Notre Dame women waiting on top seed

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – It seems like almost an eternity ago that the Notre Dame women’s basketball team was standing on the awards podium at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum receiving its second straight Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship trophy after beating Florida State, 71-58. 

That was last Sunday, of course, but considering the growing pains the second-ranked Irish endured during their 31-2 season, these eight days away from outside competition have been stress-free and very much welcomed, thanks to a current 17-game winning streak.

That all changes Monday night at 7 p.m. when coach Muffet McGraw, her staff and players, school officials, families, the media and a few other invited friends of the program gather in Club Naimoli in the Purcell Pavilion to watch the unveiling of this year’s 64-team field on ESPN.

“We need to celebrate the season (because) we came so far from the beginning of the year,” McGraw said Friday. “It was an awful lot of work to get here.”

Led by junior All-America guard Jewell Loyd, who already has won one national player of the year honor (espnW) and is up for two more, and freshman-of-the-year candidate Brianna Turner plus improved play from sophomores Lindsay Allen (point guard) and Taya Reimer (forward) and depth galore provided by senior Madison Cable, juniors Michaela Mabrey and Hannah Huffman and freshman Kathryn Westbeld, Notre Dame swept the regular-season and tournament titles in the ACC for the second straight year. The Irish now look ready to make possibly a run to a fifth straight Women’s Final Four, which this year takes place at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., April 5 and 7. 

Though no word has leaked out from the closely guarded hallways of the Indianapolis hotel where the NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament committee has been meeting the last couple of days, a couple of things are certain: Notre Dame should be one of four teams receiving a regional No. 1 seed (UConn, SEC champion South Carolina and Big Ten champion Maryland the others) and the Irish should be one of 16 schools playing host to three other schools for first- and second-round games. 

What won’t be known until the bracket is revealed Monday night are who the other three teams coming to South Bend will be, the days of the games (the four-game “pods” take place either Friday-Sunday, March 20 and 22 or Saturday-Monday, March 21 and 23 and their tipoff times.

“It’s always a surprise who’s coming in to South Bend,” McGraw added. “You really have no idea.”

A return to Tobacco Road?

UConn is expected to be the overall No. 1 team when the bracket is announced Monday night and the Huskies should be ticketed to play their first two games in Storrs before playing their final two regional games in Albany, N.Y. South Carolina, which inherited the No. 1 ranking (coaches poll) from Notre Dame after UConn beat the Irish 76-58 on Dec. 6 in South Bend, looked like a sure bet to get the top seed in the Greensboro (N.C.) Regional until the Huskies routed them 87-62 on Feb. 9 in Storrs and then Kentucky surprised them 67-56 in the SEC regular-season finale. 

Those losses opened the door for the Irish to possibly gain the top seed in Greensboro as the second No. 1 seed behind UConn. ESPN bracketologist Charlie Crème, who seesawed the Irish and Lady Gamecocks between the Greensboro and Oklahoma City regionals in recent days, seems to have settled on Greensboro for the Irish destination. Plus Notre Dame’s recent play has catapulted them back up the human rankings (AP, WBCA/USA Today) and the computer rankings as well. 

As of Friday, Notre Dame was solidly entrenched at No. 1 in the NCAA Women’s RPI rankings and No. 2 (behind UConn) in Jeff Sagarin’s ratings with the fourth-best strength of schedule (behind Kentucky, Wisconsin and Michigan State). In its two seasons in the ACC, Notre Dame has gone 38-1 against league competition: a 19-0 run last year, a victory over then league member Maryland in last year’s national semifinals and this year’s 18-1 run. Plus, their pre-ACC schedule included a 4-1 run against teams that received automatic bids for winning their league titles. If Notre Dame receives an expected No. 1 seed, it will play a No. 16 seed in the first round.

In going back to the four-team pods, the NCAA hopes to increase attendance for the tournament’s first two rounds. And one of the best ways to do that is to have teams that are close geographically pairing up because it makes it easier for fan bases to travel.

Because the first two rounds of both the men’s and women’s tournaments are being conducted over a five-day period beginning this Thursday, it has put a premium on charter air services used to ferry teams to tournament sites. Some teams will need to bus to their opening-rounds sites, hence the need for geographical pairings.

The committee also doesn’t want to create games that are match ups of ones previously played earlier in the season, and it is doesn’t want to pair up teams from the same conferences. Finally, the committee has flexibility to move teams either up or down from their assumed seeding (a No. 8 seed could be a No. 9 or a No. 7 in order to create balance in the regions).

So Notre Dame could end up playing a team like Ohio Valley champion Tennessee State (18-12) or the winner of Sunday’s Northeast Conference championship between St. Francis, N.Y. and Robert Morris. The committee likely won’t pair Notre Dame and Robert Morris because they played in last season’s opening round in Toledo.

If the Irish survive the opener, they would play the winner of an 8/9 game and there are plenty of compatible geographical teams such as Green Bay (Horizon), Western Kentucky (Conference USA), Minnesota (Big Ten), Seton Hall (Big East), Rutgers (Big Ten), Oklahoma State (Big 12), Northwestern (Big Ten) and Nebraska (Big Ten) that fall in the 7/10-seed range.

“There are so many good teams out there you just don’t know who’s going to be in your bracket,” McGraw said.

She and her team will find out for sure Monday night.

Notre Dame Head Coach Muffet McGraw calls signals from the bench Saturday, December 6, 2014, during the Connecticut-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ

What: NCAA Division I Tournament

Selection Show: Monday at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

First/Second Rounds: Campus sites on March 20/22 (Friday/Sunday), March 21/23 (Saturday/Monday).

Regionals: March 27/29 (Friday/Sunday) at Oklahoma City (Chesapeake Energy Arena) and Greensboro, N.C. (Greensboro Coliseum); March 28/30 (Saturday/Monday) at Albany, N.Y. (Times Union Center) and Spokane, Wash. (Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena).

Women’s Final Four: Sunday, April 5 (semifinals, 7 and 9:30 p.m.) and Tuesday, April 7 (championship, 8:30 p.m.) at Tampa, Fla. (Amalie Arena).