WBB: Checking in with the Champs

So, the football team is 12-0, which is awesome. But don’t forget that a new season has begun for the reigning national champions (writing that will never get old) – the women’s basketball team. They had a busy, celebratory offseason that included (among other things) a trip to the ESPYs, a European tour, appearances by Final Four hero Arike Ogunbowale on Ellen and Dancing with the Stars, and impressive performances by the six Irish alums who played in the WNBA this summer. Now Muffet McGraw and her team are back in action, so let’s take a quick look at the season so far and what we can expect going forward.

Missing Faces, New Faces

The Irish graduated four players after last season: Mychal Johnson, Kristina Nelson, Lili Thompson, and Kathryn Westbeld. Johnson missed all of last season and Thompson missed most of it as casualties of the ACL epidemic that plagued the team, but Nelson and especially Westbeld both played important roles on the championship team. Their leadership is something the team will be looking to replace this year.

Several new faces will be appearing for the Irish this season. A talented four-member freshman class is likely to see substantial playing time this season. Two of the freshmen have already collected their first starts – Jordan Nixon started in place of an injured Marina Mabrey for several early games, and Abby Prohaska started in one game when Jessica Shepard sat out with a sore ankle. Katlyn Gilbert and Danielle Cosgrove are also getting in-game experience.

While they aren’t new to the team, Brianna Turner and Mikayla Vaughn returned to the court this year after missing all (Turner) or most (Vaughn) of last season with… of course… ACL injuries. Turner is back in the starting lineup.

Season So Far

The Irish are off to a 6-0 start this season. In addition to an exhibition win over Lewis, the Irish picked up comfortable wins over Harvard and Penn. On November 17th, #1 ND visited #15 DePaul for what tends to be a challenging game. DePaul is well-coached and they played a tough game. ND struggled with turnovers early as they tried to figure out how to work through DePaul’s speed and tight defense. The Irish were able to pull away in the second half and used an impressive rebounding effort (48-23) and strong performance in the paint to beat the Blue Demons 101-77.

Next they traveled to Canada to spend Thanksgiving weekend competing in the Vancouver Showcase. The Irish collected double-digit wins against Gonzaga and Drake in the first two rounds to earn a spot in the final game against #9 Oregon State. This game featured the season debut of Marina Mabrey, who had been out with a lingering quad injury up to that point. The Beavers gave the Irish a run for their money, getting out to a quick start and not letting up. Oregon State led by as many as 14 points in the second quarter before the Irish began to chip away. ND took their first lead of the game early in the fourth quarter on a Jessica Shepard layup, and they eventually pulled away to the 10-point win. Once again, the Irish comfortably outscored their opponent in the paint (by 20 points, in this instance), but they did not get any scoring from the bench players.

Side note: When I first saw the picture of the Vancouver Showcase champions below, I thought they were pretending to hold an invisible trophy. Then I realized they actually received a glass plate for winning the tournament. Doesn’t make for great pictures.

Early Observations

With four of the five starters from the national championship team returning this year and the addition of Turner in the fifth spot as well as a deeper bench, I think many of us expect the Irish to put together another outstanding season. However, as the first six games of the season have indicated, there will still be a learning curve for this group. A lot of their early struggles can be attributed to a lack of experience playing together. With Mabrey out the first five games, a true freshman was playing point guard much of the time. Additionally, while Turner obviously isn’t a newcomer, her last game before this season was in March of 2017. She’s playing well, but it will still take time for everyone to get used to having her on the court.

It’s also interesting to consider that the Irish might actually be adjusting to having so many players available. The substitution options last season were limited given the injury situation, so you generally had the same few players on the court. Now they have to figure out how to play in different configurations. The coaches have to work out what groups they like together, and in what situations. Those things will take a little time, but when it all starts to click this team has incredible potential. A few quick thoughts:

  •  It is going to be so fun to watch Turner and Shepard play together this year. They both benefit from having the other on the court, and should be able to keep dominating teams in the paint.
  • All three of the walk-ons who joined the team last year after all of the injuries are back on the roster this year, but Kaitlin Cole, who saw the most playing time of the three, had knee surgery and will be out for the year. She has still been on the bench with the team during games.
  • McGraw has described Danielle Patterson as the team’s most improved player during the offseason, and she has definitely shown it in games so far. Highlighted by a career-high 14 points and 3 blocks against DePaul, her season is off to a good start.
  • Jackie Young had made a big leap between her freshman and sophomore years, and it looks like she’s done so again coming into her junior year. Young has been excellent early this season, at times carrying the team when others were struggling. Her increased confidence and scoring output will give opponents another thing to worry about when playing ND.
  • It probably goes without saying at this point, but Ogunbowale is still really good and very exciting to watch.

