Will Notre Dame again be among the elite of the elite in women's college basketball?
Average, or anything around it, never was an option.
Not acceptable. Not even close.
Not for a Notre Dame women’s basketball program that enjoyed a recent string of nine seasons of at least 31 wins. A program that advanced to the NCAA tournament Elite Eight in eight of nine seasons, including a ridiculous run of five straight. A program that won Atlantic Coast Conference tournament titles five times in its first six seasons in the league. A program that knew nothing but success. Regular-season success. Postseason success. Success.
This has the look and the feel of a program in transition, but transitioning to what/where is unclear. Is Notre Dame sliding from elite status to just another college basketball squad? Is it just taking a brief break from all those conference tournament championships and national rankings and routine Final Four visits before it returns? Can it get back to being Notre Dame?
Optimism this time of the year abounds for every college basketball program, men’s or women’s, good or not good. It’s no exception for Notre Dame. The Irish women talk a good game about how this team can be this and do that, but can they go and win one?
Can they shrug off everything that’s been a struggle the last two seasons – one of those heavily impacted by a global pandemic that made winning in head coach Niele Ivey’s first year impossible — and do what this program has long done. Win. At home. On the road. In league play and away from it. In November. In March.
That’s long been Notre Dame. Succeed in the regular season. Succeed in the postseason. Keep playing when everyone else is watching. Stare down Connecticut and succeed. Stare down somebody else who’s supposed to take its place and say, nope, not yet.
Win big when big wins are needed. Required. Expected.
More:Potential is there for Notre Dame women
We’re working on three seasons since Notre Dame went to the Final Four. For this program, that feels like a lifetime. So much has changed since that 2018-19 season. Everything has been overhauled.
A Hall of Fame coach, who probably should’ve called it a career after the near-miss in Tampa, Florida in 2019, walked away in 2020 after her first losing season in 27 years. An unproven but ready assistant stepped into a seemingly seamless succession spot. Eight players — four over each of the last two seasons — have transferred. Notre Dame is a combined 47-38 the last three years. It lost games — at home and on the road — that it once had no business losing.
The last three seasons — 2020-22 — were the first three consecutive years since 2002-04 that Notre Dame did not spend every single week in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. One hundred percent of the polls always had Notre Dame. It had a 10-year run (2010-19) of finishing inside the Top 10 of the final AP poll, including five straight years of third or higher.
A program that long played with all the answers has too often looked and played like it has run out of them. It looks average. This isn’t your average women’s college basketball program. This is Notre Dame.
“These past two years have been a struggle,” said sophomore guard Olivia Miles. “Last season was really helpful in picturing (a Final Four), setting a target, knowing that we can do it, we can get there. It just really helps motivate us to get there.”
Everything about the end game a mystery
The Irish are currently slotted as a No. 2 seed in ESPN’s preseason projected NCAA Bracketology. They’re also considered an automatic qualifier, which means they’re favorites to win the ACC tournament. That might be shooting a little too high, shooting with memories of past successes still fresh.
Notre Dame lost at least 10 games each of the last three seasons for the first time since 2002-04. It hasn’t won a league tournament since 2019, its longest stretch since 2009-11. It hasn’t sniffed any of the last three Elite Eights and that hasn’t happened since 2008-10.
No player on this team has played in a Final Four while at Notre Dame, so there’s no real reference point on how to do that here. Ivey helped the program win its first national championship as a player in 2001, then was Muffet McGraw’s lead assistant on the team that won it all in 2018. The head coach can provide a Final Four road map, but that road — a hard one of so many twists and turns that necessitate careful navigation — can only be traveled by her players.
All nine of them. Yikes.
Talk about no margin for error. It’s razor thin for any program even in the best of years. This year? Notre Dame loses one player to a turned ankle or illness or early foul trouble and this season swings in a really difficult direction.
Luck of the Irish don’t fail them now.
Ivey can counsel her club on how to get back to basketball’s promised land, but they’re the ones that have to go and do it. When you haven’t done it, that’s hard. When so many past players in the program have done it, that’s even harder.
“It’s a mystery,” junior forward Maddy Westbeld said of a Final Four. “Last year, getting a taste of that Sweet 16 and being so close to an Elie Eight/Final Four appearance, just that little taste is going to take us one step further.”
It’s also going to be the hardest step. Wait. They'll see.
“It takes grit and resilience because it’s not a smooth road,” said graduate student guard Jenna Brown, who experienced two Final Fours while at Stanford, but she played in neither because of injury. “I want to do that with this group.”
Reminders of this program’s sustained success are everywhere. Step out of the tunnel that leads from the locker room to the court at Purcell Pavilion, and you can feel it. See it. Almost touch it.
Overhead hangs one blue and gold banner with all the program’s Sweet 16s (18). Two banners are needed to highlight its 10 Elite Eights and nine Final Fours. Then there are those two national championship banners.
“When you think of Notre Dame,” Ivey said, “you think of Final Fours.”
All of it is equally impressive and intimidating. Like, that’s the expectations around here. Better embrace it. This group does. They know they’re there. They know the standard.
Over at Rolfs Hall, the logos of those nine Final Fours stand guard over the practice court. Again, a daily reminder that just getting into the tournament or getting to the second weekend isn’t good enough. That’s not the norm.
Winning, and winning a lot, is.
“We kind of know what it looks like.” Miles said. “Every day we talk about it – where we want to go, how far we want to get. Just getting there is an actual challenge.”
Just knowing that, just being good, just getting to a Sweet 16 or an Elite Eight isn’t good enough. Sorry, but that’s how it is at the elite of the elite. At Connecticut. At South Carolina. At Stanford. And at Notre Dame.
Another long season awaits. Only this time, maybe this group, for all the right/winning reasons.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.