Analysis: Pondering the future of Notre Dame women's hoops in 10 questions

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — If not for those last 10 minutes in Connecticut, Notre Dame would probably have a perfect 10 of a women’s college basketball season going — figuratively and literally — through 10 games.

Sure, the Irish have had other less-than-pristine junctures besides those at the end of that 80-71 loss to UConn earlier this month, but they’ve been brilliant overall while carving out their 9-1 record and a No. 2 ranking in both major polls.

So, at 10 games in, let’s dissect some of what’s happened and some of what may. And let’s do it in the form of 10 questions.

Eleven teams were still unbeaten entering Wednesday. What’s Notre Dame done to earn that No. 2 ranking?

What haven’t the Irish done?

Besides turning away all comers other than those other-worldly, unanimously No. 1 Huskies, the Irish have done so while navigating a schedule rated second-toughest in the country, per RPIRatings.com.

No less, they’ve navigated it almost entirely away from home, playing eight of their games outside South Bend.

ND’s already played five ranked opponents — each of those outside Purcell Pavilion — defeating then-No. 3 South Carolina as well as Oregon State, South Florida and Michigan.

Even in that loss to UConn, the Irish led 62-54 entering the final quarter. Every other opponent has trailed the Huskies by at least 24 points by the time the fourth quarter began.

As for those 10 unbeatens not named Connecticut, five have not even faced a ranked opponent yet and only a couple — future Irish foes Louisville and Tennessee — have faced as many as two.

So, one more time, what occurred in that meltdown against UConn?

You name it.

Coach Muffett McGraw pointed to defensive mistakes, missed shots, missed box-outs and more during an alarming “stretch of ugly” that helped the Huskies complete their comeback after being behind 65-54 with 9:34 to go.

UConn aside, why’s Notre Dame so good?

That’s simple. The Irish have gathered some of the nation’s premier individual talent. It’s guided by a freshly minted Hall of Fame coach and her seasoned staff.

In Arike Ogunbowale (Atlantic Coast Conference), Jessica Shepard (Big Ten) and Lili Thompson (Pac-12), ND features three players who already have been all-league first-teamers during their careers in major conferences.

Then there’s emerging sophomore Jackie Young, the MVP of the Gulf Coast Showcase and a recent ACC Player of the Week; preseason All-ACC pick Marina Mabrey; and senior Kathryn Westbeld, a “glue” player, per McGraw, who’s made more career starts for the Irish than any of those others mentioned here.

What specifically is the team doing well?

The Irish are running their Princeton offense with the necessary ingredients — unselfishness and understanding. And they’re running the floor selectively, but effectively, when opportunities are presented.

The combination has helped yield a 52.6 percent conversion for all 2-pointers and a 48.1 percent clip for all field goals.

To go with the team’s potent array of guards, Shepard, Westbeld and Kristina Nelson are all keen, able and willing passers in the post.

Notre Dame’s also been better on the glass than some might have guessed given that the team often puts four guards on the floor.

Young (7.7 per game) and Ogunbowale (5.8) in particular don’t rebound like guards.

Thanks in large part to them, the Irish are outboarding their opponents by an 11.6 margin per game.

Young, Shepard and Westbeld have all proven adept on the offensive glass, further fueling ND’s production per possession.

Where could the Irish be better?

Outside the arc.

The guess here is they will be better, and based on history, that’s no bold prediction.

Ogunbowale is hitting just 30.6 on 3-pointers this season after draining at a 45.4 percent rate last season. Mabrey’s at 25.5 percent after sinking 38.3 percent last season.

As a team, ND is shooting 31.2 percent on triples after finishing at 39.5 last winter.

Before the season, McGraw projected ND would shoot more treys than a year ago, but last year’s team attempted 14.8 per game and this year’s club is at 11.8.

Some of that decline in attempts can be tied to the surprising decline in accuracy.

Some of it can be tied to having both Shepard and Young as regularly viable options inside the arc.

But the nosedive in the accuracy itself is a bit of a mystery.

