Sept. 26, 2007
With a little more than six weeks to go before tipping off her 21st season at Notre Dame (9 p.m. ET on Nov. 9 vs. Miami-Ohio at the Joyce Center), and only two weeks before the start of preseason practice on Oct. 13, Irish head women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw sat down with UND.com for a wide-ranging interview. Among the topics of discussion were the lessons learned from last year's 20-12 campaign and NCAA Tournament berth, as well as what the 2007-08 season holds for Notre Dame.
Q: What comes to mind when you think about the 2006-07 season and how it went?
A: I think we overachieved in a lot of different areas and the best part about it was that we bonded as a team and played like a team. It was great to see that even though Charel Allen was our leading scorer, we got contributions from all the players. Everybody that we played, and we had eight people in double figure minutes -- they all made significant contributions in one way or another at different times of the year. I thought they picked each other up. When one person wasn't shooting, someone else stepped in and hit great shots. I think when we lost Lindsay (Schrader) in the beginning of the season, everybody thought they had to do a little bit more and they did it. It was so much fun to be around the group because of their attitude. I thought Crystal Erwin gave us that presence with an attitude that we are not going to be intimidated. I think that really transferred down to the rest of the players.
Q: How did the freshmen mature and develop in their first season at the college level?
A: I was so pleased with all of them. I think we expected Melissa Lechlitner to be a pretty good player when she came in. Our expectations were pretty high for her and she certainly met our expectations and was rewarded with the conference all-rookie team selection.
Ashley Barlow, I thought, had a sensational year. She was amazing in that she could contribute so quickly and in so many different ways. She was a kind of player that did whatever we needed, no matter the game or the opponent. She was a terrific rebounder from the guard spot and she ended up playing 2, 3 and 4 positions. She is smart, listens, is very coachable and a great free throw shooter. She can do so many different things. Her versatility was a key factor and the biggest reason she got to play so much.
Erica Williamson was probably the surprise of the group. Coming in, we hoped she would be able to contribute a little bit and do some things in a limited role. She ends up playing a lot more than we thought she might just because of the way she improved so dramatically from the beginning of the year to the end, capped off by the South Florida game were she had the 18 rebounds. I think we were getting glimpse of her potential and she has the attitude and fearlessness we need her to have around the basket. She can do a lot of things and we are excited about her progress.
Q: Talk about the experience of going to the NCAA Tournament and getting yet another 20-win season under your belt, even with all the adversity you faced.
A: I thought it was huge for the freshmen to contribute and to play so much during the year, which really prepared them for the NCAA Tournament. When they got to the tournament, they were ready. Just to have that experience of playing in an NCAA Tournament, to know you're expected to go there every year, we're expected to win 20 games -- I think we set the bar pretty high, although our expectations were low from everybody else, especially being picked 11th in the BIG EAST. I think the team, particularly the freshmen, set a good foundation last year.
Q: What did it do for the team to realize they were two minutes away from beating North Carolina, the No. 2 team in the country (not to mention a top seed), and being in the Sweet 16 in a year you say you overachieved?
A: The players were very disappointed in the outcome of that North Carolina game when we felt we played pretty well. But coming from being picked 11th in our own conference to almost beating a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, they felt really good about that. I think that our confidence was at an all-time high. When you come from a successful program, your expectations are going to be pretty high and we've been to the Sweet 16 a few times. But for them it was a new experience, being the underdogs, that was something they really did a good job in that role.
Q: How did you deal with being an underdog?
A: It was a challenge. That was the biggest thing, that it was a challenge. It was a little bit of an insult that you hope the team will respond in a way that is positive and that is exactly how they took it. We talked a lot about that -- "we're 11th, they picked you 11th" and so we wanted a chance to every night go out show people and prove people that we were better than that. And not just a little bit better ... we really wanted to come in fourth and we had an opportunity to do that coming into the last game. I don't think there are a whole lot of teams that were picked that low and had a chance to have such a surprising finish. So all in all, I think it was great to be the underdog again.
Q: How do you transition into the coming year? How do you carry over the success you had last year to this season with a lot of the same players but with some new parts?
