SOUTH BEND — Anyone who knows Muffet McGraw is well aware that she wouldn’t hand the keys to her offense over to just anybody.
That, by itself, is proof positive that Ali Patberg is something special.
The 5-foot-10 freshman point guard from Columbus, Ind., is one of the key components of the next wave of talent — along with classmates Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale — that should keep Notre Dame’s women’s basketball team among the nation’s elite for years to come.
Patberg’s challenge, as the Irish prepare to begin their season with an exhibition against Wayne State Nov. 7, will be a piece of cake compared to what Lindsey Allen had a couple years ago.
Allen came in just as Skylar Diggins was leaving. From her first day on campus, Allen was the starting point guard. She learned the position well enough and fast enough to take the Irish back to the Final Four.
Patberg has the luxury of learning how to run Notre Dame’s high-octane attack while watching and sharing time with Allen over the next two years.
“Coach expects the most out of you because you’re the point guard,” Allen said during Monday’s first meeting with the media. “(McGraw’s) going to be tough on you. (Patberg) has a high IQ. She’s been going through the progressions and learning (the offense). She picks things up pretty quickly.
“My advice: ‘Take your time. If you make a mistake, go hard — regardless. We know you’re going to be good in this system. Just take your time and have some fun.’”
Sometimes, the simple concept of enjoying the moment is lost on the pressure of measuring up to the expectations that go along with one of the top programs in the country.
“I stayed in the present (when it came to leading the Irish to the Final Four as a freshman),” said Allen. “We had some great seniors (Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa) who had been to the Final Four before and knew what to expect. They clued me in on what to expect from certain (road) games; what to expect from the Final Four. I never got ahead of myself in certain situations.
“I had great teammates and great leaders ahead of me, day-in and day-out, so that I knew what was expected of me. Having a great assistant coach like Niele (Ivey), letting us know what plays to run and what to do in certain situations definitely helped.”
“She has to build confidence in what she brings and what she does; understand her role,” Ivey said of Patberg’s immediate primary objectives. “The big thing is confidence. The stage is bigger (than high school): Bigger, stronger, faster. Don’t try to do too much, because it’s a lot. Lindsay was lucky because she had Kayla McBride, who had great leadership. (Patberg) is going to thrive with Lindsay, Michaela (Mabrey), Taya (Reimer), and all the seniors.”
“It’s hard right now,” said Patberg, who’s getting comfortable with the media as well as the offense. “I’m still learning; learning the plays. It’s kind of weird right now, but after each practice it gets a little better, I feel a little more comfortable.
“I try to watch Lindsay every day; watch her in the offense to see where I need to get better. She’s one of the harder workers on the team. It’s always good to model after. It pushes me to get better.”
“(Patberg is) going to be a tremendous leader,” said McGraw. “She’s going to be one of the best leaders we’ve ever had as she matures and grows into her game.
“She’s someone who is strong with the ball, and is a great communicator — something we really need.”
On occasion, Patberg and Allen could be on the floor at the same time. The combination should have a positive impact on making Allen the type of scorer she proved she could be late last season. Allen, who averaged 10.2 points last year, hit some big shots in the tournament. When she and Patberg are on the court at the same time, Allen has a chance to be more of a shooter than a disher.
“The wing positions in our offense are so interchangeable that anybody can start the offense and anybody can get the break going,” Allen said, shrugging her shoulder at the new role. “It’s not that hard to adjust at all.”
“It’s happened with every point guard,” Ivey said. “With Skylar, coach would play her with Melissa Lechlitner and ‘Lech’ would go to the (wing) to get Sky acclimated with the offense. Then (McBride) and (Allen)… (McBride) would go to the (wing). (This move gives Allen) another opportunity to be a scorer.
“With the guards that we have, (Allen) has the most experience in big games. It’s going to help (Allen) on the offensive end.
“Having them both in at the same time takes the weight of the world off Ali’s shoulders.”
No matter the role, Patberg’s passion to whatever challenge is presented will be approached in a thoughtful and aggressive way.
“She is going to be really special,” Ivey said. “She’s very cerebral; she thinks the game. She’s basically a sponge — asking questions, watching film.
“In the summer, she was a gym rat. It’s nice to see a freshman come in and work that hard. She’s just going to get better and better. She’s a joy to coach.”
“I’ve always been in the gym,” Patberg said. “It’s home. It’s where I’m comfortable. It’s what I love.”
It’s the place Patberg will come to own over the next four years.
She might need the keys to that, too.