WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

Women's basketball: Grading No. 4 Notre Dame at mid-season

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent
Jan 1, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Niele Ivey talks to guard Cassandre Prosper (4) in the first half against the Boston College Eagles at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

SOUTH BEND — Right off the top, let’s acknowledge that if you think giving out a bunch of “A’s” is boring, this is going to be boring.

But with the Notre Dame women’s basketball team this season, you can’t help it.

The Irish (12-1 overall, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) are ranked No. 4 in the nation heading into Sunday’s trap of a trip to No. 22 North Carolina (with four straight losses, the still-talented Tar Heels may be a wounded animal, one that knows it’s successfully bitten the Irish in each of ND’s last two visits).

Early enrollee Cassandre Prosper makes Notre Dame debut in rout of Boston College

So, repeating an exercise that was offered both at midseason and after the season last winter, here comes a midseason report card on the Irish.

This time, though, ND coach Niele Ivey, willing to play along, was asked for her own overall grade just to mix in that variable.

“I would give us a B-plus,” Ivey said Friday. “I feel like there’s always room for improvement, but I love where we’re trending, I love what we’ve done this season and I love the character and identity that we’ve created with this group.”

As Ivey further pondered the assignment, she doubled down, adding that “I always feel like there’s areas for us to try and grow … but definitely a high B-plus.”

Not bad in the environment that is college coaching, one in which so many top coaches are tempted to naysay their own clubs, admittedly sometimes due to  reality, but other times due more to personality.

Ivey’s take aside, let’s look at ND further, starting with three key areas, then go into coaching, then the individual players, beginning with the five starters followed by the two other rotation regulars, then the rest of the bench, and finishing with an overall grade.

Bear in mind that the numbers below entering the weekend have been compiled, no less, against a schedule that RealTimeRPI.com has rated as the nation’s 17th-toughest so far.

Offense (A-minus)

The Irish are averaging 84.1 points per game to rank eighth in the country among 361 Division I teams, but when you apply the more objective, tempo-free metric of points per possession, they come in … exactly the same, eighth.

Up-tempo ND has built its potency partially on its ability to run, leading to an overall field goal percentage of 49.8 that ranks fifth in the country. The team’s net effective percentage is 15th at 53.8 and its 3-point percentage of 36.6 is sneaky good at 25th, although the Irish aren’t attempting many 3s.

Meanwhile, they also make more free throws (234-of-317, 73.8%) than their opponents even attempt (122-of-190, 64.2%), which, of course, speaks to defense as well, but we’re mentioning it here.

What’s scary is ND could be even better offensively if not for some careless giveaways, the reason for the minus in the grade. The team’s turnover rate of 18.1% is a relatively pedestrian 90th in the nation.

Defense (A-minus)

Given some years at ND, it almost feels delusional to say the defense is as good as the offense, but that might be where we’re at.

The prideful Irish have improved their man-to-man immensely while remaining effective in zone. They’ve held opponents to a net EFG of 38.9%, 11th-best in the nation. That includes ninth-best in percentage against 2s and 99th against 3s while limiting those attempts, all of it helping lead to 16th-best in fewest points allowed per possession.

The Irish don’t have that one absolutely havoc-raising perimeter defender (part of the reason their takeaway rate is a woeful 18.0%), nor that one head-turning eraser inside, either of which would make them truly elite, but collectively, they’re dang good.

Rebounding (A)

When two of your top three rebounders are guards, it’s either because they’re special, they’re covering for subpar players inside or some combination.

In the case of the Irish, it’s the first of those choices, because virtually everybody has been crashing the glass.

It doesn’t get noticed enough, but ND’s resounding rebounding rate of 59.5% is fifth in the nation. That includes 15th-best in offensive rate and 23rd in defensive.

Notre Dame’s board work, complementing the floor offense and floor defense, is a hearty chip in the team’s 24.6 scoring margin per game that is sixth-best.

Coaching (A)

Ivey’s been a whiz with major jumps each season, and with an able staff.

As a rookie, amid a pandemic, she guided the Irish to 10-10, the program coming off a 13-18 finish. Then came 24-9 last winter with a Sweet 16 trip before barely being denied an Elite Eight spot.

Now the Irish are 12-1, including 2-1 against ranked teams, and more specifically, they have two wins over top-six teams. A year ago at this time, they were 0-3 against ranked clubs.

Ivey’s ability to identify and land talent that fits her system has been undeniable.

That talent’s arrived both through traditional means and the transfer portal, where all three bigs added over the last two years have proven better upon working with widely revered assistant Carol Owens than their previous stats would’ve suggested.