A: I think the players are expecting more. They want more for themselves and the team and they're happy they got us back to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. To get back on track was what we need to do. I think they are expecting big things. They expect to be ranked in the Top 25; they expect to be picked in the top of the BIG EAST. For them, last year was more of an anomaly and certainly we are not going to be underdogs very much during their careers. It's very different type of attitude, a different mindset of when you are the team that is supposed to win. Hopefully, that will be another learning experience for them and we'll go through this season and get them to learn that. Then, during their junior and senior seasons, we will be set.
Q: Do you sense a change in the vibe around the program over the last year or so because of the expectations from the players? Expecting nothing less than a national championship -- do you sense that?
A: I do and I think it's an entire team feeling. That's the difference. You always have one or two players that expect to win or want to win and know they are going to have to contribute to do that. Now everyone has taken ownership of the team. They all feel responsible for their success and they are all willing to go out and give it their all to do that. It's kind of a mindset but it's definitely accomplishing a whole team concept.
Q: Talk about the incoming freshmen, both as a group and individually.
A: We had some weakness last year and the first one was rebounding. Having to play a team like North Carolina, we needed a player to block shots, to score around the basket, to take people off the dribble. We really needed someone that could play at that that kind of level and certainly Devereaux Peters is that player. As a McDonald's All-American and a state champion in Illinois, she understands how important it is for us to have a player like her. She needs to contribute right away and to have that mindset of "I need to rebound." We're going to need someone to take over and we really have to have a shot blocker, a big guy, so we really hope she can contribute to rebounding and blocking area. Offensively, she will be fine, but we really need her at the other end.
Brittany Mallory gives us a three-point weapon. As the last team in the BIG EAST in three-point shooting, we obviously need some help with the three-point shot. Brittany will help us shoot from long range. She can shoot the ball very well and she's a very smart player. I think she will do really well in the Princeton offense because she can read the defense and move without the ball and has a lot of intangible qualities that are really going to help us.
Becca (Bruszewski) is someone that is very versatile. She is going to play a lot of different positions. She can rebound, she can score inside and out, she can pass, she can do a lot of things and I think also has that attitude of toughness, mental toughness that we lost with Crystal (Erwin). She will be somebody that will want to mix it up inside; she is going to be physical. She is looking forward to helping us on the rebounding side.
Q: What do you expect from sophomores going into this year?
A: This year's sophomore class is going to be one of the best to ever come out of Notre Dame. I think their expectations are "we have to move forward in the NCAA Tournament and be a Top 25 team each year." They want to get back to the Final Four, they want to win a national championship. That nucleus is one of the most talented we have ever had here.
Q: What do you expect Lechlitner, Barlow, and Williamson to do from last year to the upcoming one?
A: Lech will help run the team and prepare herself to take over running the team. She is going to shoot threes and she is working on her three-point shot, so I think she is going to be a much-improved three-point shooter. She had a great assist-turnover ratio and was among the BIG EAST leaders during the conference season. She will get even better at that. Her expectations are going be along the lines of running the team. We will see a little more leadership coming out of her, especially building on what she learned with the USA U19 World Championship Team this summer, but we do need her to score. She is somebody that is going to be able to score, she is going to be solid defensively and help lead the team.
Ashley Barlow continues to do the things she did last year. We would like to see her shoot a little more from the perimeter. She is going to be able to strictly play the perimeter now that we have a little more size with Lindsay back and Devereaux and Becca coming in. She will be able to face the basket more and play her natural position. We'll still look for her to drive the ball. She is the probably the best at getting the ball to the basket and finishing in the lane. She can rebound and we want to keep getting her to the free throw line because she is a really good free throw shooter. But we're looking for her to do most of the same -- score and rebound.
Erica is somebody we would like to score a little bit more. She really needs to be that force on the block offensively, so we can throw the ball in and force the other team to look and see if they want to double her or try to stop her inside. She needs to establish an inside presence on offense and that is something she is working on.
Q: How much of an X factor is Lindsay going to be?
A: She is going to give us the aggressiveness. She is very talented and obviously, she was our leading returning scorer and rebounder last year before she was injured. We know she can score, we know she can rebound and we need her to do both of those things. But for her, the whole team got better around her, so now they will be a much more balanced team. She is someone that can score, she can score around the basket and the perimeter but she can also be one to get some assists. With her and Charel, the defenses will key on them. There will be that balance of whoever is on that game will shoot more. It's going to be in the team structure.
During her freshman year, we were out of sync as a team and I think the one thing she is looking forward to is to get back in the flow of the game and just find a way to win. She wants to win. That is the kind of attitude that is going to help us win.
