Notre Dame Fighting Irish Women’s Basketball Future

Sometimes it is still difficult to fathom.

• During the 2010-19 decade, Notre Dame women’s basketball was 337-39 (.896 winning percentage).

• It advanced to at least the Sweet 16 all 10 years, seven Final Fours, five title game appearances and captured the 2018 national championship.

• In an eight-year stretch from 2012-19 the Fighting Irish were 122-6 (.953) in either the Big East or Atlantic Coast Conference, winning or sharing the league title each time.

• Connecticut, Notre Dame, Baylor and even Stanford were to women’s basketball during those 10 years what Alabama, Clemson Ohio State and even Oklahoma have been to college football over a similar span.

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Notre Dame Fighting irish women’s basketball
Notre Dame will be expected to return to the NCAA Tournament next year. (UND.com)

Just two years into the 2020s, UConn and and Stanford are once again No. 1 seeds in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Baylor No. 2 … and Notre Dame is 23-28 in that time.

A 13-18 debacle in 2020, Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame head coach Muffet McGraw’s final season, was followed by a 10-10 outcome this year under her groomed successor Niele Ivey, the starting point guard for McGraw’s 2001 national champs and an esteemed assistant from 2007-19.

It has been one of the most precipitous declines in NCAA history in any sport in such a short period of time.

Many of the reasons have been expounded upon: back-to-back mediocre (by Notre Dame standards) recruiting hauls in 2017-18, injury setbacks to prime personnel, several transfers and some near recruiting misses — especially with low-post players.

Nothing one can do about it now. So what are the next steps and top questions for the future? Here are five:

Will Ivey Thrive In The Future?

It is too early and premature to answer — and we would say the same had Notre Dame finished 17-6 and a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Rookie mistakes are part of the learning curve, and Ivey had her share, especially a pattern of fourth-quarter implosions. It was an underwhelming debut campaign, most notably blowing a 12-point lead at last-place Boston College with 2:40 left, and falling apart in the ACC Tournament opener against a Clemson team that had lost seven straight and 11 of its last 13 (yet beaten the Irish earlier by 23 points).

However, there is a reason why even McGraw was only 13-18 last season. Imbalanced recruiting compounded by a pandemic and some early absences of needed personnel provide a mulligan, particularly for a first-year coach such as Ivey.

The elephant in the room is that it is also extremely difficult to follow a coaching legend, as Hunk Anderson, Terry Brennan, Bob Davie and even Dan Devine — who won a national title — showed in another Notre Dame sport.

As an assistant, Ivey often played the “good cop” to balance McGraw’s sometimes biting, demanding nature. There is an adjustment there as well.

What Should A Realistic Expectation Be Next Season?

If this team doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament with what could be six McDonald’s All-Americans (not even including top-5 recruit Olivia Miles), then start blaring the alarms.

At the beginning of this year, we viewed an NCAA Tournament bid as a realistic aspiration. The Irish were the “third team out” in the 64-team field.

Then in Year 2 (2021-22), we felt vying for a Sweet 16 berth should be achievable. Certainly, at least one win in the NCAA Tournament.

Finally, by year 3 (2022-23), with a much more senior- and junior dominated lineup, top 10-15/Elite 8 contention could be back in the cards through quality program development.

Forget about seven Final Fours in nine years, as it was from 2011-19. Those days are over, and a little more parity is occurring.

But if Ivey and Co., regain their past recruiting success — including landing 6-2 top-5-prospect Ayanna Patterson from Fort Wayne, Ind. this week — and proper development occurs, the Irish could once again return to the Final Four scene sometime in the 2020s.

What Does The Lineup Look Like Next Year?

Guard Destinee Walker said she is not returning for a seventh year, and center Mikki Vaughn has given indication she was leaning toward not coming back for a fifth.

Thus, we could see the frontcourt comprised of 6-3 Stanford graduate transfer Maya Dodson at center, 6-3 ACC Rookie of the Year Maddy Westbeld at the four — her stated preference — and 6-2 junior Sam Brunelle at the wing, where her three-point shooting prowess could be better utilized on offense while not having to be a post defender again.

In the backcourt, Ivey believes that in Miles she has a Skylar Diggins-like future star power at the point, and her rise in the six games she played as an early entrant provided some evidence that it wasn’t just hyperbole.

Junior Ayana Peoples and senior Dara Mabrey have different skills sets as “co-starters” at the off-guard slot.

Peoples is an aggressive, willing defender and one of the more fierce, productive and instinctive 5-10 rebounders one will find in the game. Her shooting stroke needs to improve, as she is 5 of 29 (17.2 percent) in her career from three-point range and 69 of 138 (50 percent) from the foul line.

Typical in her family, Mabrey is a terrific pure shooter who, like Peoples, can help at the point in a pinch. The Virginia Tech transfer has averaged double-figure scoring all three of her college seasons, 11.3 this past year.

Five of those six were top-20-ranked players by ESPN Hoopgurlz coming out of high school in their respective years: Dodson (11), Brunelle (6), Peoples (18), Westbeld (20) and Miles (8). Few teams can assemble that kind of a lineup. It’s up to the staff to make it function collectively. It’s not about who are the best individuals, but how five can mesh as one selflessly by playing hard, playing smart and playing together.

The bench help also could include two seniors in guard Katlyn Gilbert (ranked No. 27 in her class) and role player Abby Prohaska, who provides instant energy and a knack for making the right basketball play.

Incoming freshman Sonia Citron, a 6-1 wing, is yet another top-20 recruit (No. 16 on ESPN) and McDonald’s All-American.

The roster has enough pieces to where 6-foot current freshman guard Allison Campbell — ranked No. 27 in the country and a 3,000-point scorer in her high school class — can’t find playing time.

Where Do The Irish Need To Improve Most?

Finishing games, limiting turnovers and rebounding, for starters.

Five games this year were lost with fourth-quarter meltdowns, and the hope is that experience will be beneficial in the future rather than a mental block.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame also finished the regular season 236th out of 336 Division I teams in turnovers (17.1 per game) and 191st in rebounding margin at minus-0.7 per game, including 70 more offensive rebounds by the opposition.

Those stats spoke to the need of leadership at point guard and better low-post presence.

Point guard should be taken care of in years to come with Miles.

A reliable, healthy anchor in the low post also has been a missing piece. Current 6-5 freshman Natalija Marshall, sidelined this past year while recovering from ACL surgery, might be able to assist in that role, although she has been reputed to be more of a face-up player than a back-to-basket figure.

Marshall was ranked as high as No. 18 by Prospects Nation, so there is some raw talent with which to work. How ready she will be for 10-15 minutes worth of action next season will remain an X-factor, but the hope is that she or 6-3 classmate Amirah Abdur-Rahim can take some of the interior pressure off Dodson and Westbeld.

Who Could Make The Most Strides?

Health setbacks and a preseason foot injury significantly affected Brunelle, and it was quite conspicuous in her conditioning.

One of the nation’s elite recruits who averaged 34 minutes and 13.9 points per game as a freshman, those figures dropped to 23 minutes and 8.7 minutes this year.

If she can make the strides that Jessica Shepard did in her conditioning work between her junior and senior seasons, it could go a long way toward helping Notre Dame return into the highest-rent district of women’s college basketball, where Ivey has been as a player, assistant, and now hopefully as a head coach.

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