Notre Dame's intensity relieves coach Muffet McGraw's stress — for now

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Folks who know Muffet McGraw are amazed at what they see.

As the Notre Dame women’s basketball coach prepares for her 30th season in South Bend, she’s smiling more than ever.

Some people draw concern when their mood swings to a sullen, pre-occupied state of worry. When McGraw’s at her best, that’s usually where she is.

Now bright and bubbly: What does she know that nobody else does?

“I have a friend down the street who I run with every day,” McGraw said. “She said, ‘You seem so not stressed right now.’

“It’s just that I love this team so much. They work so incredibly hard. (Preseason) practices have been so intense. Even if it’s not perfect, I’m happy; happy with the effort.

“We’re embracing the target on our backs.”

That target came into focus a bit Thursday with the release of the Irish 2016-17 schedule. It’s a who’s who of women’s basketball for a Notre Dame team that is considered by many “way too early” polls to be ranked No. 1 in the country.

McGraw said junior post sensation Brianna Turner has been limited to just shooting after shoulder surgery last spring. Also, sophomore backup point guard Ali Patberg, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, has had some setbacks in her recovery. Both are expected to be cleared by the time workouts begin for real in mid-October.

“You know what?” McGraw said. “It’s not even October yet. There’s plenty of time to have stress later.”

As always, McGraw has loaded the Irish schedule with quality teams. They could play three of the Final Four teams from last year.

Circle Wednesday, Dec. 7 on the calendar. Notre Dame will entertain defending champion Connecticut. The Irish will visit Atlantic Coast Conference rival Syracuse, last year’s runner-up, on Feb. 19, then could tangle with the University of Washington (if both win three earlier tourney games) in the championship of the Women’s NIT at Notre Dame Nov. 20. Washington beat Stanford in the championship of the Lexington Regional. Stanford eliminated the Irish in the regional semifinal.

Other top-tier road games are DePaul (Dec. 10), Michigan State (Dec. 20), Miami (Fla., Jan. 8), Tennessee (Jan. 16) and North Carolina (Jan. 22).

Louisville (Feb. 6) and Florida State (Feb. 26) will make for some interesting late-season home games.

The Irish will come into this season with a chip on their shoulder. As a No.1 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament, a game-long struggle against hot-shooting Stanford ended Notre Dame’s season, 90-84. Two days later, the Cardinal suddenly became offensively challenged and lost to Washington by nine.

“I’m not sure I’m over it yet,” McGraw said of the premature end to the season. “I’m not sure the team’s over it yet. Maybe that’s why we’re working at such a pace right now.

“The first thing you want to do when you lose is play another game. (The players) worked so hard in the summer. It’s in the back of all of our minds.”

Other non-issues cluttering preseason mind space are the lofty rankings and expectations the Irish will carry with them into the start of the season. With UConn considered in a transition year, it opens the door for Notre Dame, Baylor and Louisville to give it their best shot.

“We don’t talk about it at all,” McGraw said of the ranking. “It doesn’t mean a thing right now. We want to be No. 1 in April.

“We’ve had a target on our back in the ACC as long as we’ve been in there. It’s really not any different. We’ve got our goals. We want to win a national championship.”

Just think how giddy McGraw would be then…

NOVEMBER

3: Roberts Wesleyan (exhibition) 7 p.m.; 11: Central Michigan (WNIT) 7; 14: WNIT Quarterfinal 7; 17: WNIT Semifinal 7; 20: WNIT Final, 3; 22: Louisiana-Lafayette (at Houston); 26: TCU 1; 30: at Iowa TBA.

DECEMBER

4: Valparaiso 1 p.m.; 7: Connecticut 7; 10: at DePaul TBA; 18: at Toledo 2; 20: at Michigan State TBA; 27: at Chattanooga TBA; 29: at North Carolina State 7.

JANUARY

2: at Georgia Tech 7 p.m.; 5: Wake Forest 7; 8: at Miami (Fla.) 3; 12: Pittsburgh 7; 16: at Tennessee 7; 19: at Boston College 7; 22: at North Carolina noon; 26: Duke 7; 29: Virginia noon.

FEBRUARY

2: at Virginia Tech; 6 p.m.: 6: Louisville 7; 12: Georgia Tech 1; 16: at Clemson 7; 19: at Syracuse 5; 23: Boston College 7; 26: Florida State 1.

MARCH

TBA: ACC Tournament TBA; 17-20: NCAA Tournament (campus sites); 24-27: NCAA Regional; 31: NCAA Semifinals (at Dallas).

APRIL

2: NCAA Final (at Dallas).

NOTE: Since the NCAA has pulled its championship events out of North Carolina, the women’s basketball ACC Tournament, normally held in Greensboro, will be relocated. Dates and a site have not been confirmed yet.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw receives an honorary basketball during a ceremony to celebrate 800 career wins before an NCAA college basketball game on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, in South Bend, Ind. (Tribune Photo/Robert Franklin)