With the Notre Dame women’s basketball exit door swinging wide open after a national title and a national runner-up finish over the last two years, and with the momentum and harshness of Arike Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard, Marina Mabrey, Brianna Turner and once-anticipated returnee and overall No. 1 pick Jackie Young all crossing through it — that group doing so as the highest-ever quintet of WNBA draftees from one program — it might’ve been easy for Irish coach Muffet McGraw to choose this time to step out as well.
Forget about that.
“I do love a challenge, and I’m so competitive, and losing so much (personnel), I really didn’t want a new coach to come in and really start over,” McGraw said Tuesday afternoon during the team’s preseason media day. “I feel like I want to leave the program (in a good place).”
Not that it isn’t in a relatively good place. It’s just that in this particular season, with all those particular departures, it could have at least seemed otherwise.
“I do think it’s in a pretty good place and recruiting is going well,” McGraw said, “so I’ll see what the future holds.”
McGraw, who will turn 64 in December, didn’t tip her hand on an exit strategy for herself, other than to repeat what she offered last year, saying, “Well, I’m not going to be (doing this) at 70, I know that.”
The Hall of Famer will be doing it this winter, though, and she’s going to do it on the heels of 92.7 percent of last season’s scoring gone.
That’s second all-time, per ND, to Ohio State two years ago among Power Five conference schools, while the departed 82.1 points per game is the most all-time.
Besides the five stars leaving, the Irish also saw Danielle Patterson transfer to Indiana and Jordan Nixon head to Texas A&M over the summer.
Two other transfers — the immediately eligible grad-student variety — came aboard in shooting guard Destinee Walker from North Carolina and point guard Marta Sniezek from Stanford, after each missed last season due to injuries.
McGraw says they’ll be counted on heavily.
Likewise new are a pair of consensus top-25 freshmen in forward Sam Brunelle, rated No. 1 in the country in her class at one time by ESPN before slipping to No. 6, and point guard Anaya Peoples, whom McGraw says is already “our best defender.”
The most experienced players among ND’s returnees are junior center Mikayla Vaughn, the team’s only pure post, and sophomore guard Abby Prohaska.
Then there’s sophomore guard Katlyn Gilbert, back from shoulder surgery that cost her most of last season. She has “the tools, the talent, the work ethic,” according to McGraw, to become “our best player.”
Fellow sophomore Danielle Cosgrove will shift to a more interior role, with her minutes sure to uptick if she handles those chores well.
“It’s been very different,” McGraw said of this preseason relative to recent ones. “We’ve had to teach a lot more. We’re sometimes trying to pump the brakes because we (as coaches) forget things they don’t know that we assume they know. It’s definitely been interesting so far.”
When asked how soon she would like this team to have it all figured out, McGraw quipped that “yesterday would be good.”
While the overall level of college experience, depth and ultimately perhaps the star power do appear promising at guard, the post screams out as a question.
The 6-foot-3 Vaughn has flashed gigantic upside on the inside at times, but the 6-2 Brunelle and 6-4 Cosgrove have been best known as wing players.
“We don’t have a lot of size,” McGraw conceded while also raving about Vaughn’s camp to date. “We are not going to make anybody’s all-lobby team. I think Mikayla’s definitely the one that’s going to hold down (the inside). We hope she can stay out of foul trouble. … We’re definitely going to play a four-guard lineup.”
Brunelle will go inside “at times,” per the coach, and Cosgrove has made the kind of strides that befit a 6-4 person.
“She did a great job this summer in terms of nutrition and working on really getting her body in shape,” McGraw said. “She looks terrific. She really has a lot of lean muscle now. She was always a pretty good 3-point shooter, but now she’s able to score around the basket. I think she’s really worked on just not her game, but every part of what she could do to get better.”
Cosgrove reminds that she did play mostly inside in high school.
“I feel like I am very comfortable in the post,” said the native of Holbrook, N.Y. “I think it’s more of just learning to be a little more physical to battle with some of the stronger players in our conference, but I’m pretty comfortable, so it’s not something I’m super worried about.”
Nor are her teammates.
“They are all very versatile,” Peoples said of the inside prospects. “Sam can play in the post, then step out and hit a 3. DC can post somebody up, hit a 3, get a blocked shot. Mick can get a rebound, block a shot, hit the mid-range, so I think that versatility is something we really have going for us.”
While nobody on the outside appears to be projecting national title contention for Notre Dame, expectations are still high on the inside as the Irish prepare for their Nov. 5 opener at Fordham.
“We want to finish in the top four in the (Atlantic Coast Conference) and get that bye,” McGraw said. “We want to host the NCAA Tournament (first and second rounds, which means being an overall top 16 team in the selection committee’s eyes), but mostly, we just want to get better.”
Added the coach, “By the time we get to January, I think we’re going to be a much better team. By the time we get to March, I think we’re going to be a very good team.”
That’s an understatement as far as a confident Gilbert is concerned.
“I think we can shock the world and win the championship,” said ND’s lone home-state player, from Indianapolis. “We’re young and a lot of us are inexperienced, but I believe we have enough talent and enough heart to do that.”
She even has a plan for it.
“We have to stay disciplined and when things go south, we have to keep our heads up,” Gilbert said. “I don’t think any of us are expecting to have a perfect game or perfect season. We know we’re going to have to work on some things, but I think everybody’s ready to get down to it.”
K-Mac is back
She wasn’t listed yet on materials distributed to media, but one of Notre Dame’s all-time greats, Kayla McBride, said Tuesday she has joined the staff on a part-time basis as player development program manager.
She plans to stay at least into January and possibly longer.
A star player for the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces and a 2020 Olympics hopeful, McBride previously worked out with the current Irish some before assuming an official capacity.
“They’re just really young, but they have a lot of talent,” McBride said. “They just need to become more cohesive, find their own identity. Obviously, Coach McGraw is great at making teams great, and I’m just thrilled to have a chance to help in whatever way I can.”
While listed as a graduate student, Walker anticipates having two years of eligibility at Notre Dame, and anticipates using them.
After missing all of her junior season with the Tar Heels, she played in just four games last season, when injury issues limited her again.
“I’m applying (with the NCAA) for the hardship year,” Walker said, “and should be able to get that back.”
Walker, who’s had knee surgery and dealt with a labrum tear, says she was only about 40 percent back to her former self around the time of her transfer, but since then, “I’ve skyrocketed. I’d say I’m like 85, 90. I’m almost there.”
Stamina has been the biggest issue, according to Walker, who said she didn’t begin participating in scrimmages until about two week ago.
“The support system here has been great,” said Walker, who averaged 12.6 points in 57 career games at Carolina. “I thank the Lord for that, and with it, I’m sure I’ll get to where I need to be.