Will Notre Dame rejoin the elite teams of women's basketball?

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

It’s not that Notre Dame can’t beat No. 1 Louisville on Sunday afternoon.

The Irish defeated Virginia Tech for the second time in two tries this season just a couple weeks ago, right before Tech turned around and beat then-No. 2 North Carolina State, just before the Wolfpack turned around and conquered the Cardinals on Monday.

Upsets occur all the time.

Again, it’s not that.

It’s that the Irish are clearly no longer residing among the elite of women’s college basketball, — win or lose Sunday — having gone 21-25 since the start of last season, that nosedive coming after a decade in which they were the envy of everybody not named Connecticut.

So, what will it take to get back there?

The simple answer: elite talent.

The more specific answer: experienced elite talent.

They have a bit of the former. They desperately need the latter.

That’s assuming they already have the right coach in Muffet McGraw disciple Niele Ivey. She’s the recruiting whiz, scouting whiz and development whiz who was intimately involved in every aspect of ND’s success for a dozen straight years before skipping last season’s 13-18 plummet to serve as an assistant with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies.

It remains a reasonable assumption that the Irish do have the right coach.

Just give her what we all want, time.

She’s gathering more of the requisite talent right now. She just added a point guard in Olivia Miles who’s expected both inside and outside the program to become ultra-special. She played a role in securing Sam Brunelle, a top-five recruit who’s just a sophomore now, but has battled nagging injuries, and she helped secure freshman Maddy Westbeld, among others, correctly projecting that Westbeld would make a major impact right away.

Meanwhile, it’s not complicated to figure out what led to last season’s drop through the floor.

All the genuinely experienced talent left all at once, in this case in the form of the most prolific career-scoring starting five in the history of NCAA Division I basketball.

It was a group that won the 2018 national title, then missed repeating in 2019 by a bucket.

Nothing remotely resembling that mass departure had happened at Notre Dame during any previous year in at least the last decade.

In fact, McGraw’s precision mapping over that time would make Rand McNally’s jaw drop, not to mention that she repeatedly proved she was picking the right players along the way.

Consider that in every single year of that decade, from 2009-10 to 2018-19, McGraw managed to have at least three starters back, sometimes more, and in eight of the first nine years of that decade, she added at least one new player, sometimes more, who would become a bonafide star.

How’s that even possible? Don’t know, nor do most coaches, or they would’ve copied it.

In every year of that decade, the Irish were either in the Final Four, ranked in the top four or both. They were national runner-up five times to go with that 2018 crown.

Over the last eight years of that decade, they were 279-23, two fewer losses than have come in these last two seasons.

Naturally, it wasn’t planned to be an all-starters-gone scenario after 2019.

Jackie Young was initially penciled in by McGraw to return for her senior season, but instead Young declared early and became the overall No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, an indicator of just how special she might’ve been collegiately in 2019-20.

Candidly, the ever-revolving door that is the transfer game, and that is part of nearly all programs now, caught up to Notre Dame like never before, too.

Can you imagine a backcourt last season of Young and Ali Patberg, the All-Big Ten first-team floor general who has helped make IU basketball relevant? Patberg is still at No. 17-ranked Indiana, though if she had remained at ND, her eligibility would have expired after last season.

For the record, two other ex-Irish players are making notable contributions for rated teams at the moment as well. Redshirt sophomore Jordan Nixon is the starting point guard at No. 7 Texas A&M (17-1) and redshirt senior Erin Boley a third year-starter at No. 12 Oregon (11-3).

Connecting Notre Dame’s current struggles to transfers, however, is more convenient than convincing. Patberg surely would’ve helped last season, but as solid as Boley and Nixon are, the Irish have similar players, possibly aboard because of the space created.

Besides, it’s not like the Irish haven’t benefited from the transfer game as well. McGraw understandably called Jessica Shepard “the greatest transfer in the history of basketball” after Shepard became a star player for ND’s 2018 national champs.

But back to now.

First off, the Irish are trending the right way.

This season’s 8-7 record, 6-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, is certainly pedestrian on its own merits, let alone next to the expressway that ND zipped along every year for a quarter of a century, but it is ahead of last season’s 13-18 and 8-10.

