Nov. 2, 2009
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fifth in a six-part series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2009-10 Notre Dame winter sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the powerful Fighting Irish women's basketball team, which made its 14th consecutive NCAA Championship appearance last season and has averaged better than 24 wins per year during the past 13 seasons.
In these uncertain times, stability and familiarity can be a welcome relief for many folks. It's not often that people can take comfort in knowing that things will remain largely intact and dependable, no matter how hard the winds of change may be blowing around them.
Fans of the Notre Dame women's basketball team may find a similar degree of comfort when it comes to the 2009-10 season. From top to bottom, the names and faces within the Fighting Irish program -- whether it be players, coaches or support staff -- remain almost exactly as they were at the end of last year. Thus, experience won't be in short supply for Notre Dame, as the Fighting Irish welcome back all 12 players from last season's 22-9 club that tied for fourth in the BIG EAST Conference and made its 14th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. That veteran core includes a starting five that has combined for 268 starts and 445 games played to date, not to mention 27 NCAA Tournament games (with 15 starting assignments).
"This is a very good team with good chemistry," 23rd-year head coach Muffet McGraw said. "They know each other and compliment each other well. We have a lot of different types of players that really can help us do things and we just really form a great unit with all of the pieces that we have. This year, we're going to have a lot of different combinations that are going to be able to play."
However, for all the reliability that one might expect from a team bringing back its entire roster, it's the changes that are likely to make this season as unpredictable as any in recent memory.
The most noticeable modification for Notre Dame may be its newly-refurbished arena, Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center. More than 40 years after the building opened, the legendary facility underwent a $34.3 million face lift during the off-season, adding numerous amenities, including chair-back seats throughout the upper and lower arena bowls that have modified the seating capacity to a cozy 9,149, as well as redesigned lighting and floor designs. What's more, the arena offers a new three-story southern entrance, via the expansive Rosenthal Atrium, and the new Naimoli Family Club Room, a 16,000-square foot hospitality area with premium club seating that will make its debut in January 2010.
"It's going to be a tremendous venue that people are going to love to play in and people are going to love to watch a game in," McGraw commented. "Just the image that it's going to portray, it's a state-of-the-art facility and a great intimate place to see a game. I think the crowd is also going to be even louder with the new arrangement. It's really going to add a lot to the experience of watching a game."
When the Fighting Irish take the court at Purcell Pavilion for the first time in November, fans are likely to see another significant alteration -- an elevated defensive intensity. Notre Dame was among the more productive offenses in the BIG EAST last season, averaging 71.5 points per game and shooting better than 43 percent from the field. Yet, that success didn't translate to the other end of the floor, as injuries and youthful inexperience led to some uneven defensive performances by the Fighting Irish, who wound up allowing 62.3 points per game and 70+ points in eight of their final 16 contests.
McGraw and her staff set about the remedy that problem from the moment the '08-09 season came to a close. Starting with the team's practices in preparation for its European tour in May 2009, "defense" was the buzzword for the Fighting Irish, with players sometimes not even picking up a basketball during workouts. Each and every player on the roster took a greater degree of accountability on the defensive end of the court, and it showed during that 11-day foreign tour, as Notre Dame allowed just 50.3 points per game and forced more than 25 turnovers per night in winning all three of their games against European competition (two vs. Italian professional teams, one vs. the French Junior National Team).
"Defense has got to be more important to us," McGraw said. "We have to have a good sense of urgency to get out and make it difficult for people to score on us. That's been our weakness and this year, we're going to be much better defensively. Our attitude and our work ethic are good and we're doing all of the right things. It's going to be really important for everybody to come into the season knowing that how they defend is going to determine a lot about the playing time."
The other intriguing development for Notre Dame this season will be the addition of its two freshmen guards, Skylar Diggins and Kaila Turner. Both players experienced a great deal of success at the high school level, with the South Bend native Diggins being a three-time prep All-American and the 2009 Gatorade National High School Female Athlete of the Year, while Turner twice earned all-state honors at Marian Catholic High School in suburban Chicago. Each player brings explosive offensive capabilities and an aggressive, blue-collar intensity on defense, and with the tremendous depth on the Fighting Irish roster, both will have the opportunity to grow and develop at their own pace while making solid contributions to the lineup this season.
