Three weeks removed from the nightmare ending to a seemingly lost season and a week into stepped-up social distancing, Muffet McGraw is still being challenged to multi-task.
The hook at the moment is a mesmerizing read, Alan Stein Jr.’s “Raise Your Game,” inspiring her mind and even becoming a must-read for many of her players.
Meanwhile, the Hall of Fame Notre Dame women’s basketball coach’s heart is tugging at her to plot her next food drive to help replenish the Food Bank of Northern Indiana, less than a week after executing her first one.
Then there’s dealing with the distraction in the driveway.
“My husband, Matt, is swinging some sort of golf thing,” she said with a laugh, as she peered out the window. “His biggest worry is that the golf courses don’t open.”
If there was an upside to the team’s 13-18 bottom line in 2019-20 and the cancellation of an NCAA Tournament the Irish wouldn’t have been invited to anyway, it was the month-long recruiting contact period in March in which McGraw could have lined up home visits with the top prospects in the 2021 recruiting cycle.
Then the COVID-19 global pandemic, and the U.S. response to it, realigned those ambitions.
“I know people are doing Skype home visits and different things,” she said earlier this week. “I just wasn’t comfortable with that.”
It’s not because McGraw hasn’t formulated a message explaining the precipitous fall from a ninth Final Four appearance last spring, as well as what the road map back and timetable might look like.
A week ago, when office gatherings were still allowable, McGraw and her staff addressed the first part of that equation with soul-searching candor.
“This year was an anomaly, obviously, and I’m not an excuse-maker,” McGraw said of a stunning step backward magnified by a deluge of transfers and injuries.
“I’m not going to point out all the things that go wrong, but even if they were in place, who knows what kind of year we’d have had. Better? But what, 18-12? We still wouldn’t have been where we want to be.
“We talked as a staff about that, you know, ‘How’d we get here? How do we make sure this isn’t going to happen again? What do we need to do in recruiting? What kids did we pass on that would have been doing a lot for us right now?’
“We kind of looked at all those things.”
Simple math and a natural maturity process alone would seemingly improve the picture significantly for a team defined by its inconsistency, erasing three double-digit deficits to win games this past season and squandering four double-digits leads to lose games.
Along those same lines, perhaps the worst loss of McGraw’s 33 season at ND, a 67-65 ACC Tourney loss to Pitt (5-26, 1-17), was directly preceded by a monumental one, given the context — a 70-67 upending on the road of a Florida State team (24-9, 11-7) that finished 19th in the final AP poll.
Just two players of significance exit the roster: starting point guard Marta Sniezek (4.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 5.5 assists per game, and a school-record 34 charges taken) and former walk-on Katie Cole (1.1 ppg, 2.2 prg).
Leading scorer Destinee Walker was granted a sixth year of eligibility, so she returns. Scorers 2-3-4 are all freshmen, true or redshirt (Sam Brunelle, Anaya Peoples. Katlyn Gilbert). Junior post Mikki Vaughn seems poised for another statistical surge.
Spark plug Abby Prohaska returns after missing the entire season with a scary bilateral pulmonary embolism (blood clots in both lungs).
“She actually was cleared at the end of January, but with 10 or 12 games left in the season, she really wanted to wait,” McGraw said. “Mentally, she wasn’t ready either. She’s a very competitive person, and she wanted to be at her best. So she started practicing with us at the end of January. And she did well.
“She raised the intensity of practice. She looked good. We could have obviously used her this year, but she’ll be ready to go next year.”
The nation’s No. 3 recruiting class, behind only Oregon and UConn per ESPN HoopGurlz, arrives whenever classes and normalcy resume in South Bend.
Alasia Hayes, 5-7 point guard from Murfreesboro (Tenn.) Riverdale High School fills a position of need and is the projected backup to redshirt freshman Gilbert, who slides into the starting point guard spot.
Maddie Westbeld, a 6-foot-3 forward from Kettering, Ohio, and the younger sister of former ND forward Kathryn Westbeld, is the most likely plug-and-play prospect among the five additions.
The 20th McDonald’s All-American in program history averaged 18.0 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.3 blocks last season at Fairmont High.
One recruit, 6-5 Nat Marshall of Queens New York, is currently sidelined while recovering from January ACL surgery. The good news is that McGraw said the tallest player on the 2020-21 Notre Dame roster is well ahead in her rehab of the original September/October projection to be cleared to practice.
Meanwhile, McGraw said she’s combing the grad transfer market for another possible addition, though a traditional transfer could be in the works.
Virginia Tech sophomore guard Dara Mabrey is in the transfer portal after averaging 11.9 points and 2.7 rebounds this past season for the Hokies. Sisters Marina and Michaela both are former standouts for the Irish, with the latter currently serving as an assistant coach for McGraw.
Dara finished last season as No. 16 among active players nationally in career 3-point percentage (.409). ND’s team percentage was .271, 317th among 348 Division I schools this past season. The 5-7 guard is also a strong defender.
But while taking grad transfers is a fairly uncomplicated process at ND, accommodating traditional transfers can be convoluted because of the school’s high bar when it comes to transferring credits.
So even when there’s a will, there’s not always a palatable way.
“We’re fortunate in having such a big class this year,” McGraw said, “so we won’t have to add much (in the current recruiting cycle).”
In a twisted sort of way, one of the most encouraging signs for McGraw of a program ready to ascend is the current snapshot, specifically with how the team is dealing with pushing forward in separate spaces.
The team uses Zoom video conferencing extensively, for academic support/tutoring for players, for team meetings, even for team workouts.
“Everybody checks in at 8 a.m. or 7 a.m., depending on the day, and then our strength coach, Mike Szemborski, is basically doing what he would normally be doing, but it’s basically body weight. Obviously, they don’t have any machines.
“So we’ve mailed them some jump ropes, and then use anything you could think of that they could do around the house. So he’s being really creative in finding some stuff.”
Incoming freshman Alli Campbell has the easiest path to keeping her shooting form sharp, with a full court in her Altoona, Pa., backyard, McGraw said. But the resourcefulness and the persistence of the players who don’t have anything like that is another sign to McGraw that the rebuilding process won’t include repairing broken confidence or defeated mindsets.
“There’s an attitude of, ‘Hey, let’s figure it out. This is something new,’” McGraw said. “Before we had to go our separate ways, Sam Brunelle was the first one to reach out, the weekend after the last loss, with, ‘I can’t wait to get back.”
“That was before they weren’t allowed to return to campus after spring break. Even after that, she was like, ‘Could I just come back and get in the gym?’
“You just love that, plus she’s so positive and so encouraging. She’s going to be a leader for us down the road.”
And when McGraw finally does make those in-home visits, that’s one of the first stories she’ll share.
“Next year is going to be a good year, but we’re not going to be ranked — I don’t know if we’re going to be ranked at all,” she said. “So we’re going to have to earn it back.
“Next year’s going to be some kind of turning point. We’re going to get better. But I think it’ll be two years, because when you have 10 freshmen and sophomores, when those sophomores are seniors, that’s when you think that’s the Final Four team.
“That’s what we’re telling them. With the 2021 class, we still need WNBA players. That’s what we need. When you look at the teams that made the Final Four, that’s what they look like.
“We’ve got to get back to having that type of player. So we are telling the 2021 recruits, that even though they’re going to be a small class, they’re a big part of our future. And our future could be pretty exciting, but it’s up to us.”