Maybe some of that can be tied to Ogunbowale and Mabrey being better known commodities now, thus more closely defended. And maybe some of it can be defenses no longer having to concern themselves with the inside efficiency of injured All-American Brianna Turner.

For whatever it’s worth, Ogunbowale and Mabrey don’t seem that concerned when they’re asked. And proven shooters usually return to what they’ve been.

What about defense and turnovers?

There have been defensive lapses at times, according to McGraw, but the reality is the Irish have stood up well on the whole while facing teams loaded on the inside as well as teams loaded on the outside.

Opponents are shooting just 37.8 percent from the field, including 39.9 percent on 2s to go with 33.6 on 3s.

Regarding turnovers, ND is merely a tick better than breaking even with its opponents. On the other hand, plenty of those cough-ups have come while being aggressive and some have come with solid leads in hand.

How have the two transfers fit in?

Maybe a pinch unevenly in terms of game-to-game production, but Shepard and Thompson seem to have the acceptance of their teammates, and each has already delivered some clutch moments while adapting to new circumstances.

With the team’s depth compromised by its trio of season-ending injuries, it’s hard to imagine where ND might be without the program’s first two incoming transfers of the McGraw era.

Shepard is the team’s rebound leader (8.0) in addition to averaging 12.9 points, and Thompson the assist leader (5.0) besides averaging 6.4 points.

Shepard, a junior who didn’t know for sure she’d be eligible until hours before the exhibition opener, is adjusting to living outside her home state of Nebraska for the first time in her life.

Thompson, who was a three-year starter at Stanford before sitting out last winter, has been adjusting the last four games to coming off the bench with Westbeld’s return to the lineup.

In the long haul, can eight really be enough?

Eight is a reference, of course, to Notre Dame being down to eight scholarship players with the injuries to Turner, Mikayla Vaughn and Mychal Johnson, but heck, even seven can suffice.

As roles are defined and as higher stakes emerge over the course of a season, plenty of teams over the years, including Notre Dame, have opted to go just eight, seven or even six players deep when it comes to distributing meaningful minutes.

Provided ND’s seeming attention to conditioning, nutrition and proper rest, these Irish figure to be up to such a task.

The key is not getting anybody else hurt among their remaining top six, and maybe top seven.

A secondary key for making things easier would be the further development of freshman Danielle Patterson.

She’s shown flashes as she learns the college game, but her mere 33 minutes over the team’s last six games suggest she’s not there yet.

Can ND keep up its ACC dominance?

The Irish, now in their fifth year in the league, are trying to become the first team to sweep both the ACC regular-season and tournament titles five straight times.

It won’t be easy.

Louisville stands 11-0 and has earned high praise in both the AP and coaches’ polls with rankings of No. 3 and No. 4, respectively. Florida State (10-0) is No. 10 in each poll and Duke (8-2) No. 14 in both.

Here’s the kicker — ND’s regular-season meetings with all three of those single-play opponents will come on the road.

Meanwhile, another league foe, Syracuse (10-0) has risen into the coaches’ poll at No. 23.

The Orange give the ACC a nation-leading three unbeatens and will provide the opposition when Notre Dame opens its league season Dec. 28 at home.

Would ND have a chance if it faced UConn again?

No matter what else the Irish do, it always circles back to the Huskies, doesn’t it?

And candidly, here is one frightening aspect to Connecticut outscoring Notre Dame 26-6 over the final nine minutes of that comeback win on Dec. 3 — the Huskies did so with two of their three preseason AP All-America first-team selections missing virtually all of it.

Gabby Williams sat with a migraine, while Katie Lou Samuelson aggravated a previous injury.

At a minimum, memories of that should suggest to these hard-working Irish, as they strive to improve, that they have plenty of room to do so.

Notre Dame's Jessica Shepard (23) goes up for a shot next to Michigan State's Taya Reimer (32), a former Irish forward, during a 90-59 ND victory at Purcell Pavilion on Dec. 6. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)