The success of any team is predicated on its leadership and the ability of those leaders to keep their teammates focused on their goals each and every day. Notre Dame is in the enviable position of have three team captains -- fifth-year senior guard Lindsay Schrader, and senior guards Ashley Barlow and Melissa Lechlitner -- all of whom were chosen by a vote of their teammates to fill the leadership roles again in 2009-10. While the Fighting Irish have had numerous two-year captains, this will mark the first time the program has ever featured the same three players serving as captains in consecutive seasons.
"The leadership has been tremendous and that is probably the one thing that you always look at to see how successful you are going to be and our captains are tremendous leaders," McGraw stated. "Having them come back is just a great thing for this team. The three of them, they just want to win and whatever it takes for us to win, that's what they are willing to do."
With the trio of captains setting the tone, an added sense of urgency and intensity emerged during summer workouts, as Notre Dame enjoyed one of its most productive off-seasons in recent years. Coupled with their successful European tour, the Fighting Irish appear to have been molded by the personalities of their leaders and developed a sharpened focus heading into the 2009-10 season, one that could possibly be among the more memorable campaigns in program history.
One of the most fundamentally-sound players ever put on the Notre Dame uniform, Lechlitner mixes an outstanding work ethic with exceptional ball handling skills, a strong perimeter shooting game, poise under pressure and superb decision-making ability. It's these qualities that have McGraw firmly convinced she has the right player in the right place at the right time to help guide Fighting Irish fortunes this season.
"She's got one of the best pull-up jumpers in the game," McGraw noted. "She also probably has the best handle of any guard in the country. I would say that her ball handling is just exceptional. Her leadership is exactly what we need it to be. She is deadly from the free throw line. She can score in a number of ways and she can distribute the ball. She really has a very complete game and the addition of a little bit more aggressive defense is going to make her an all-conference player this year."
Nearly equal in terms of importance with this season's other changes will be the return of two key players from season-ending knee injuries. One of those returnees from the disabled list is junior Brittany Mallory, who has spent time at both the point guard and wing positions during her early portion of her college career. Prior to tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee early in overtime on Dec. 10 at Michigan, Mallory was enjoying a breakout year, averaging personal bests of 8.1 points and 2.9 assists per game, along with a 2.2 assist/turnover ratio and a .350 three-point percentage. The Baltimore resident also chalked up a career-high 19 points against Georgia Southern and made the first three starts of her career, solidifying herself as an important component in the Notre Dame rotation through the season's first seven games.
Following successful corrective surgery and rehabilitation, Mallory is expected to be back in the fold for the Fighting Irish when the 2009-10 season tips off in November. A cerebral player who already understands the intricacies of Notre Dame's complex offense, Mallory also is a reliable passer and ball handler and can stretch a defense with her perimeter shooting capability. In addition, she shows a scrappy fearless style at the defensive end, having recorded 42 steals on the way to BIG EAST All-Freshman Team honors in 2007-08.
"Right now I really look at Brittany as someone who can come in at the point if Lechlitner should get into foul trouble or just needs a rest and fill that role very well," McGraw said. "But she's so much more than that. She's going to be a great three-point shooter for us this year. She did great things last year in the brief time she was playing. Defensively, she is somebody that is not afraid to get up and to guard people and I like that intensity that she brings to the defensive end. She's not afraid to mix it up inside. She'll get in and be physical inside. She'll do whatever it takes, but I think eventually she won't be backing up the point because we'll have other people to do that, and then she'll be able to be in her natural role of the two-guard with just a great three-point shot."
With two upperclassmen and a former All-American/WNBA veteran-turned-assistant coach all set to show her the ropes, Kaila Turner should have a ready-made study guide for the transition to the college game. As a senior at Marian Catholic last season, Turner averaged 10.8 points and 3.6 assists per game, helping the Spartans to a 30-5 record and their fourth consecutive Illinois Class 4A sectional final. A two-time all-state selection, she led her teams to a combined 105-25 (.808) record in four seasons, including a run to the state semifinals as a sophomore in 2006-07.
