Nov. 11, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fifth in a six-part series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2010-11 Notre Dame winter sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish women's basketball team that has advanced to the NCAA Championship each of the past 15 seasons and is coming off its eighth trip to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2009-10.
From grains of sand on a beach in the summer to snowflakes that serenely flutter through the winter sky, there are numerous things in the world that are unique. Take a closer look at them and you'll see that each grain of sand and each snowflake has a look all its own -- no two are ever exactly alike.
In many ways, college basketball follows that same pattern. From season to season, each team develops its own identity based on the personnel that put on the uniform that particular year. The faces change as veterans depart and rookies arrive, new bonds and fresh chemistry are forged, and sometimes, new offensive or defensive styles are implemented. As the season goes along, each team follows its own path, perhaps influenced by the twists and turns of the schedule, or maybe altered by injuries or other unforeseen circumstances. Consequently, college basketball ends up like the grain of sand or the snowflake, in that no two seasons are ever the same.
The Notre Dame women's basketball program is a prime example of this phenomenon. Under the guidance of 24th-year head coach and 2011 Women's Basketball Hall of Fame selection Muffet McGraw, the Fighting Irish have had unique experiences each and every season. They have had large rosters with plenty of depth, and benches so short that the student manager has had to suit up. They have played in front of huge crowds of more than 20,000 fans, and taken the floor in front of barely enough fans to count on one hand. They have had teams than were oriented in a methodical half-court style built on the foundation of a traditional lineup, and other squads that look like they've downed three cups of double-espresso with a Red Bull chaser, running and gunning while featuring incredible versatility at all positions.
At the end of it all, one of the reasons why McGraw is headed for Hall of Fame enshrinement next June is her innate ability to adapt to her personnel, whether it be changes on the roster or changes on her coaching staff. While she appreciates history and the lessons that can be learned from previous seasons, McGraw also understands that reflecting on past accomplishments (like last year's 29-6 record, top-10 ranking and trip to the NCAA Sweet 16) and lingering on missed opportunities (a last-second overtime loss to Oklahoma in that Sweet 16 game) can take one's focus away from looking at the season ahead.
"I really thought that we had a great year (in 2009-10)," McGraw said. "I felt that overall, we really did a lot of good things all year. We played well together and created a lot of positives. When you look back at the few losses that we had, I'm not sure that we could have expected a better record during the season."
With that momentous chapter in Fighting Irish women's basketball history now securely locked in the archives, the page turns to 2010-11, and the potential exists for yet another unique season unlike any in the program's 34-year odyssey. Gone is a five-player senior class that accounted for nearly 55 percent of the team's offensive production, including three 1,000-point starters and team captains. However, Notre Dame returns two other starters in ultra-talented All-America sophomore guard Skylar Diggins and versatile senior forward/co-captain Becca Bruszewski, brings back a fully-healed senior forward Devereaux Peters (who missed parts of the past three seasons with two ACL injuries and rehab) and a veteran leader in senior guard/co-captain Brittany Mallory, and mixes in an athletic three-player freshman class that is ranked as high as eighth in the country by ESPN Hoopgurlz.
"I see this team as hungry," McGraw noted. "I think they really want to continue to build on the Sweet 16 finish last year and they want to go further. We have lost quite a bit of leadership and poise and maturity. We definitely have the motivation, but I think our schedule is very demanding and it will be interesting how quickly we can mature as a team -- that is the biggest question we have.
"We should be better defensively," she continued. "I think we have more of an up-tempo team and while we ran quite a lot last year, we are going to be fast this year, too. We have a lot of people that can score and we have a lot of weapons. We can play a lot of different ways, but we definitely should be better with our full court press and we can play a lot more man-to-man. I also think we will be a better rebounding team."
The leadership, poise and maturity that McGraw mentions will be sparked by the senior captains, Bruszewski and Mallory. However, it also will come from someone like Diggins, who is expected to slide into the lead guard spot this year, taking over for two-year starter and captain, Melissa Lechlitner. With Bruszewski being the only true senior on this year's Fighting Irish squad (Mallory and Peters retain a fifth year of eligibility due to previous knee injuries), Notre Dame will have the chance to identify these new leaders and insert players in new roles, taking on added responsibilities as the season progresses.
