SOUTH BEND — The shelves in Niele Ivey’s women’s basketball office at Notre Dame remain largely bare. Despite her more than four months on the job now, they offer no hint as to whether this is a head coach who’s arriving or one who’s about to depart.
Relax, she’s firmly planted in mind, if not in possessions.
“All my things are still in storage,” Ivey said with a sheepish laugh this week. “I haven’t gotten the chance to get them out and bring them over, but everything these past couple months has been a whirlwind. I plan on doing that soon, but because of so many things going on, I’ve kind of put it in the background.
“My priorities,” Ivey explained, “have been more about the team and navigating through everything.”
Everything includes, but isn’t limited to, adding her voice and her time to the social justice movement in a more involved way than she might’ve under less intense circumstances; sending her only child, Purdue recruit Jaden Ivey, off to his own new beginning in West Lafayette; and transitioning in the middle of a health pandemic to heading up one of the nation’s premier basketball programs.
It also includes aching over the apparent likelihood that Notre Dame, in light of the pandemic, will not be allowing fans to attend games this season.
“I don’t think that’s 100% decided, but I think it’s 90%,” Ivey acknowledged by phone Thursday.
“That’s going to be tough,” the former Irish star and longtime assistant said. “I’ve always fed off the energy and support of the South Bend community and our season ticket holders, but I also understand they have to be protected, and each team of student-athletes has to be protected.
“This year is so unprecedented,” said Ivey, who succeeded retired Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw on April 22, “but I’m going to be very excited that we can actually play if everything goes the way it should ... and we’re definitely going to try to do things creatively to try to engage the fans, try to make them feel a part of it.”
Ivey can feel for anybody hungry for engagement.
It’s because of COVID-19 restrictions that she was denied a typical summer with her players. That’s something she especially craved as a first-year head coach, a coach looking to learn her personnel and implement her system.
Finally, the Irish are starting to round some corners in that regard, though.
After guidelines cost them more than eight weeks together in the summer, Ivey and her players initially met up in person on Aug. 1, following months of confining themselves to Zoom meetings and other forms of distant communication.
That Aug. 1 return to campus still came with heightened restrictions, however.
For the next few weeks, workouts were limited to one player, one coach and one designated rebounder at a time.
This past Monday, the next phase of protocols allowed for five players at a time.
Ivey and her assistants expect to finally be able to work in person with their full team on or around Sept 14.
Around Sept. 16, the NCAA is expected to share with schools the date that formal practices can begin, as well as perhaps a revised date for the start of the season.
According to CBS Sports, the NCAA is considering four different dates for first practices ranging from Sept. 29 to Oct. 24, and four dates for the opening of the season ranging from Nov. 10 (the original date) to Dec. 4.
All of it can potentially be altered again if COVID numbers dictate.
In the meantime, the Irish continue to go about their own preparation in a guarded manner.
Ivey shared that each of her players has been “fortunate” regarding the virus, and described them as totally bought in on safeguards.
“Absolutely,” Ivey said. “We have great leadership. We’ve discussed this message since I came on board, but especially since May, about how the season will look different. It’s constant reminding of what they have to do to keep themselves safe, keep their roommates safe, their campus and their teammates safe. It’s daily reminders of protocols, but my team, they were so excited to be back. Not having the opportunity to be here in the summer has really been a motivation for them. They’re just really happy to be here, so they have been so obedient.”
At practice, all players and coaches are expected to wear masks at virtually all times.
“Whether it’s running, strength and conditioning, individual workouts, they’re required to have their masks fully on their face,” said Ivey, who returned to Notre Dame after part of one season as an assistant with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. “Once they have a drink of water or sit, we have a system in place on the practice court where everybody has their own section, their own water.”
Players have shifted from hearing Muffet’s voice to hearing a muffled voice.
“It is difficult,” Ivey said of coaching in a mask. “Depending on the texture of the mask, I’m so muffled, they can’t hear me sometimes, so I move it a little to say what I’m saying, as long as I’m distancing, then cover it up. It’s a challenge, definitely different, but my women are locked in. I think everybody’s done a good job adjusting.”