Ranked among the top 20 incoming point guards in the country, Turner has the ability to elevate the tempo of the Notre Dame offense, and her playmaking skills should create additional opportunities for her teammates, particularly in transition. What's more, she offers a promising outside scoring touch, highlighted by a sharp pull-up jumper. Turner's speed and active hands on defense may give her added chances to make an early impact on the Fighting Irish rotation.
"I'm hoping that Kaila is a great defender," McGraw commented. "We would like her to be able to get up and guard people and really create some havoc defensively to really help our press. She has tremendous offensive capabilities, but as a point guard, she's always first looking to set the team up and to distribute the ball. She's got a great team attitude. She's smart and is going to pick things up, so I expect that this year she will be learning a lot in preparation for the future."
One of the hallmarks of Notre Dame's system is its versatility, with players able to fill numerous roles on the floor at a given time. As such, Ashley Barlow, Skylar Diggins and sophomore Natalie Novosel also could be called upon to run the point for the Fighting Irish this season.
Leading the way will be a pair of senior all-BIG EAST guards and two of the team's three captains in Lindsay Schrader and Ashley Barlow. Both players eclipsed the 1,000-point mark four games apart last season, the second-shortest span between 1,000-point scorers in program history, and they could be joined by a third millennium scorer this year, as Lechlitner is only 289 points short of the milestone. Should that occur, it would mark only the second time in program history that the Fighting Irish have had three 1,000-point scorers on the roster at the same time (joining the 2000-01 trio of Ruth Riley, Niele Ivey and Kelley Siemon, with the latter scoring her landmark point in her final collegiate contest, the 2001 NCAA national championship game win over Purdue).
A powerful presence on the court, Schrader is a matchup nightmare because of her ability to take bigger players outside and beat them off the dribble, or post up smaller defenders on the blocks with her size and strength. The Bartlett, Ill., native also plays with a fiery, passionate style that energizes both teammates and fans alike, and it's that intensity that will help set the tone and direction for this year's Notre Dame squad.
"I see great things from Lindsay," McGraw noted. "I'd say she had a great year last year in that she was our go-to player and someone we could really count on to score at times in the game where we really needed a basket. She really worked on her ability to score against a mismatch. She's probably going to play a little bit more on the perimeter than she did last year but she can play in both spots. Her defense has improved, and she's always working on continuing to improve. She's very hard on herself and that's what makes her such a good player."
Barlow was a second-team all-BIG EAST selection in '08-09 after leading the team in scoring (12.7 ppg.) and ranking third in rebounding (4.8 rpg.), while posting a team-high 22 double-digit scoring games, including a season-high 20 points in the NCAA Tournament first-round game against Minnesota. She also experienced significant growth at both the three-point line, dropping in a career-high 40 three-pointers (with a personal-best .364 percentage from distance), and on the defensive end of the court, where she logged a career-high 70 steals to become just the fourth Fighting Irish player to register 60+ steals in each of her first three seasons. Like Schrader, Barlow was among the conference's overall scoring leaders (19th) as well as during BIG EAST contests (20th, 12.9 ppg.), while also ranking second in the conference in steals during league play and fourth overall (both at 2.4 spg.).
The Indianapolis product has matured and blossomed before the watchful eyes of the Notre Dame faithful during the past three seasons, playing with a quiet, dogged determination that has won her the respect of both her teammates and opponents. Never one to back down from a challenge, Barlow boasts a strong blend of offensive and defensive skills with a relentless 40-minute motor that drives the team to succeed.
"Ashley Barlow has always been somebody who does all of the little things," McGraw observed. "This year we'd like her to do a little bit more. She's a very good three-point shooter and she needs to look at herself as a little bit more of a scorer and really kind of step out of her comfort zone to try and take over a little bit more of the scoring load, which is something she's capable of doing. Defensively, she's capable of being a defensive stopper and offensively, I'd just like to see the three-point shot become a bigger weapon for her."
The Fighting Irish have led the BIG EAST with seven players named to the conference all-freshman team during the past three seasons. One of last year's honorees was Natalie Novosel, who averaged 6.9 points and 2.9 rebounds per game with a .493 field goal percentage (tops among everyday players) while filling the role as one of Notre Dame's top reserves. The sophomore from Lexington, Ky., was a two-time BIG EAST Freshman of the Week, also ranking second on the team with 45 steals (1.5 spg.) and scoring in double figures nine times, topped by a season-best 19 points against Rutgers in late January.
