The two basketball offices at the University of Notre Dame possess an interesting contrast in premier leadership.
Men’s head coach Mike Brey — at his peak of popularity in year 18 following the best three-year stretch at the program since the late 1970s and with recruiting flourishing — is often perceived as the cool breeze and prides himself as “the loosest coach in America” when it comes to composure.
Conversely, 31st-year Fighting Irish women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw has been known for an unbridled intensity that helped get her enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this Sept. 8.
For the past eight seasons the Notre Dame women basically have had the second-best program in the country, one where an Elite Eight finish is now a letdown. The Irish have won four straight outright ACC titles while posting a 74-2 ledger in the league, and the year before that won the 2013 Big East over the UConn dynasty.
Since 2010 the Irish are 240-24 (.909), but this preseason McGraw said Brey’s manner needs to rub off on her some more.
“I’ll be talking to Mike Brey quite a bit this year,” McGraw stated. “I think I can be patient early on, but I’m not going to be patient with the upperclassmen. They need to be ready to go.”
Dealing With Setbacks
The preseason has had numerous setbacks, delays and frustration that already have tested McGraw:
• Two-time All-American forward Brianna Turner will be sidelined for the season while recovering from her knee injury in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament.
“A huge blow to the defense,” said McGraw of not having Turner's shot-blocking presence. “We’re going to have to take more charges, we’re going to have to maybe work some double teams, help each other a little bit more, make sure our rotation is perfect, maybe play more zone — just a lot of different things we’ll have to try without Bri.”
• Like Turner, 6-4 junior Jessica Shepard, who transferred from Nebraska this spring, was a top-5 recruit and a two-time All-Big Ten performer who averaged 18.6 and 9.2 rebounds per game. She has filed paper work with the NCAA to be eligible this season, but the decision is still pending.
“They sent back a few more questions, so we’ve sent those back,” said McGraw of Shepard’s standing that remains in limbo. “Maybe another week. It’s hard to plan when you don’t know if she’s going to be playing or not …It’s been a little frustrating.”
• A third “big,” senior Kathryn Westbeld — the glue of the team, per McGraw — had surgery on her ankle last April that had her playing well below 100 percent the final three months. While the surgery was successful, she is still feeling enough pain to where she is not slated to practice until around Nov. 1, and the conditioning work will take some time as well.
Westbeld averaged 8.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and was third in assists (76) last season while doing the grunt work such as setting screens or helping the Princeton offense flow effectively while in the high post.
• Stanford graduate transfer Lili Thompson, a two-time All-Pac 12 pick, has been tabbed to replace four-year starter Lindsay Allen at point guard, but she has been sidelined and hobbled by an ankle injury since August.
“Lili is probably 80 percent right now … just started going full court a couple of days ago,” McGraw said. “She’s pretty close.
“Everything revolves around the point guard, it’s the most important position on the floor. You want be patient, but you have to bring her along so quickly that you can’t really spend the time that you would have with a freshman coming in … However, she’s got great experience, so she doesn’t need to be brought along as slowly as a freshman would.”
• Junior guard Marina Mabrey was sidelined all summer with her own injury, but has been able to practice, mainly at point guard right now. Once Thompson returns, McGraw wants Mabrey back at the off guard, where she averaged 14.6 points per game last season and drained a team high 75 three-pointers.
• Reserve senior guard Mychal Johnson also was finally cleared to begin practice this Friday (Oct. 13) to provide depth at both guard slots.
"We’re starting to see how rusty we look because there’s somebody new at the helm [at point guard] and trying to put those pieces together, different people playing together, it’s been really challenging,” McGraw said.
“It’s kind of fun because it’s a whole new puzzle for me to put together…I think we’re a good team but we’re not a great team right now. We have some work to do before the season comes.
“Right now it’s just incredibly stressful trying to get us to be at the level we need to be at to compete for a national championship.”
It will be a guard- and perimeter-oriented lineup with four probable double-digit scorers in Mabrey, Thompson, junior Arike Ogunbowale and sophomore Jackie Young. Ogunbowale was the top scorer last season with a 15.9 points per game average, while 2016 Naismith Player of the Year Young, hampered some by injuries as a freshman, is capable of doubling her 7.3 average as a freshman.
“Those guards are as good as anybody in the country, so we definitely have talent,” McGraw said. “[Young] is the most improved player coming off the summer. … She’s taken a really active role on both ends of the floor. I couldn’t be happier with any one player than her right now. I think she’s going to have just a tremendous year.”
Ogunbowale and Mabrey averaged 30.5 points per game between them last year while combining for 139 threes, and they will be counted on to be consistently prolific on offense.
Because Thompson is just getting back into a basketball rhythm and the status of Westbeld and Shepard is uncertain, if the Irish had to open this week 6-3 freshman Mikayla Vaughn and 6-4 graduate student Kristina Nelson would join the trio of Mabrey, Ogunbowale and Young in the starting lineup. The other freshman, 6-2 McDonald's All-American Danielle Patterson, is trying to find her niche for now, according to McGraw.
Rebounding and defense (especially in the interior) will determine whether the Irish can once again be a viable contender for the Final Four.
Nelson appeared in 34 games last season, averaging 3.5 points and 2.9 rebounds primarily as a spot player. Vaughn could be an X-factor with the blue collar work where Westbeld has excelled.
“I think you’re going to be surprised with Mikayla Vaughn’s activity level," McGraw said. "She’s a really high energy level player, so she is somebody I am counting on. Jackie Young I think may be our leading rebounder this year, and we’ll hope that the posts can have kind of a committee of good rebounding while they’re in there.
“I think Arike needs to rebound more, and that’s going to be a big part of our defense. We have got to rebound better … We need to have a better commitment defensively. I think we’ve seen a little bit of that so far, but we need a little bit more.”
The season opens Nov. 11 versus Mount St. Mary’s before playing seven straight on the road, including overwhelming national title pick UConn, reigning national champ South Carolina (likely in the Golf Cost Showcase Thanksgiving weekend) and Pac-12 power Oregon State.
“Hopefully the non-conference schedule will prepare us for the conference, which will prepare us for the NCAA Tournament, and by March we will be playing our best basketball of the year,” McGraw said.
2017-18 Women’s Numerical Basketball Roster
1 Lili Thompson G, 5-7, 5th
2 Kaitlin Cole# G, 5-10, So.
3 Marina Mabrey G, 5-11, Jr.
5 Jackie Young G, 6-0, So.
11 Brianna Turner* F, 6-3, Sr.
14 Mychal Johnson G, 5-7, Sr.
21 Kristina Nelson F, 6-4, 5th
23 Jessica Shepard^ F, 6-4, Jr.
24 Arike Ogunbowale G, 5-8, Jr.
30 Mikayla Vaughn C, 6-3, Fr.
32 Danielle Patterson F, 6-2, Fr.
33 Kathryn Westbeld F, 6-2, Sr.
40 Maureen Butler# F, 6-1, Jr.
* Taking medical redshirt in 2017-18
^ Possibly sitting out because of NCAA transfer rule