Notebook: Not too early for Notre Dame fans to dream about next year

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Too soon to talk about next season for Notre Dame?

Of course not.

After all, there was already a period — particularly after that 100-67 beatdown at the hands of Louisville in early January — that naysayers were saying next season is all ND women’s basketball has going for it.

The Irish emphatically proved that group woefully wrong. Again and again, including in their 61-58 comeback victory over Mississippi State, Sunday night in the NCAA Tournament title game.

Now they not only have the magic they achieved in 2017-18, but also an anticipated collection of players who shape up as wildly powerful in 2018-19 if everybody’s healthy and remains in the fold.

In Arike Ogunbowale, Marina Mabrey, Jessica Shepard and Jackie Young, this season’s four statistical giants are each expected back.

Then you can stir in an All-American forward in Brianna Turner. If she regains her previous form after her year-ago knee injury, she brings a defensive presence that dwarfs anything the Irish were able to present this season. And that’s to say nothing of her 14.6 career scoring average.

Plus, there’s the return of center Mikayla Vaughn, who made an instant impact as a freshman before suffering her knee injury after just six games. She’s joined by another sophomore-to-be in Danielle Patterson.

And then there’s the arrival of a highly regarded freshman quartet in Jordan Nixon, Katyln Gilbert, Danielle Cosgrove and Abby Prohaska, the first two among that group coming aboard as McDonald’s All-Americans.

Upon signing Nixon in November, coach Muffet McGraw indicated that she was already envisioning the New York native as ND’s starting point guard next season.

That could change given the development of Mabrey as a point guard this season.

Besides, if Nixon does start, who doesn’t among Mabrey, Ogunbowale, Shepard, Young and Turner?

A nice problem to have anyway.

Only Kathryn Westbeld and backup Kristina Nelson have exhausted their eligibility among the players who finished 2017-18 active for Notre Dame.

Granted, Westbeld, often called “the glue” by McGraw, brought more intangibles that stretched beyond her statistical measure than anybody, while the likewise beloved Nelson was described as “a mother figure” by teammates.

There’s something to be said for the Irish again having to find that right chemistry.

There’s also something to be said, however, for imagining that ND will find it — and that the driven foursome of Ogunbowale, Shepard, Mabrey and Young will keep getting better.

Ogunbowale is already a superstar, with a “mamba mentality” for winning; the fiery Mabrey demonstrated her adaptability this season in a way that had coaches heaping praise; and McGraw indicated over the weekend that Shepard and Young will continue expanding their already potent games.

“She’s really just scratching the surface,” McGraw said Saturday of Shepard, who was an immediate interior force offensively for ND this season after spending the first two years of her college career at Nebraska.

“She is going to start stepping out and shooting jumpers, I think, next year,” McGraw said. “This year, we really needed her around the basket. When she steps out, we don’t have a lot of rebounding inside. … So I think next year she’ll work all summer. She does get in the gym and shoots a lot, but I would like to see her step out and do a little bit more.

“With Brianna coming back next year, obviously, we’d have somebody on the inside.”

As for Young, McGraw already has described her as possessing the potential to become the best player in ND’s rich history.

Young did nothing to dispel the lofty assessment Friday, when she struck for a career-high 32 points against none other than beastly No. 1 Connecticut in the national semifinals.

“Her game is kind of still evolving,” McGraw offered Saturday. “I think there’s a couple games where she made some big threes. I’d like to see her shoot more of them.”

Given what appears to lie ahead, Irish fans would like to see more ND women’s basketball.

They’ll have to wait until next November now.

But, again, it’s not too soon to talk about it. Eagerly.

More on tore four

McGraw said Saturday that Vaughn continues to be “way ahead of schedule” in her recovery from the torn anterior cruciate ligament she suffered at a Nov. 28 practice.

Vaughn joins Turner as the two anticipated returnees among the four Irish players who have each suffered ACL injuries in the last year, beginning with Turner’s in last season’s NCAA Tournament.

Guards Mychal Johnson and Lili Thompson will not return.

Johnson, scheduled to graduate soon, has a season of eligibility remaining and was invited to return, according to McGraw, but will not be doing so, the coach said Saturday.

She averaged 2.4 points in 85 career appearances.

Thompson, a graduate transfer from Stanford who was injured 14 games into the season, has “exhausted her eligibility,” McGraw reiterated over the weekend.

She averaged 5.9 points and a team-leading 4.6 assists in her lone season at ND.

A GIF worthy National Championship celebration. @SBTribune#NDInsiderpic.twitter.com/CHbfF55jnA

— Michael Caterina (@MLCaterina) April 2, 2018

Notre Dame's Jackie Young takes down the next with teammates following Notre Dame's win over Mississippi State in the NCAA Women's Tournament National Championship game, Sunday inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)