SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame won a national championship the last time coach Muffet McGraw thought she had the nation’s best player and best point guard.
McGraw likes the chances of doing it again 16 years later. Not only does she have Brianna Turner, the returning Atlantic Coast Conference player and defensive player of the year, and Lindsay Allen, who has guided the Irish to a 106-6 record the past three seasons, she also has the deepest team she’s had in her 30 years in South Bend. For the first time, the top-ranked Irish will start five former McDonald’s All-American high school players, and have three more contributing off the bench.
“We have the depth at pretty much every position,” McGraw said.
Before Allen arrived, Notre Dame had a total of eight McDonald’s players on its roster since the first All-America high school team was named in 2002. The Irish have that many on its roster this year alone.
McGraw thinks she could use a 10-player rotation, a stark contrast from the six-player rotation she used when Ruth Riley and Niele Ivey, now a Notre Dame’s assistant, led the Irish to the national championship in April 2001. McGraw said the Irish have so much talent it could be a challenge for her.
“You have a lot of different people on the floor all the time,” McGraw said. “I think there are some combinations that will look better together. That’s going to be my challenge to figure out who plays well together,” McGraw said.
The third returning starter is forward Kathryn Westbeld. Other key returners are guards Arike Ogunbowale, Marina Mabrey and Mychal Johnson. The Irish also add 6-2 freshman forward Erin Boley, the Gatorade National Player of the Year, 6-0 guard Jackie Young, the Naismith National Player of the Year, and 5-10 sophomore guard Ali Patberg, who missed last season with a knee injury.
Allen said she doesn’t think egos will be a problem.
“Our offense makes it easier because our offense is a read so we’re not focusing on going to one player,” she said.
The Irish are ranked No. 1 for the first time since their national championship season, which leaves McGraw a bit uncomfortable.
“I would rather be the underdog,” she said. “Our key is we’ve got to have fun. We’ve got to enjoy this journey. I think that’s the toughest thing to do when you see yourself as No. 1. Everything you do, you’re holding up to the No. 1.”
Other things to watch with Notre Dame:
With so many scorers, McGraw wants to know which player is going to do the little things for the Irish.
“Who’s going to be out there and doesn’t need to score, just wants to facilitate?” McGraw said. “Who’s going to come into the game and say, ‘My job is to rebound and get the ball to Bri.’? It’s great that we have all these scorers but there’s only one ball and we really want to make sure the right people are getting the shots.”
McGraw is expecting a bigger contribution from 6-4 senior forward Kristina Nelson, who averaged 8.4 minutes last season. “She’s made tremendous strides with her mindset,” McGraw said.
ON THE ROAD
The Irish play 10 road games in a 12-game stretch starting at No. 21 DePaul on Dec. 10, three days after facing four-time defending champion Connecticut in South Bend.
Notre Dame fans have been waiting to see Turner dunk since she’s arrived on campus. She’s been hampered by an injury to her right shoulder sustained her freshman season and aggravated last season, causing her to miss six games. But she’s healthy after undergoing surgery. She said she’s not going to try to force a dunk: “I’m just going to go with the flow and see what happens.”
McGraw said she hasn’t seen one in practice.
“She only does it when I’m not there,” McGraw said. “I think it would be an awesome way to start the season.”
Notre Dame has spent a lot of time at No. 2, but has been ranked No. 1 for only six weeks in the AP poll, all of it until now coming during the national championship season of 2000-01.