Notre Dame women's hoops team needs to win out to lock down No. 1 NCAA seed

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — As Notre Dame prepares to play its final two regular-season games, then competes next week in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, it’s looking like the No. 5-ranked Irish will definitely be awarded a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — if they keep winning.

Which is still a major “if.”

Thursday’s home contest against Virginia Tech (17-10, 6-8 ACC) will be followed by a visit Sunday from No. 21 North Carolina State (21-6, 10-4), one of the hottest teams in the country.

Then that ACC Tourney is where No. 4 Louisville looms, among others, in a league that boasts the No. 1 ratings percentage index (RPI) by conference in the nation.

The Cardinals (27-2, 13-1) already crushed the Irish (25-2, 13-1), 100-67, on Jan. 11 in Louisville.

Given that head-to-head result, it might be considered remarkable that ND is merely two rating points behind the Cardinals in the AP poll, and actually four points ahead at No. 4 in the coaches’ poll.

Such speaks, however, to how well Notre Dame’s overall body of work is being regarded.

“We’re just playing every game,” ND coach Muffet McGraw said Wednesday of letting the ratings take care of themselves. “We play a great schedule. We know (going into the season) we’re going to have one of the toughest schedules in the country.”

Ultimately, of course, only the NCAA selection committee’s collective opinion will matter in how the Irish are seeded, as well as where they are sent.

That very committee has been doing in-season reveals this year — the final one was earlier this week — and the group has ND and Louisville both slotted as No. 1 seeds. They’re joined by overall No. 1 team Connecticut (26-0 heading into Wednesday) and overall No. 2 Mississippi State (28-0).

The Cards are ranked third overall by the committee and the Irish fourth.

The key there, however, is that even if both clubs win all their other remaining games before the NCAA Tourney, one’s definitely going to lose again, if only in the ACC title game.

It’s conceivable to think the loser in such a matchup might be bumped from a No. 1 seed.

After all, the committee’s No. 5 overall pick is Baylor (25-1), and the Bears — who are also ranked No. 3 in both major polls — are favorites to win all their remaining games.

“It’s definitely important for us to get a 1 seed if possible,” Irish senior Kathryn Westbeld said Wednesday. “It makes things easier along the way, but if we don’t, I think we’ve been through enough adversity that I think we’re able to fight through whatever at this point.”

That adversity includes ND losing three players since October to season-ending knee injuries, on top of All-American Brianna Turner already being shelved for the season since March due to her knee injury and subsequent ACL surgery rehab.

With Notre Dame ranked lowest among the four projected No. 1 seeds, the Irish also were placed farthest from home by the committee in its regional assignments.

That means the Spokane (Wash.) Regional for ND at the moment, while UConn’s targeted for Albany, N.Y., Mississippi State for Kansas City and Louisville for Lexington, Ky.

If the Irish can beat out Louisville for the overall third spot, maybe they end up in Lexington again.

The irony there is that they might not be so crazy about it if they’re at all superstitious. ND’s been eliminated in the Lexington Regional each of the last two years, that after earning five straight Final Four trips while coming out of assorted other regionals the previous five seasons.

Following the same format as recent years, the top 16 overall seeds will all earn home assignments for the NCAA Tournament’s opening two rounds, March 16-19.

The Irish remain virtual locks for that much.

Meanwhile, here are just some of the highlights on their resume´ as the committee waits to announce its for-real selections on March 12:

• ND’s RPI ranking is No. 2 in the nation, and RPI has historically received strong weight from the committee. UConn is No. 1, and the only Irish loss besides Louisville came Dec. 3 at Connecticut, 80-71.

• ND’s 13 wins over RPI top-50 teams leads the nation. The Irish will get a shot at another such victory when No. 21 North Carolina State visits Sunday, and up to three more shots in the ACC Tourney.

• ND’s overall RPI strength of schedule stands at No. 2. Only Oklahoma (14-12) has faced a tougher schedule. UConn is No. 3 in schedule strength. Mississippi State’s No. 21 and Baylor just No. 38.

• ND stands No. 4 in the Sagarin Ratings, which serve as another set of data that may be used by the committee. Baylor, though, is No. 2. UConn’ is No. 1, Mississippi State No. 3 and Louisville No. 5.

• ND’s record against Sagarin top-50 teams is 14-2, good for the most such victories in the nation. Overall, ND’s schedule rates No. 3 with Sagarin. UCLA’s is No. 1.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Virginia Tech (17-10, 6-8 ACC) vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (25-2, 13-1).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), Notre Dame.

WHEN: Thursday, 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $15.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WEB: ACC Network Extra.

NOTING: The Hokies are led by junior guard Taylor Emery, averaging 18.0 points. She’s shooting 50 percent from the field overall, 40 percent on 3-pointers (53-of-132) and 87 percent at the line (97-of-112). Regan Magarity, a 6-3 junior, is adding 13.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, while four other players average 6.4 to 8.0 points each. Junior point guard Chanette Hicks (12.1 points, 5.7 assists, 3.2 steals) took an indefinite leave from the team on Feb. 4 for personal reasons. Tech has gone 2-2 without her, including a lopsided win at North Carolina and a two-point loss to rival Virginia. ... ND leaders include Arike Ogunbowale (20.1 ppg, 80 percent FT), Jessica Shepard (15.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 57 percent FG), Jackie Young (14.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.6 apg), Marina Mabrey (13.3 ppg, 4.1 apg, 2.1 spg, 89 percent FT), Kathryn Westbeld (7.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 62 percent FG) and Kristina Nelson (5.9 ppg, 64 percent FG, 81 percent FT). … The Irish are 9-1 all-time against Tech. A year ago, ND won 76-59 in Blacksburg.

QUOTING: “I actually didn’t know that, (but) it’s all about the team. It really is. They’ve committed to defense and they’re doing everything they can possibly do. They come into practice every day just ready to get better. They put up with me ranting and raving on the sidelines on every single possession. It’s amazing what they’ve been through.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on being named earlier Wednesday as one of 10 semifinalists for Werner Ladder Naismith Women’s College Coach of the Year.

Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard (23) high-fives Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw during the Syracuse-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion on Dec. 28. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)