When Ivey’s not locked in on coaching, she’s increasingly locked in on the movement for racial justice, a movement occupying much of the nation’s consciousness and one triggered in part by a recent series of highly publicized police-related incidents.
“I think before all this, I probably would’ve continued in my little basketball bubble,” Ivey said, “but I think the civil unrest and the atrocities going on in America, for me, it’s brought a lot of awareness to making sure I’m doing my part, that I’m a participant in everything that’s going on in a peaceful way and that I’m using my platform in a way that brings awareness to the things that need to change in our society and the world.”
Ivey has participated in a couple local protests, and has regularly shared her thoughts on social media.
As for the season ahead, she’s declining any bold predictions for now.
The Irish are coming off a 13-18 record (8-10 Atlantic Coast Conference) that marked their first losing finish in 28 years, but return the top five scorers from that team and welcome a freshman class of five ranked No. 3 collectively by ESPN.
“I’m just focusing in year one on building a foundation, building my system,” Ivey said. “I’m just praying we have a healthy season.”
Two bigs rehabbing
Notre Dame’s two tallest players, senior center Mikki Vaughn and freshman forward Nat Marshall, are each rehabbing after knee surgery, but Ivey said both could still be ready for the start of the season.
“They’re both doing really well and are on track relative to when they had surgery,” Ivey said. “They’re both about 50%. They’re still being held back from running, but are doing a good job with their rehab.”
The 6-foot-3 Vaughn underwent knee surgery shortly after the end of last season, according to Ivey.
Vaughn missed most of her freshman season in 2017-18 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, undergoing surgery at the time, then missed 11 games early last season with what the school described as an ACL sprain in her right knee.
The 6-5 Marshall, from Queens, N.Y., saw her senior high school season end last Dec. 4 when she suffered a torn ligament in her left knee, requiring surgery.
Ivey said the rest of ND’s roster of 14 is full-go.
That includes sophomore guard Anaya Peoples, who sustained a season-ending, surgery-requiring shoulder injury on Jan. 12 against North Carolina State, and junior guard Abby Prohaska, who sat out all of last season after revealing in November that she’d been diagnosed with blood clots in both lungs.
“She’s bounced back really well,” Ivey said. “That time off was really great for her. We’re monitoring her and making sure she’s safe and everything, but she feels great and looks great.”
Peoples is “doing fantastic,” the coach added. “She’s completely cleared and looks great.”
Peoples, Sam Brunelle and Katlyn Gilbert were each ACC all-freshman selections last March for the Irish.
Notre Dame and junior guard Dara Mabrey are still waiting to hear from the NCAA on whether she’ll be eligible this season on a hardship waiver after transferring to the school in June, or if she’ll have to wait until 2021-22.
“We’re just doing the paperwork,” Ivey said. “You never know when a waiver is granted. It’s completely out of our hands, but our compliance office has done a really good job of presenting the information.”
Mabrey, the younger sister of Irish assistant Michaela Mabrey and ex-ND star Marina Mabrey, signed with the Irish after two seasons as a 3-point ace at Virginia Tech.
Which of the five freshmen has the chance to make the most immediate impact?
“I’m not sure, but they all look great,” Ivey said. “I’m really encouraged by all of them. They’re all working really hard. I’ll probably be able to determine that once I can get them in 5-on-5, because they all look really good. They’re so coachable and excited to be here. We have a great freshman class, and I’m looking forward to finding out a bit more once I see them on the court in different scenarios.”
One of them, Alasia Hayes, could wind up as ND’s point guard.
“I think it’ll be point guard by committee a little bit with our upperclassmen, but I also think Alasia Hayes will come in and fulfill that role at some point for me,” said Ivey, a former point guard herself. “She’s a true point guard and I’m excited to see her run the team, but there’s the potential of Dara, Anaya and (Gilbert) sharing those responsibilities as well.”
Hayes was ranked No. 44 overall in the 2020 recruiting class by ESPN, and three other ND recruits were higher than that with forward Maddy Westbeld at No. 20, guard Alli Campbell at No. 27 and Marshall at No. 34. Forward Amirah Abdur-Rahim completes the group.