Q: How much do you think she has matured as a player and an individual during her year off?
A: Well, you hate to say an injury is a good thing, but the timing of it was good and the fact that she got to spend the year on the bench watching the team grow, watching what they could go, listening to the coaches, trying to figure out what she would do in those situations, was a great learning experience. Now she is a year older, has a year of maturity and has been able to work on her game. She is looking forward to getting back to having a lot of fun and playing. She brings a lot of passion and intensity.
Q: What do you see from the four seniors?
A: Tulyah (Gaines) has really grown into a great leader for this team. She is the perfect choice to lead this group and she has learned a lot. She has really become a lot more vocal and come out of her comfort zone in some ways to help lead the team and she is willing to do whatever it takes to win. She is someone the team respects because they know she cares about them and she cares only about winning. She doesn't care about her personal stats. She is going to spread the ball and play good defense. She is going to do anything she has to do for this team to win. She continually works on her game. She has improved every year. Her free throw percentage last year was tremendous. She will be one of our defensive stoppers this year, but her main job is to continue to run the team and she did a great job of it last year.
It was great to see Charel come on in the BIG EAST when she decided that we needed her to shoot the ball and she was willing to shoot the ball. She understands her role as well as anyone. She's not selfish. She's going to continue to do what she did last year. She's a great rebounder and I think how she and Lindsay play together, and how they play off each other, is going to determine our success. Charel is certainly capable of improving her three-point shot and we know she is capable of scoring a lot of points. We certainly want her to shoot a lot, but I think it's all going to be within the team structure because the balance is going to help us win this year.
We are expecting big things from Mel (Melissa D'Amico). She is going to have a great senior year. She knows what she has to do. She has learned a lot this past year. She has improved each year and we really want this to be her breakout year. She is capable of scoring around the basket and she's as good as anyone with her left hand, works on it extremely hard and does a really good job of working hard in the offseason. Hopefully, it will translate into better all-around performance this year.
Q: What do you see out of Amanda (Tsipis)?
A: Amanda is a huge part of our success this year because she is a great leader in a lot of different ways not always seen on the court. She's great in the locker room. She's the first person up on the bench at a timeout to encourage her teammates and she's always positive. She's constantly a team player even though she rarely gets to play. She's always willing to sacrifice to give whatever she can to help somebody else get better. She'll do whatever she can at practice or on the bench. She just wants the team to win, she's happy to be a part of it and we'd be a very different team without her.
Q: Talk about this year's schedule and what lies ahead.
A: Once again, we have challenged ourselves with our non-conference schedule and I think that's what we have to do to prepare ourselves for the BIG EAST because the BIG EAST keeps getting better and better. Having some Top 20 teams come in, having a chance to play in the Preseason WNIT, is just a great experience because we still have a lot of young players and it's great experience to have that tournament atmosphere. The Preseason WNIT is a challenge right off the bat because it will make us more focused at practice and give us something to look forward to right away with some big important games to start the season. Everyone wants to play good teams, and the way we've set things up really helps us prepare for the NCAA Tournament.
Q: What is your scheduling philosophy?
A: We want to play the best teams that we can play in order to keep our RPI high, in order to prepare for the next challenge. Play the preseason to get ready for the BIG EAST, play the BIG EAST to get ready for the NCAA Tournament. So when we get to the NCAA Tournament, we aren't going to play a team or a style of play that we haven't seen. When you play some of the best teams you can outside the conference schedule, you aren't going to be intimidated by anybody when you get to the NCAA Tournament. You will be prepared for any situation because you have seen great defense and different kinds of offense, a lot of different ways to guard people. It really gives you good experience. I don't think beating teams by 30 or 40 points in the preseason really helps your team at all. You can build false confidence and we want to challenge ourselves and see we are improving throughout the year.
Q: What does defense mean to this team? Where does it fit in terms of a long-term goal?
A: I think your success is determined by your defense and last year we struggled to guard the three-point line. That was our biggest problem and even though we rebounded pretty well, perimeter defense was a big weakness. We will have to work harder on that. I thought we were better defensively even though the numbers didn't show it. I thought we did a lot more things effectively. We pressed extremely well. We led the conference in steals. Overall, our defense improved -- it's just guarding the three-point line that we need to improve on.