A sleek, agile wing, Novosel attacks the paint with ferocity, while keeping defenses honest with a dependable perimeter shot that she worked hard to expand out to the three-point line during the off-season. Novosel also is a talented passer and playmaker, allowing her to fill in at the point guard position on occasion last year, particularly following Mallory's injury.
"Natalie's extremely talented, and we're looking for big things from Natalie this year and in the future," McGraw said. "She's going to be one of the all-conference players on our team. She has a great ability to get to the basket and she's probably the best on the team at getting to the rim and getting fouled. She's also an active defender and likes to get up and guard people. She can be somebody that we could use to really lock down the other teams' good guards. So she's got a tremendous upside as well. She had a great year and she's just going to continue to get better."
On a team with so much depth and talent, it's critical for each player to understand her role and be able to fill that job description to the best of her ability. Sophomore Kellie Watson emerged last season as one of Notre Dame's primary perimeter shooting threats, ranking second on the team with 28 three-point field goals and averaging 3.8 points per game. She was at her best during the non-conference season, tying the Purcell Pavilion record with six treys (on the way to a season-high 18 points) in a win over Michigan State, then adding three more triples (on four attempts) a little more than a week later in a victory over Purdue.
A native of Ionia, Mich., Watson also was a two-time BIG EAST Freshman of the Week selection, despite playing much of last season at less than 100 percent due to an ongoing recovery from shoulder surgery during the summer prior to her rookie year. Now fully-healed, Watson displayed an added dimension to her game during Notre Dame's European tour, averaging 7.3 points and a team-high-tying 6.3 rebounds per game in three Fighting Irish wins.
"We're expecting big things from her," McGraw continued. "Again, that Michigan State last year won the game for us and she was the player of the game. She came back against Purdue, so she's our Big Ten killer right now. (Laughter) We are really pleased with what she's done. It's exactly what we expected her to do and we want her to be that three-point threat from everywhere on the floor, but she also can do other things. She's a good rebounder and a great passer. She really can do a lot of things offensively. I think it took her a while to really get comfortable with her role and we expect that this year, she'll be a big piece of the puzzle."
If Watson is Notre Dame's long-range spark plug on offense, then her classmate Fraderica Miller is the galvanizing force for the Fighting Irish on defense. Coming off the bench with a bundle of energy, the Ellenwood, Ga., product caused problems for opponents with her speed and aggressiveness, particularly in pressure situations. She appeared in 23 games as a freshman, averaging 0.7 points and 0.6 rebounds while also nabbing 15 steals.
Miller spent much of this off-season working to diversify her game, particularly at the offensive end, and it would appear that effort is paying off. She has developed a steady outside shot, and her athleticism allows her to get into the lane and make plays at the rim. She continues to take advantage of her opportunities, having averaged 5.0 points and 4.3 rebounds per game with a team-high .636 field goal percentage during this summer's European tour.
"Frederica came in and created havoc defensively for other teams last season," McGraw said. "She was a very intense defender and really got up and made people uncomfortable defensively, which is exactly what you want her to do. She had a good week in Europe and did some good things for us, which we will expect will carry into this season, too."
Another role in the Notre Dame women's basketball program that has been filled with great players in recent years is that of the walk-on. From Karen Swanson and Anne Weese to Amanda Tsipis and now Alena Christiansen, these veterans continue to make contributions that aren't necessarily always seen by the casual observer, but yet they are vitally important to the team's success.
In the case of Christiansen, she was a member of the Fighting Irish practice squad for two seasons and also played in Notre Dame's legendary Bookstore Basketball tournament before getting the call to join the Fighting Irish roster as a walk-on guard midway through last season. Less than 24 hours later, she made her college debut in the latter moments of a win over Loyola-Chicago and a dream had been realized for the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., resident.
Christiansen played in six games last season, registering three points, a rebound and two steals in nine minutes of action. A hard-working, dedicated guard, she is universally respected by everyone in the Notre Dame program for her positive attitude on and off the court, as well as her selfless desire to help further the team's goals. She has a solid perimeter shooting touch and picks up new concepts quickly, making her an ideal player in scouting and practice situations.
