Will Toledo be on Notre Dame women's itinerary?

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

Former Notre Dame women’s basketball player Melissa Lechlitner knows that the Selection Monday reaction can be a bit like opening the door to your surprise party after you’ve already opened the gifts.

“When you’re expecting a pretty high seed, like this year when Notre Dame is a shoo in for a No. 1 seed, I would say any reaction is going to get slightly embellished by Hollywood,” said Lechlitner, who works for Anthony Travel specializing in trips to athletic events like the Final Four. “It’s still exciting, but maybe not the shock and awe excitement that we see on TV.”

Unbeaten Notre Dame (32-0) will undoubtedly hear its name called out as a No. 1 seed when the pairings for the NCAA women’s basketball bracket are announced Monday night on ESPN, starting at 7 (EDT). The Fighting Irish clinched an automatic bid by capturing the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship.

About the only suspense in the pairings for Notre Dame will be where the Irish begin their quest for NCAA glory.

Notre Dame is hoping it will get sent to Toledo for first and second-round games. That would be about a two-hour drive down the Indiana/Ohio Toll Road for the Irish and their fans. But even if the Irish get sent to Baton Rouge, La., as ESPN bracketologist Charlie Crème has projected, there will be plenty of cheers when the announcement is made.

Lechlitner, a former South Bend St. Joseph High School star who graduated in 2010, said the Selection Monday most difficult for her to understand came during her sophomore season. The NCAA hit the Irish (23-8 and ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press poll at the time) with a surprisingly low No. 7 seed and sent them to West Lafayette.

“We acted super excited when the announcement was made, but we were disappointed,” Lechlitner said. “There’s this big party going on, and you have the weird combination of having to be politically correct with the cameras all on you, and the fun going on, but being disappointed in what happened.”

While Notre Dame is hoping that St. Patrick’s Day karma will have them Mapquesting directions to Toledo’s Savage Arena for games in the Saturday through Tuesday, March 22-25 range, things haven’t always gone as expected for the Irish.

In 2011, Ohio State or Penn State figured to be logical sites for the Irish, because the NCAA factors in geography in its women’s basketball brackets. A surprised Notre Dame team headed to Utah, instead.

Last season, Ohio State hosted and it was going to be a neutral site because the Buckeyes didn’t make the cut. Instead, the NCAA sent Oklahoma, UCLA, Stetson and Central Michigan to Ohio State. The Irish were shipped off to play at Iowa. Notre Dame was the only No. 1 seed to play on an opponent’s home court last season. The other three No. 1 seeds, Connecticut, Baylor and Stanford, all hosted first and second-round games.

“It’s tough, no matter what seed you are, to play on somebody else’s court,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who has coached the Irish to three consecutive Final Four appearances.

It’s difficult to figure out what the selection committee’s mindset might be toward the Irish this season. Does the committee reward Notre Dame for an unbeaten season and a No. 1 seed, and take into consideration all the tickets that Irish fans might snap up in Toledo? Or does the committee send the Irish packing, because they already have the advantage of hosting a regional?

The past two seasons, Connecticut has played both first and second-round games, and regional games, on its home court in Storrs, in Bridgeport, Conn., and Kingston, R.I. The farthest drive for the Huskies and their fans was 76 miles, and they had huge fan support each game.

Regardless of where the Irish end up early, a No. 1 seeded Notre Dame team will be matched up against a No. 16 seed in the first round. If the Irish avoid a monumental upset, they would play the winner of a No. 8 seed vs. a No. 9 seed.

In Charlie Crème’s latest bracketology projections for espnW., Notre Dame matched up in LSU with Texas Southern, and host LSU is in the 8-9 game against Arizona State.

There’s no guesswork for the regional. Notre Dame (along with Louisville, Nebraska and Stanford) is a regional host. Crème’s projected Sweet Sixteen field for Notre Dame is the Irish, South Carolina, West Virginia and Penn State.

The Final Four is set for April 6 and 8 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.

Defending national champion Connecticut, the only other unbeaten team, is expected to be the overall No. 1 seed. The Irish can stake a strong claim to being the overall No. 1. Notre Dame has the No. 1 RPI in the nation, .7147. Connecticut is No. 2 at .6852. Notre Dame’s schedule strength is .6410, compared to .5913 for Connecticut.

But Connecticut’s status as the defending champ will weigh heavily.

According to Lechlitner, the players’ eyes won’t be limited to Notre Dame’s first-round game.

“It’s only human nature, whether you should or shouldn’t, but everybody is going to look at the six games to the national championship and map out the route, who you have to beat to get there,” Lechlitner said. “Of course, it never plays out that way.”

Connecticut is a long way off, and whoever is assigned as the No. 16 seed to play the Irish in the first round will be facing a team that has a lot of weapons on offense.

ESPN analyst Kara Lawson said the Irish have the two best wings in the country in Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd, who can hurt opponents by hitting 3-pointers, driving the lane, running in transition or shooting the pull-up jumper. Both are athletic, both can pass, and opponents can’t focus on one.

“A lot of times, a team will have one great wing that the defense can load up on,” Lawson said. “But because Notre Dame has two great wings, and the way the Notre Dame offense is structured, the way they move and weave, it’s very difficult for a defense to shut that down.”

McGraw, who has been through 20 NCAA selection nights, knows to expect the unexpected.

“Things don’t always go the way you think they might,” McGraw said.

Melissa Lechlitner goofs around before the Notre Dame women's basketball team is announced in the 2010 NCAA Championship tournament at Club Naimoli at the Joyce Center in South Bend Monday, March 15, 2010. (Tribune file photo)