Some quirks to Notre Dame's women's basketball schedule

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — There’s a gargantuan gulf of idleness within the Notre Dame women’s basketball schedule this season, a gulf that’s interrupted only by a school that goes by Guelph.

From Dec. 12 to Dec. 28, the Irish will play just once — and that once will merely be an exhibition against the University of Guelph (Ontario), set for Dec. 21 at Purcell Pavilion.

Coach Muffet McGraw acknowledged Tuesday afternoon, following the release of her team’s power-packed schedule, that the circumstance is potentially not ideal, though there’s also little way to know for sure given little previous data.

“December is really hard to schedule anyway,” McGraw said, “and final exams this year are like a week later than usual (Dec. 16-20). I don’t know if anybody else’s were like that, but we had a hard time finding games. We still got to our full complement, but we were lucky to get the (exhibition shifted from preseason to Dec. 21) to help fill in that gap.”

If one doesn’t count the exhibition — and indeed, exhibitions by their name don’t count — Notre Dame’s 18 regular-season days between games Dec. 11 and 29 will be the program’s second-most of the 33-year McGraw era, surpassed only by a 20-day stretch in December 1994.

Even counting just the 10 days from Dec. 11 game against DePaul to the exhibition, it’ll be the longest in-season layoff that ND’s experienced since 11 days in December 2012.

Last season’s national runner-up Irish team never went more than eight days between regular-season games, same as the previous season’s national title club.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” McGraw said of whether December’s layoff is a concern. “We could get there and be like, ‘Thank God we have a break.’ Or we could wish we were playing. I don’t think you ever know until you’re there.”

What the Irish do know already is that they have one of the nation’s premier schedules.

It includes 10 games against opponents rated in ESPN’s latest preseason Top 25, two of those contests coming against No. 8 Atlantic Coast Conference rival Louisville.

The matchups also include No. 3 Connecticut, No. 11 Florida State, No. 15 North Carolina State, No. 16 Minnesota and No. 18 DePaul, each of those teams rated ahead of No. 20 Notre Dame after the Irish saw their entire starting lineup taken in last April’s WNBA draft.

No. 22 Miami, No. 23 Michigan and No. 25 Michigan State are all on the ND docket as well, as are Tennessee and Syracuse, two other teams that ESPN “also considered” for its rankings.

“It’s an incredibly ambitious schedule,” McGraw said. “We are playing against one of the toughest schedules in the nation with a very young team. I think we definitely are going to learn a lot about ourselves.”

Added McGraw, “We didn’t know Jackie (Young) was leaving when we made the schedule.”

Young renounced her remaining season of eligibility last April and wound up the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Beyond that December gap, this season’s schedule is likewise unusual in the number of later games.

Weekday home contests against Michigan State, Minnesota and Virginia Tech, along with a visit to Duke, are all slotted for 8 p.m. starts. Three of those games will be on the ACC Network that launched last month.

“It bothers me, and I think our fans are going to hate it,” McGraw said of ND’s backers, known to include a considerable senior set. “I’ve never liked late games. They’re not good for fans, and certainly not for student-athletes, especially on the road, so really disappointed there.”

Over the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, not including holiday invites, the Irish played just one regular-season game that started later than 7 p.m.

ND’s lineup of ACC Sunday games is peppered by a later flavor as well. Four of those, including three at home, are scheduled for 4 p.m. tips. That’s after having just one Sunday league game start that late over the last two seasons.

This season also marks the expansion from 16 ACC games for each team to 18. Boston College, Pittsburgh and Syracuse join Louisville as ND’s four home-and-home opponents. The Irish are expected to keep those same doubles for the foreseeable future.

“I think they’re trying to do it geographically, which makes sense,” McGraw said of how each school’s set of double foes was determined.

Making less sense to the coach was going from 16 to 18 in the first place.

“The coaches were in favor of keeping a 16-team schedule,” McGraw said. “The ACC’s been No. 1 in RPI three or four of the last five years, so I’m disappointed we had to go to 18. I understand it’s for TV, I get the reasoning, but 16 gave us flexibility and I think 18 might hurt everyone’s non-conference schedule (strength). You might see RPI go down.”

Once finalized, Notre Dame’s TV exposure this season is expected to include up to three contests on ESPN or ESPN2, at least seven on the ACC Network, six on ACCN Extra and two on RSN.

Irish hurting

The availability of four Notre Dame players is at least temporarily in question as the Irish get set to open official practices Friday, Oct. 4

Junior center Mikayla Vaughn and graduate transfer guard Destinee Walker have not been medically cleared for full-court action yet, according to McGraw, though the coach added that there’s a chance each will be next week.

Vaughn underwent a surgical procedure on her knee over the summer that McGraw described as non-invasive.

Walker, who missed nearly all of the last two seasons at North Carolina with multiple injuries, is likewise “working her way back,” according to the coach. “She’s up to doing half-court and she did do individual workouts.”

Sophomore guard Katlyn Gilbert, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury that led to surgery, has a “bad ankle,” per McGraw, and might be “a couple weeks” from returning to action.

Freshman guard Anaya Peoples is out with mononucleosis.

Notre Dame has just nine scholarship players on its roster along with walk-on Nicole Benz. The Irish could’ve opened practice earlier in the week next week under NCAA guidelines than the targeted Oct. 4 start, but McGraw has opted to delay first official workouts before.

ND WOMEN’S SCHEDULE

All times Eastern

November

5 — at Fordham, 7 p.m.; 8 — Loyola (Md.), 6:30 p.m.; 11 — Tennessee, 7 p.m.; 14 — Michigan State, 8 p.m.; 20 — Toledo, 7 p.m.; 23 — at Michigan, 1 p.m.; 28-30 — Cancun Challenge (28, vs. Florida Gulf Coast, 1:30 p.m.; 29, vs. South Dakota State, 11 a.m.; 30, vs. South Florida, 11 a.m.; in Cancun, Mexico).

December

4 — Minnesota, 8 p.m.; 8 — at Connecticut, 4 p.m.; 11 — DePaul, 6:30 p.m.; 21 — Guelph (exhibition), 1 p.m.; 29 — Clemson, 4 p.m.

January

2 — at Pittsburgh ©, 7 p.m.; 5 — at Syracuse ©, 4 p.m.; 9 — Boston College ©, 7 p.m.; 12 — North Carolina State ©, 4 p.m.; 16 — at Duke ©, 8 p.m.; 19 — Miami ©, 1 p.m.; 26 — at Virginia ©, 2 p.m.; 30 — Louisville ©, 7 p.m.

February

2 — at Georgia Tech ©, 2 p.m.; 6 — at Wake Forest ©, 2 p.m.; 9 — Pittsburgh ©, 4 p.m.; 13 — at Boston College ©, 7 p.m.; 16 — at Louisville ©, 3 p.m.; 20 — Virginia Tech, 8 p.m.; 23 — Syracuse ©, noon; 27 — North Carolina ©, 7 p.m.

March

1 — at Florida State ©, 2 p.m.; 4-8 — ACC Tournament at Greensboro, N.C.

© — Denotes Atlantic Coast Conference games.

Notre Dame center Mikayla Vaughn (30) has yet to be cleared for full-court work following off-season surgery.