov. 11. Notre Dame proved it last year when it beat No. 7 Tennessee by 32.

This isn’t to say title-predictors should focus only on a handful of top teams, but history has proven the few elite teams in women’s basketball tend to take the championships. In the 31 seasons since 1982 only two women’s teams have captured a national title after having lost more than five times in the season. In this same period 11 men’s teams of the same qualification have won their respective national titles.

The season is still young, of course. Tonight’s contest is a severely imperfect measure of where the two participants will be in March and April. A loss will not doom either team, perhaps especially not the Irish. Notre Dame took early-season losses in each of the past two seasons and wound up playing for it all at the year’s close. But if the young, inexperienced, undersized (although against Griner, who isn’t?) and largely untested Irish can compete with Baylor at this early stage it will speak volumes about their prospects for success in the postseason. It will signal the team as elite rather than merely talented.

The Irish have a chance for revenge, sure. Maybe a win tonight will alleviate some of the lingering pain from last year’s loss. But as much as this game will be about Notre Dame’s loss in the most recent title game, it is much more about whether Notre Dame has a role in the title game of the most immediate future.

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.