Yet, much like the high-octane style that she hopes to employ this season, McGraw has put this evolution and maturation process on an accelerated timetable with a schedule that includes teams from all six power conferences (including four returning Sweet 16 participants and the nation's consensus top-two teams in Connecticut and Baylor) It's a docket will test her charges right from day one, but it a challenge she and her players relish.
"I remember the year when we didn't have any seniors (2008-09) and everyone said `you're a year away from being really good' and I didn't agree with that," McGraw said. "I thought we were going to be good that year, but as it turned out, we really weren't much better the next year, so I am not content that we are going to be really good next year. We all want to be really good this year, so we have to try to get them more experience now, and we did that with the schedule. We are playing in some tough places and the BIG EAST is going to be so good this year that we are going to be challenged at every turn. We are going to have to grow up in a hurry.
"I like to find out what we need to work on early in the season and we are certainly going to do that," she added. "In the first two weeks of the season we are going to know what we need to work on. We are going to know what our strengths are. We are going to learn how to play on the road. It's just got a lot of positives to it. This could be a team that has more losses, but we might be a better team. We might be more tournament-tested when we get to March than we have ever been before, because this is probably the most difficult schedule we have ever put together."
The contributions from Lechlitner and fellow departing senior Ashley Barlow certainly will be missed this season, but the cupboard is hardly in the Notre Dame backcourt. In fact, the Fighting Irish actually may have better depth and firepower at the guard position than they have had in recent seasons, with the added benefit that all of them are strong ballhandlers and have the ability to play at either the point or on the wing.
It's not a surprise that when the conversation turns to Notre Dame guards, Skylar Diggins is right at the forefront. An honorable mention All-America selection last year by both the Associated Press and Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA), the South Bend native blazed trails seldom seen by any Fighting Irish player, let alone a freshman.
Diggins is coming off one of the finest rookie seasons in program history as the first freshman in 17 seasons to lead Notre Dame in scoring and the first Fighting Irish rookie in 16 years to top 100 assists in her debut season. What's more, she finished as just the third player in program history (and the first freshman) to log 400 points, 100 assists and 75 steals in a single season, joining a pair of All-Americans and Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award (top senior in the nation 5-foot-8 and under) recipients -- current Notre Dame assistant coach Niele Ivey (2000-01) and Megan Duffy (2004-05) -- in achieving that distinction.
Diggins led Notre Dame in scoring (13.8 ppg.), steals (2.6 spg.) and assists (tied - 3.2 apg.) last season, while ranking third on the squad in three-point percentage (.350) and free throw percentage (.782). She also chalked up a team-high 24 double-digit scoring games, including seven 20-point outings, capped by a season-high 31 points against Vermont in the second round of the NCAA Championship at Purcell Pavilion. That scoring effort was the highest ever recorded by a Fighting Irish rookie in NCAA postseason play, while her 13 field goals made tied the program record for an NCAA tournament game.
In 2009-10, Diggins set Notre Dame freshman records for steals (90), free throws made (111), free throws attempted (142) and minutes played (1,028), while ranking among the top five on the Fighting Irish rookie charts for points (3rd - 484), scoring average (tied/4th - 13.8 ppg.), field goals made (3rd - 169), field goals attempted (3rd - 385), three-point field goals made (4th - 35), three-point attempts (5th - 100), three-point percentage (5th - .350), assists (3rd - 112), steals per game (2nd - 2.6 spg.), games started (tied/2nd - 30), games played (2nd - 35) and minutes per game (5th - 29.4).
Diggins' game can't truly be quantified, as she mixes a scorer's mentality with excellent court vision and passing skills before adding quick hands and athleticism on defense to create havoc at both ends of the floor. Although in just her second season at the college level, she plays like a veteran and has earned the respect of not only her teammates and coaches, but much of the college basketball community for her work ethic, her uncanny ability to seemingly will a team to victory and her passion for the game. As much as anything, it's these qualities that make her one of the true rising stars in the country.
"She is going to have a completely different role on the team (this year) because she will have the ball in her hands more of the time at the point," McGraw added. "She is going to run the team and run our offense. She is going to continue to be the defender who gets up on the ball and really starts our defense. Everything begins with her, especially on the defensive side, which we expect to be better at. I think we are going to be a much better team and I expect she is going to score more than she did last year. But with all the weapons that we have, there are going to be a lot of different people that lead us in scoring."