"Alena is one of those rare people who can play the role of the walk-on, come in and practice every day and get very little reward for it and yet love every minute of it," McGraw said. "She brings energy and enthusiasm and is somebody that everybody on the team loves. They love to see her get in the game. She's not on scholarship and she's doing all of this just for the simple love of the game. She always wants to know what she can do more or how she can help the team more, what can she do for us. It's really a very unique person that can fill that role as well as she's done."
Joining Turner in Notre Dame's freshman class this season is South Bend native Skylar Diggins. Having grown up in the shadow of the Golden Dome, Diggins made a name for herself at the high school level, both locally and nationally. Ranked as one of the top three players in the country by all the major recruiting services (and the No. 1 guard in the land) the product of South Bend's Washington High School, was the consensus national high school player of the year in 2008-09 after averaging 29.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 5.4 steals and 2.2 blocks per game, ranking among the top 10 in the state in scoring (first), steals (fifth) and assists (eighth).
A three-time Parade high school All-American and the overwhelming choice as the '09 Indiana Miss Basketball, Diggins finished third in Indiana girls basketball history with 2,790 points (behind only Stephanie White and Shanna Zolman) and she led Washington to an astounding 102-7 (.936) record and four Class 4A state title game appearances in her career, as well as the No. 1 national ranking in '08-09. In addition, she is a three-time USA Basketball gold medalist, most recently serving as co-captain of the 2009 United States U19 World Championship Team that won the FIBA U19 World Championships in Thailand in August.
A smooth-shooting southpaw, Diggins has all the tools to be an extraordinary player at the college level. She is a danger at the offensive end with her ability to create off the dribble and get to the basket or knock down the three-point shot (with extended range). On defense, she blends athleticism with excellent court awareness and doesn't mind doing the dirty work on the boards. However, her biggest strength may be her mental toughness, as she offers a maturity and focus not often seen in players at her age. She also understands the game from all angles, plays with passion and excitement, and has the championship pedigree that should make her the perfect complementary weapon in Notre Dame's ever-growing arsenal.
"The thing about Skylar that is the most unknown I would say is her ability to will her team to a victory," McGraw stated. "When you watched her with her high school team, when you watched her with the All-America teams she played on, and when you watched her with USA Basketball, she has that ability to just make the big play at exactly the right time that you need it. She doesn't care about the stats personally -- she just wants to win. When you have somebody that just wants to win, it really is easy to incorporate her into the team because everybody can see that. I don't have any expectation of points that Skylar is going to score, but I know she's going to score some points. We just want her to get acclimated to the college game and to get comfortable as quickly as possible and I think the sky is the limit for her, so to speak."
Lately, Notre Dame's offensive system has been modified and features more movement without the ball and additional passing from the posts in a Princeton-based style. The Fighting Irish also have developed a different type of post player, someone who is versatile enough to play either down on the blocks or out on the perimeter. Yet, the expectations for the Notre Dame post game haven't changed, and in 2009-10, it's this facet that go a long way in determining how far the Fighting Irish go in the postseason next March.
As Notre Dame gets set to tip off in the new Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center, the construction workers at the facility may want to consider grabbing a hard hat from Fighting Irish senior center Erica Williamson. Sometimes overlooked, the rugged 6-4 post from Charlotte, N.C., has held down the paint as the everyday starter for much of the past two seasons. Last year, she averaged 5.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, but her biggest value came on defense, where she placed 13th in the BIG EAST with 1.1 blocked shots per game against conference opponents. Williamson enters her final season with 106 career blocks, ranking ninth in school history.
Possessing a high basketball IQ, the veteran center understands even the greatest of subtleties at both ends of the court, particularly when it comes to positioning and leverage. That skill has never been more apparent than in Williamson's uncanny ability to draw charges, as she did a team-high 12 times last season (the first in which Notre Dame tracked the unofficial NCAA statistic). She also knows exactly what to do with the ball in her hands, shooting at nearly a 47-percent clip throughout her college career.
"Erica is somebody that showed some games last year where she could really take over the game," McGraw said. "She had some huge games for us, in big important games and we need her presence defensively. She is the most unselfish player in the country with her ability to step in and take a charge. She's such a team player. She's a good passer from the high post. She can rebound and we'd obviously like to see her score on the block a little bit more this year."