Olivia Miles (A)

Notre Dame's Olivia Miles (5) drives past Virginia Tech's Elizabeth Kitley, right, in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Blacksburg, Va., Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)

Just a sophomore, the bespectacled spectacle leads the Irish in scoring (15.2), rebounding (8.0), assists (7.5) and steals (2.5). ESPN recently ranked her the nation’s No. 4 player.

If you’re nit-picking, Miles could cut down her 3.8 turnovers per game, and she probably will at some point, but some of that is a product of jaw-dropping creativity.

If she was a consistent 3-point threat, she might be an all-time great already, but as it is, she’s on her way to being an All-American.

Sonia Citron (A)

Jan 1, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Boston College Eagles guard Dontavia Waggoner (24) and Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Sonia Citron (11) reach for the ball in the second half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

ND’s most consistent player, the steady sophomore is averaging 14.9 points, 6.5 boards and a team-leading 32.2 minutes. She’s at 54% from the field overall, 15-of-24 on 3s for 44% and 37-of-42 at the line for 88%.

The businesslike Citron is in some ways a fascinating contrast to backcourt partner Miles, but the two are smooth together while benefiting each other.

Maddy Westbeld (A-minus)

Mar 5, 2022; Greensboro, NC, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Maddy Westbeld (34) drives on Miami Hurricanes guard Mykea Gray (5) during the fourth quarter at Greensboro Coliseum Complex. Mandatory Credit: William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

The junior forward, averaging 10.3 points and 6.7 rebounds overall, went through one five-game stretch of largely uninspiring play, but the former ACC Rookie of the Year has heated lately at 13.8 points and 7.7 boards in her last six outings.

Westbeld’s also cranked up her defense and is ND’s top shot blocker at 1.8, doubling her average of a year ago.

With just 16 attempts, the next step might be getting to the line more.

Dara Mabrey (A-minus)

Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Dara Mabrey (1) celebrates after a three point basket in the first half against the Connecticut Huskies at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Averaging 10.7 points, she’s best known as ND’s only volume-oriented 3-point threat, and she’s been streaky at times in that regard, but it’s hard to quantify some of the other things Mabrey brings.

The grad student guard engineers the offense when Miles is out and her edgy on-court attitude rubs off on other players in a valuable way.

Kylee Watson (B-plus)

Jan 1, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Boston College Eagles guard JoJo Lacey (4) attempts to pass as Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Kylee Watson (22) defends in the first half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

ND’s lone new starter has fit in from the get-go, a credit to both her and teammates.

Watson’s 57.7% from the field leads a team with several players over 50, to go with averages of 7.3 points and 4.0 rebounds.

The junior forward is the only Irish player who labors at the line (52%) and two of her most muted games statistically came against ND’s two best-rated opponents (two points each vs. UConn and Virginia Tech), but Watson adds an infectious motor.

Lauren Ebo (A)

Notre Dame's Lauren Ebo (33) fights for a rebound with Connecticut's Aaliyah Edwards, back, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Caterina)

At 10.6 points and 6.2 rebounds in 20.8 minutes, the grad transfer center coming off the bench is actually ND’s leader in both scoring and rebounding rate per minute.

Besides a soft touch near the basket and soft hands receiving, Ebo’s been a defensive presence, offers a wealth of big-game experience and oozes charisma.

KK Bransford (B-plus)

Notre Dame guard KK Bransford (14) drives to the basket as Northern Illinois forward Laura Nickel (32) defends during the Northern Illinois-Notre Dame NCAA Women’s basketball game on Tuesday, November 07, 2022, at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana.

Averaging 7.9 points in 20.6 minutes off the bench and called upon for key defense, it’s easy at times to forget that the seemingly unflappable guard is a freshman.

Bransford’s had some quiet games, but her abundant promise is evident, she’s ND’s best statistically at taking care of the ball (one turnover every 24.3 minutes) and her most recent outing yielded a season-high 17 points.

The rest of the bench (B-plus)

ND’s been able to turn to junior forward Nat Marshall and grad guard Jenna Brown for meaningful results relative to their spots in the pecking order, thus giving the Irish one of their deepest teams in recent years.

Now comes early enrollee Cass Prosper, who had some electric moments in just her second college game last week, to make the Irish even deeper.

Overall (A-minus)

It wouldn’t be hard to drop the “minus” given that the Irish might be one of the four No. 1 seeds if the NCAA Tournament field were announced right now, but ND’s hungry, can still get better and even Ivey went B-plus, so in the spirit of all that, we’ll oblige.