ESPN this week projected Notre Dame as the first team out in its NCAA Tournament forecast, while last season’s Irish had no chance at the field except to win the ACC Tourney. Instead, they lost to last-place Pittsburgh in the opening round.

ND, despite dealing with an assortment of injuries, is 5-3 in its last eight games. All three losses have entailed theoretically improbable late-game meltdowns, the kind that sometimes smack a team playing catch-up in terms of possessing elite talent that’s elitely experienced.

“I definitely think we’re on the cusp,” Ivey said this past week as she discussed whether the Irish could reach the mountain top again soon.

She emphasized that she’s more focused on her team’s day-to-day growth than on envisioning an exact timeline for getting there, but added that “I definitely think I have the pieces.”

The Irish also still have Ivey, have their rich history and have an overflow of other selling points as a university to entice premier student-athletes.

What they don’t have is the kind of record over the last two years that entices recruits.

Frankly, there’s no time to waste, but there’s also no indication Ivey is wasting it.

Is Notre Dame first-year head coach Niele Ivey the one that will put the Irish back on the national map?

WHO: Notre Dame (8-7, 6-5 ACC) vs. Louisville (17-1, 10-1).

WHEN: Sunday, 2 p.m.

WHERE: KFC Yum! Center, Louisville, Ky.

TV: ESPN.

RADIO: WQLQ (99.9 FM).

NOTRE DAME VS. LOUISVILLE

NOTING: The Irish are 5-25 all-time against No. 1-ranked teams and have never defeated a No. 1 club other than Connecticut, standing 5-17 against the Huskies and 0-8 against all others. … Louisville may not be No. 1 after Sunday’s game regardless of outcome given that the Cardinals lost 74-60 to visiting No. 4 North Carolina State on Monday, though they rebounded Thursday with a 97-68 road thrashing of Boston College. ... The Wolfpack are ND’s next opponent following Sunday’s game, a week from Monday in Raleigh. … UL leads the ACC with its 10-1 mark, followed by Georgia Tech at 9-2 (one of those losses being part of a split against the Irish) and N.C. State at 7-1. Notre Dame’s 6-5 league mark is good for sixth in the 15-team league, though Duke and Virginia opted out of their seasons. … The Cards are led by national Player of the Year candidate Dana Evans. The senior guard from Gary, Ind., is averaging 20.2 points, 4.2 assists and 1.5 steals. She’s shooting 49.7% on 2s, 45-of-113 for 39.8% on 3s and 51-of-54 at the line for 94.4% (second nationally among players with at least 20 attempts). … Freshmen Hailey Van Lith (12.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Olivia Cochran (12.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg in 22.0 minutes) are UL’s next two leading scorers. … Kianna Smith is at 11.5 points and 34-of-85 on 3s for 40%, while fellow juniors Elizabeth Dixon and Elizabeth Balogun, both ex-Georgia Tech players, are at a combined 15.0 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in a combined 40.5 minutes. … Leaders for the Irish include Maddy Westbeld (15.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Dara Mabrey (12.6 ppg, 3.7 assists, 32-of-74 on 3s for 43.2%), Destinee Walker (12.4 ppg, 40-of-45 at the line), Anaya Peoples (9.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Sam Brunelle (8.8 ppg, a season-high 19 in ND’s last game, an 81-69 loss at Syracuse) and Mikki Vaughn (7.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.5 blocks). … Early enrollee Olivia Miles debuted at Syracuse with four points, three steals and two assists in just under 15 minutes. … The Cards and Irish rank 1-2 in the ACC in 3-point percentage at 39.8 and 37.1, respectively. Though not an official NCAA stat, Louisville’s net effective field goal percentage is a glistening 54.6% and ND’s a robust 51.0. … The Cards cruised to wins in both of last season’s matchups, 86-54 and 82-49, after ND swept by 82-68 and 99-79 counts in 2018-19. … The teams meet again on Feb. 28 at Purcell Pavilion.

QUOTING: “I know it’s going to make us better regardless of the outcome. It’s going to make us better as a program and me as a coach.” — Niele Ivey, Notre Dame, on facing Louisville.