Notre Dame women's basketball: A decent midseason report card for Ivey's Irish

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

So much accomplished, so much left to prove.

That’s Notre Dame women’s basketball at midseason, and this is a mostly shimmering midseason report card on the Irish — with the caveat that they probably have not taken the majority of their toughest tests yet, and have not aced the most challenging ones they have encountered.

On one hand, here’s an ND club on pace to go down as the most improved in Irish history in terms of winning percentage (from .500 to .786, a jump of .286).

On the other, do you realize No. 20 Notre Dame hasn’t beaten a single team that’s ranked at the moment?

One game at a time: A journey through Notre Dame's 2021-22 women’s basketball season

The 11-3 Irish are 0-3 in those games (they did defeat then-No. 16 Oregon State, which later fell from the polls, 64-62).

Of course, there should be more opportunities ahead to blast through those ranked-opponent roadblocks — five to be exact, including No. 3 Louisville twice.

The most immediate chance was supposed to be No. 5 North Carolina State on Sunday at Purcell Pavilion, before the Atlantic Coast Conference announced Friday night that the game is postponed by virtue of ND adhering to COVID-related protocols.

As for what has taken place, let’s look at the Irish on offense, on defense and on the boards. Then we’ll also touch on the coaching and on the 10 scholarship players individually.

Offense (A-minus)

To get the nasty part out of the way first, the buzz on social media is often about ND’s propensity to turn the ball over.

At 15.4 cough-ups per game, granted, the Irish are slightly better than ordinary at best, ranking 108th of the nation’s 356 Division I teams for fewest committed, but when the truer measure of turnover rate per possession is applied, ND jumps to 61st.

Overall, this is a diverse, often beautiful offense, one that has appeared comfortable pushing pace, one that has been sharp in half-court situations, one that can beat you inside and one with multiple long-ball threats.

By the measure of points per possession, and that’s with turnovers taken into account, the Irish stand 27th in the country.

This has been achieved, too, against a schedule to date that is ranked 21st-best in the nation, according to HerHoopStats.com.

Defense (B)

No less an authority than ex-ND coach and current ACC Network analyst Muffet McGraw said during the telecast of last Sunday’s 72-70 loss to Duke that the Irish are “not great on defense.”

Not that they’re bad, either.

ND stands a respectable 47th in the country in points allowed per opponent possession, a more precise and objective measure than points allowed per game, which is 112th.

The Irish still seem to be searching for what could be classified as their signature defense, but in the meantime, they’ve been effective enough in both man and zone to continue mixing based on what the situation presents.

Further, circling back to that turnover topic, ND is 67th in forcing them per game (18.7) and 86th in forcing them per possession.

So, don’t be wishing turnovers weren’t part of the game. That would actually work against the Irish.

Rebounding (A-minus)

ND doesn’t have that one dominant board force who can be a consistent difference maker in the most contested of circumstances, but collectively, they go get the ball at a strong and hungry clip.

Specifically, they get 56.2% of all the rebounds available in their games, a sparkling 16th-best in the nation.

They’re solid at each end, rating 33rd in offensive rebound rate and 39th defensively.

Coaching (A-minus)

Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey reacts in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Connecticut, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

After being widely viewed as one of the nation’s premier assistants during her many years next to McGraw, Niele Ivey has demonstrated what most suspected, that she was ready for the top spot.

Last season’s rookie 10-10 record came off of 13-18 by the Irish the previous winter, and it came during the unfolding of a pandemic that certainly conspired harder against first-year coaches than returning ones.

This season, ND’s looked like a plus-team in all aspects mentioned above.

Further, Ivey’s confirmed her ability to both identify and land players who will fit her system with the signings and subsequent play of Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron.

The Irish still appear vulnerable at times in the crunch — they allowed the game’s last eight points in their 71-67 overtime loss to No. 15 Georgia, and they gave up a nine-point fourth-quarter lead in the loss at Duke — yet they are markedly improved in that category over last season.

Sonia Citron (A)

Freshman Sonia Citron has a nasty collision during Thursday's game against Wake Forest, but is expected to be available against No. 21 North Carolina on Sunday.

It couldn’t have been reasonable to expect any more from the true freshman than she’s delivered.

Citron has averaged 11.7 points and 5.5 rebounds in 27.5 minutes off the bench, has been consistently unflinching at both ends and is easily ND’s best free throw shooter.

Maybe she’s benefited from not having to start yet, but the suspicion is she’ll be fine when that day arrives.

Olivia Miles (A-minus)

Notre Dame's Olivia Miles (5) looks to shoot while Connecticut's Christyn Williams defends, in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

►More:Notre Dame Women's basketball: Shifty, nifty Miles learning to be more demanding

If she’s not already ND’s best player as a mere freshman, one who did play six games last season as an early enrollee, she’s certainly banging on Maddy Westbeld’s door.

The stylish Miles is third in the nation in assists (7.5) to go with 12.6 points and 6.9 rebounds from a guard spot.

