ND Women’s Basketball
Hadley: Carrying on a legacy
Greg Hadley | Tuesday, November 4, 2014
The end game for Irish coach Muffet McGraw and Notre Dame is still the same. Nothing’s changed when it comes to how far she thinks her team can go.
Things couldn’t get much different for the Irish as they begin a new season. If you thought the team faced a tall order replacing Skylar Diggins in 2013-2014, prepare yourself. This year presents a much tougher challenge.
The Irish have to replace three graduating starters. Forwards Natalie Achonwa and Ariel Braker and guard Kayla McBride. McBride and Achonwa were both All-Americans.
At guard, traditionally Notre Dame’s strongest position, junior Jewell Loyd will have to carry the offense without the help of McBride or Achonwa. Achonwa and McBride combined with Braker to produce over 42 percent of Notre Dame’s offense last season. Loyd can’t pick up all that slack herself.
The squad’s returning point guard, sophomore Lindsay Allen, started 37 games last season, but will have to take on a significantly expanded role after a year of playing in the shadows of veteran players.
The Irish will also have to integrate three freshmen who are undeniably talented, but will almost certainly have a learning curve in the collegiate game. Forwards Brianna Turner and Kathryn Westbeld are both five-star recruits that add valuable length to Notre Dame’s front court, but they need time to acclimate themselves into McGraw’s Princeton offense.
All of this is not to say that Notre Dame cannot win a national championship. I would never bet against McGraw’s ability to coax the very best out of her players. Just don’t expect another 37-game win streak this season.
McGraw certainly doesn’t anticipate a smooth ride to the Final Four. At the media day, she said that the team’s inexperience will be a big challenge early on in the season.
It doesn’t help that the Irish will not only have to deal with a tough ACC schedule, but also matchups with two of last year’s Final Four teams, Maryland and Connecticut.
Those grudge matches come back-to-back Dec. 3 and 6, early on in Notre Dame’s schedule. If the Irish want to prove they deserve their No. 3 spot in the AP preseason poll, they need to be ready. These two games will define Notre Dame’s regular season.
Similarly, this season has the potential to define the program as a whole. If this team can weather the loss of stars like Skylar Diggins, McBride and Achonwa, and advance to fifth straight Final Four, Notre Dame will be more than a great team or a one-hit wonder. It will be a full-fledged dynasty.
NCAA women’s basketball has plenty of perennial contenders. Squads like North Carolina, Maryland, Duke and Baylor are highly ranked in preseason polls year after year. But Notre Dame has the potential to go beyond these teams and reach rarified air.
Only three teams have reached five Final Fours in a row: LSU, Stanford and Connecticut. Even mighty Tennessee, one of the greatest programs of all time, couldn’t manage the feat under legendary Pat Summitt. Notre Dame is just one step away.
A dynasty is a program whose success extends beyond the efforts of one or two great players. Brittney Griner led Baylor to two Final Fours, but once she graduated, the Lady Bears struggled.
On the other hand, teams like Connecticut and Tennessee consistently found ways to stay competitive year after year, no matter who graduated. There is no rebuilding year in Storrs, Connecticut. That’s what the Irish need to prove this year – that they can still win even when they lose three great starters.
Building a dynasty is increasingly difficult. As the women’s game develops and grows, better and better players increase the talent pool and go to different schools, giving more and more programs the opportunity to crash the party. Every game is tougher now.
This makes the possibility of an Irish dynasty all the more impressive. It certainly won’t be easy, but like I said, don’t bet against Muffet McGraw.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.