A five-tool threat who shows equal skill as a shooter, passer, ball handler, rebounder and defender, Bruszewski has been one of the most improved players for the Fighting Irish during the past two seasons. Her fundamental base is particularly well-crafted, as is her ability to remain focused and polished, even in the biggest pressure cookers. Case in point -- last season, she had a hand in four of Notre Dame's late-game victories, hitting go-ahead baskets in wins over nationally-ranked Vanderbilt and DePaul, as well as a big insurance bucket at Charlotte, and it was her assist that set up the go-ahead score in the regular-season victory over St. John's.
"Becca really has made amazing strides," McGraw observed. "When we recruited her, the one thing I liked about Becca more than anything else was her attitude of relentlessness, of a physical presence that wasn't afraid to get inside and mix it up, or just kind of do the dirty work sometimes. She would do a lot of setting great screens, blocking out, getting rebounds - just a lot of the things that required a physical person.
"She created her own role," McGraw added. "She's somebody who came in as a freshman and initially tried to fit in as a center. Then, as the year went on, she evolved into the idea that `hey, I'm a pretty good three-point shooter and I can do a lot of things.' Her versatility has made her really difficult to guard. Each year, she's got that great work ethic in the summer where she can come out and improve every year and she's added something to her game every year. I would not be surprised if she were our most improved player again this year."
The changing face of Notre Dame's post game was especially apparent when junior forward Devereaux Peters came aboard in 2007-08 and enjoyed a superb rookie season, averaging 9.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.7 steals per game with a .522 field goal percentage when her campaign ended abruptly with a torn ACL in her left knee after 23 games. The Chicago native still had done more than enough to impress the BIG EAST coaches, who voted her to the conference's All-Freshman Team.
After aggressively rehabilitating her injury, Peters returned to action last season and picked right up where she left off, scoring 12 points (on 6-of-7 shooting) while adding six rebounds in the season opener at nationally-ranked LSU. She was averaging 7.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game with a .688 field goal percentage in the first three games of the year, but once again, the injury bug reared its ugly head. Peters tore the ACL in her left knee once again, this time during the third game of the 2008-09 season at Boston College, shelving her for the year.
Although team medical personnel are using an abundance of caution in monitoring Peters' rehabilitation schedule (she could be cleared to resume practice in late fall/early winter), they might have better luck trying to lasso a bucking bronco. One would be hard-pressed to find a player on the Notre Dame roster with more determination and desire to get on the court and return to the level she showed as a rookie two seasons ago.
At her peak, Peters is one of the most athletic players in the BIG EAST, if not the nation, mixing exceptional leaping ability with a massive 77-inch wingspan that makes her an intimidating presence at both ends of the floor. Not only does she finish well in traffic around the rim, but she also can pull defenses to the perimeter with a solid mid-range game. The minute she gets back into a Fighting Irish uniform, she will immediately offer a handful of additional options on offense and defense and make Notre Dame that much harder to stop.
"I think Devereaux is our most talented player," McGraw said. "I don't think that there's any question that she's somebody that can block shots, she can really defend, she can rebound, she has a great sense of where the ball's going to go, she's very smart on the court and she can read things. She is somebody that really just has a tremendous upside and even while she's learning and growing, she's still probably our best player. She can score in a variety of ways and she's showed that, in the brief time that we've had her out here and certainly last year in the LSU game, she was just the best player on the floor -- no question about it. She really changes our team and changes the press. I think had we had her last year, we might have had a little different ending."
Another player with an athletic blueprint is sophomore forward Erica Solomon, who joined Novosel on the BIG EAST All-Freshman Team last season. Solomon saw time in all 31 games as a rookie, averaging 6.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and a team-high 1.2 blocks per game, ranking ninth in the conference (and second among league freshmen) in the latter category. She also provided a strong offensive spark at times, turning in seven double-digit scoring nights, including a season-best 15 points in only 14 minutes of court time at Boston College.
Solomon's long arms and verticality are particularly useful at the defensive end, while her soft hands and quickness in the post make her an appealing choice on offense as well. The Charleston, W.Va., product also worked hard during the summer to transform herself into a more physical post presence and focused on sharpening the intangible aspects of her game with promising results.