Miles is a bit careless with the ball at times, but consider the level of experience, the heaping helping of responsibilities and the boundless upside.

Maddy Westbeld (A-minus)

Notre Dame's Maddy Westbeld (34) looks to pass as Fordham's Megan Jonassen (43) defends her during the Notre Dame vs. Fordham University NCAA women's basketball game Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

The sophomore forward might be a victim here of what she’s already accomplished. Westbeld, after all, was unmistakably ND’s best player last season.

She’s also the team’s top scorer again this season at 13.8 and she’s jacked her net field goal percentage from 50.8 to 57.0. Her points and rebounds (6.4) are both down a pinch, but that’s merely a product of a better supporting cast.

There may be times Westbeld could demand the ball more, but perhaps that’s being picky for a sensational player who’s on the Wooden Award watch list.

Maya Dodson (B-plus)

Notre Dame’s Maya Dodson (0) shoots over Western Illinois’ Evan Zars (54) in the first half Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, at the Purcell Pavilion.

►From Stanford to Notre Dame:Inside Maya Dodson's winding journey to the No. 22 Irish

The lately hot Dodson (52 points in her last two games) has delivered to ND an athletic inside force that was missing last winter.

She’s averaging 12.1 points and team-leading figures of 7.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks.

The grad-student transfer is also a relentless worker, between games and during, something that has to be contagious.

There’s no denying Dodson suffered through a lengthy stretch of horrible field goal shooting, but that could be behind her after 25-of-43 over her last two outings.

Dara Mabrey (B-plus)

Notre Dame's Dara Mabrey goes up for a shot during the Georgia Tech-Notre Dame NCAA womenÕs basketball game on Sunday, December 13, 2020, at Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Indiana.

ND’s most potent 3-point threat, Mabrey has made 30-of-79 for 38% on the way to averaging 10.0 points, besides giving her team an edge in feistiness.

The senior’s also grown more comfortable with sliding over and handling the point even though she has to do it less with Miles aboard.

Mabrey has battled shooting inconsistency at times, but most long-rangers do.

Anaya Peoples (B-plus)

Anaya Peoples (21) drives to the basket in the second half against Purdue Fort Wayne Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, at the Purcell Pavilion.

If Peoples was averaging 4.5 points as a starter because she’s shooting 39% from the field, that would be one thing, but she’s at 49% and averaging 4.5 because she defers.

Peoples wouldn’t have started 13 of the 13 games she’s been available if she wasn’t fulfilling the role intended for her, which almost never includes being a primary option.

The junior has exemplified this team’s spirit of unselfishness, to go with plus defense and 5.1 rebounds in 22.9 minutes per game.

Sam Brunelle (B-plus)

Notre Dame's Sam Brunelle (33) during the Notre Dame vs. Fordham University NCAA women's basketball game Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

At 6.5 points in 15.0 minutes, Brunelle’s scoring rate of 0.43 is bettered only by those of Westbeld and Dodson.

It’s enticing to wonder what the junior would do with more playing time, but then you have to decide who plays less.

Nevertheless, she worked tirelessly in the offseason to improve, she’s been one of ND’s most outspoken loyalists through difficult times and she brings a personality that makes teammates smile.

Abby Prohaska (B-plus)

Notre Dame's Abby Prohaska (12) looks to pass around Ohio's Erica Johnson (4) during an NCAA basketball game on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

In her second season back since a serious health condition cost her all of 2019-20, Prohaska remains a fan favorite who typically delivers a spark off the Irish bench.

She’s always willing to coax a charging foul, and does it well, and she’s even quietly ND’s leader in field goal percentage at 59.5 over 12.9 minutes an outing.

Nat Marshall (B)

Dec 19, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Natalija Marshall (15) looks to pass in the first half against the Pittsburgh Panthers at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

In her first college go-around after missing all of her freshman season while recovering from a knee injury, Marshall has shown high promise.

It’s hard to grade her higher only because she hasn’t played much (3.5 points in 8.9 minutes over 11 appearances), but Marshall brings a distinct combo of being a finesse-first interior player who isn’t particularly rattled by contact.

Katlyn Gilbert (Incomplete)

Given her lack of playing time (five games, 5.9 minutes), any letter grade would be unfair to the former ACC all-freshman pick.

An assortment of injuries stretching back to Gilbert’s 2018 arrival at ND have seemed to work against her fully re-establishing herself, at least so far.

Bottom line (A-minus)

The Irish have turned themselves into a terrific team after plenty of preseason doubt.

One more regulation point against Georgia and one more stop at Duke, and ND would stand 13-1, the lone loss coming to then-No. 2 Connecticut on the road when the Huskies were at full strength.

As it is, heading into Saturday, Notre Dame’s NET ranking — a formula the NCAA Tournament selection committee uses — was No. 16.

There’s a long way to go, but the top 16 teams in the field will get home games over the first two rounds.

ND women's basketball statistics

INSIDE

Notre Dame-NC State postponed on Sunday. Irish believe games lost to COVID will be made up. Page XX