Burger Basket Leaderboard

Just for fun, I’m bringing this back again this season. When the team scores 88 points or more at home, the fans in attendance get coupons for free burgers. I’ll track which player is responsible for feeding the fans most often during the season. You may recall last year’s contest ended in a tie: Marina Mabrey and Kristina Nelson each scored the 88th point twice during the season.

This season, Jackie Young kicked things off with a layup early in the fourth quarter of the Irish’s season opener against Harvard to make the score 88-45 en route to the 103-58 final. She’s the only one on the leaderboard so far:

Jackie Young – 1

Coming Up

Thursday 11/29 – 7pm – #1 ND vs. #14 Iowa – ESPN2

Sunday 12/2 – 4pm – #1 ND vs. #2 UConn – ESPN

This week will provide a pair of tests for this team. Tonight the Irish will host #14 Iowa. The Hawkeyes are 4-1 and coming off a close loss to Florida State. Sunday will feature one of the season’s marquee games – the Irish will host #2 UConn in the Jimmy V Classic. The Huskies will certainly be looking to get revenge for their loss to ND in the Final Four and to claim the #1 ranking. Both teams have had some close games as they settle into the new season. As we’ve seen in past years, both are also likely to improve significantly by the time they could potentially meet again in the NCAA Tournament. This early season meeting doesn’t have high stakes beyond the bragging rights (okay, these are pretty important) but it provides a good benchmark. Both of this week’s games will be televised, so be sure to tune in and get your ND sports fix during the long football break.

By |2018-11-28T23:22:49+00:00November 29th, 2018|18S Reads, Basketball|11 Comments

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Dan ZibtonHitmanMore NoiseIrishKellyMikeyB Recent comment authors
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ND-Atl

Invisible trophy…hehehe

alstein

I lol’d too.

alstein

I’ve always been a little hesitant with this team. Yes, they returned most of a national championship winning squad. Easy #1 and title favorite, right?

BUT, they did have a…let’s say…unusual title run. It was much less dominant throughout the tournament than we typically see of a championship team.

So even though, yes, they won it all, but are we “overreacting” to that amazing 6-game stretch by anointing them the clear favorite? Aren’t they mostly the same roster that lost the ACC to Louisville and somewhat struggled their way through Nova, TAMU, and Oregon to get to the Final Four?

Certainly, adding Turner back into the mix is an incredible difference maker, which I do still think puts us over the top, but the freshman class is only pretty good whereas most of the other main contenders have added higher-impact freshmen to help compensate.

I’m not sure if their early season performance (waiting until late to put away good-but-probably-not-title-contending teams like DePaul and Oregon State) backs up my concern or tells me to shut up because they beat two top 15 teams but double digits. But I guess we’ll find out a lot more this week!

MikeyB
MikeyB

Last year’s squad had basically 6 healthy players for the end of the season, so this year’s team has the benefit of depth. I’m not sure we pull out those 4th quarter victories (at least not by double digits) last year.

But, at the same time, only the starting 5 scored against OSU. That’s a problem. I think I’ve settled on this being a top 3 team in the country, and probably the 2nd best team in the country. I really haven’t seen much of UConn this year, so I couldn’t say if we’re better than them. But I think we’re a tier below the average UConn team of years past. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I think we deserve the #1 ranking until we lose, but I’d guess UConn is probably better than ND.

Dan Zibton

Unfortunately, the baseline of “double digit victories over ranked but lower opponents” is a pretty common one in women’s hoops. Last year we, and most of the rest of the top 4-6, smoked mid-tier teams on a regular basis, and we were having conversations about how big the gap is between the top 6ish programs and everyone else in any given year.

Certainly double digit wins are better than not having double digit wins, and there’s clearly some growing (and healing) to do with this team, so I’m not in panic mode – I just kinda think there’s only a few games on the schedule this year that will really be a good litmus test of how good the Irish actually are this year. Let’s go run up the score on Geno on Sunday!

More Noise
More Noise

Super write up, IK — extremely helpful for those of us way out of touch.
Should be a crazy ride. Muffet was complaining earlier about this group not wanting to play D — hope that is not really an issue, but I would suspect that has to do with your point about playing different combinations of players?

Hitman
Hitman

Thank you for the writeup. D definitely looked good last night. Looking forward to Sunday. I would put our starting 5 up against any team in the country (including UConn). Hopefully our bench will develop as the year progresses.