"Erica Solomon could be a dominating player," McGraw commented. "She's got that ability to block shots and rebound, she's strong and physical, and she can score around the basket. She had a period of adjustment as a freshman, and it took her a little while to really start playing her game and figuring out what her role was going to be. She's going to continue to expand her game to the perimeter, but right now, she could be the x-factor. She's probably the one person on our team who has a huge control over the outcome on how our season is going to finish up."
Last year, the BIG EAST housed both the NCAA and WNIT champions (Connecticut and South Florida, respectively), while Louisville was the NCAA runner-up. All told, 13 of the league's 16 teams advanced to postseason play, delivering arguably one of the strongest single-season efforts by one conference in NCAA history.
"While we'd like to challenge ourselves outside of the BIG EAST, which is the best conference in basketball, we feel like were going to get great competition to prepare for the NCAA Tournament by playing in the BIG EAST," McGraw said. "So we try to challenge ourselves to get ready for that. This year, we have some great teams on the schedule early, but the BIG EAST has improved significantly over the last couple years to the point where there are no easy games. We have 16 teams, and basically anybody can beat anybody, so it is definitely a conference where you've got to be ready every night, especially on the road."
The 2009-10 Notre Dame schedule will be among the toughest in the program's 33-year history, with no fewer than 14 games against teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament last season, including four games against three of the '09 Final Four participants. In addition, the Fighting Irish have 15 regular-season home games lined up for the newly-renovated Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center during the upcoming campaign, with Notre Dame also slated to serve as one of 16 host sites for first- and second-round games in the 2010 NCAA Women's Basketball Championship (March 21 & 23).
Among the marquee matchups on this year's Fighting Irish schedule are a home-and-home series with BIG EAST rival and defending national champion Connecticut (Jan. 16 in Storrs, Conn.; March 1 at Notre Dame), a trip to 2009 national runner-up Louisville (Jan. 19) and a neutral-site contest with '09 Final Four combatant and reigning Big 12 Conference regular-season champion Oklahoma (Nov. 28 at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands). The Fighting Irish also will welcome '09 NCAA Sweet 16 participants Vanderbilt (Dec. 31) and Pittsburgh (Feb. 6), as well as defending WNIT champion USF (Jan. 12) to Purcell Pavilion this season.
The Thanksgiving weekend trip to the Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam should prove particularly instructive, as Notre Dame will play three top-level opponents (Mountain West regular-season champion San Diego State, SEC stalwart South Carolina and Oklahoma) in three consecutive days, all away from home. No situation could offer better preparation for the challenges of postseason play, notably the BIG EAST Championship, which does not feature any off-days between games, unlike the NCAA Tournament.
Notre Dame also will continue to be a presence on national and regional television this season, with at least 11 games to be broadcast live, including six on the ESPN family of networks. The highlight will be the Jan. 16 game at Connecticut (9 p.m. ET on ESPN), which will be the centerpiece of ESPN's College Gameday, the first time that show will emanate from the site of a women's basketball game. In addition, the Fighting Irish will make two appearances on ESPN2's Big Monday (Feb. 1 at Rutgers, March 1 at home vs. Connecticut), along with a third Monday night non-conference contest on ESPN2 (Jan. 4 at in-state rival Purdue).
"I think excitement was the first thing that came up (when College Gameday was announced," McGraw said. "It's just a historic day, what a great day to be a part of, and to be chosen to be a part of that is what the BIG EAST Conference is all about. When you have great teams in your league, you're going get that kind of national attention, so we couldn't be happier than to have a chance to appear on Gameday. It will be great to have it at Notre Dame sometime in the future, and just to be able to be on that stage will be a phenomenal experience for our team.
"This year, I can already tell we have a raised sense of urgency, more than ever," McGraw added. "Last year, we didn't have any seniors and really didn't have anybody that was in their last year and so they had to do it that year. When you don't have that, you lack a little bit, so that could have been a problem. Now we have five seniors and this is the last go-round for all of them. This is their last chance, their last shot at getting to the Final Four, so the sense of urgency will be seen from the first day of practice."