In her first full season coming off a torn ACL early in 2008-09, Mallory (6.5 ppg., 3.0 rpg., 2.3 apg.) played in all 35 games, storming from the gate with a strong pre-conference performance that saw her average nearly 10 points and four rebounds per game with a three-point percentage of better than 36 percent. However, as the season wore on, the continuing recovery period from the knee injury seemed to take a toll on the scoring output by the Baltimore resident, who remained a threat from the perimeter (28 three-point field goals, .308 3FG%) as well as one of the team's top defenders with a career-high 61 steals.
It's often been said that it takes two years for a player to return to full strength after a significant knee injury, and now that she has had a full off-season of workouts and is nearly 24 months removed from surgery, Mallory is likely to continue the upward trend she showed during the first half of last season. A versatile guard who can play at the point as well as the shooting guard spot, she understands the team's offensive and defensive schemes as well as anyone, with the intrinsic ability to read opposing defenses and move well without the ball. As one of the team's co-captains, her expertise at both ends of the court will be critical to Notre Dame's success in 2010-11.
"Brittany is going to be the glue on our team," McGraw said. "I think that she is going to be the player that you really hate to take out of the game because of what she does chemistry-wise. She is probably one of the smartest players on the team in terms of her basketball IQ. I think everyone is going to look to her to kind of settle people down and make sure they are in the right spots and we are expecting big things from her."
Like Mallory, Novosel (5.0 ppg., 2.2 rpg., 1.7 apg.) is a previous selection to the BIG EAST All-Freshman Team (2008-09) who appeared in every game for the Fighting Irish last season, including the first four starts of her career. The Lexington, Ky., native continued to show flashes of promise on offense, including a sharpened three-point shot, and she emerged as one of Notre Dame's primary reserves during the latter half of the campaign.
An athletic, crafty wing with the ability to attack the rim for virtually any spot on the floor, Novosel as the scorer's mentality that will make her a strong complement to Diggins in the backcourt. She also sees the court well from all angles and continues to strengthen her ballhandling and perimeter scoring ability, allowing her to be an asset at either the point or off-guard spots. She also remains particularly valuable in the team's aggressive defensive system with her quick hands and good instincts.
"I think that Natalie might be the difference on our team this year," McGraw observed. "She is the one player that I think can really add a lot to our team in so many different ways. She has the versatility to score and run in different ways, she can rebound and run and defend. If she has a great year, then I think we will be pretty good. She has that kind of impact on our team and I expect that she is going to do a lot of scoring for us this year."
Miller (2.5 ppg., 2.0 rpg., 1.1 spg.) has battled chronic knee problems throughout her career, but when healthy, she is the team's fastest player and a major contributor on defense with her lightning-quick hands and bulldog mentality. The Atlanta resident also has strengthened her offensive skill set in the past two off-seasons, posting career-high statistical totals across the board last year.
"Fraderica will continue to be the defensive stopper," McGraw said. "She's also the person that has energy and creates great chaos when she comes in the game. I expect that she will continue in that role this season." Meanwhile, Turner (1.9 ppg., 0.7 rpg., 0.9 apg.) saw action in 21 games as a rookie
last season, playing primarily as Lechlitner's understudy at the point. She tossed in a career-high 11 points in a mid-December win over Charlotte, and also showed glimpses of future success with three assists on two separate occasions, the second coming in the NCAA first-round win over Cleveland State.
Having now had a full year of college experience and lab time in the Notre Dame system, Turner will take on a greater role within the Fighting Irish offensive package this year. The Joliet, Ill., product is not only sharp with the ball, both as a dribbler and passer, but she has emerged as a talented perimeter scoring threat with an effective, quick-release three-point shot.
"I expect a lot of things from Kaila this year," McGraw offered. "I expect her to play the role that Brittany Mallory played last year. She is a great three-point shooter, she can run the team, she can handle the ball, and she is a good defender. She has a really solid offensive game, and she may be our best passer and shooter. She is just really talented. She worked on her shot all summer and I expect her to contribute in a bigger way this year."
One of the key traits McGraw and her staff have worked to identify in the recruiting process is a winning mentality, and freshman guard Kayla McBride certainly has experienced throughout her basketball career. The Erie, Pa., native was a consensus high school All-American last season following the close to an exceptional prep career at Villa Maria Academy, where she helped her team to a 106-15 (.876) record and two Pennsylvania Class AA state titles. During her career at VMA, McBride averaged 14.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.3 steals per game, including 19.1 ppg., 9.8 rpg., and 5.6 spg., in her final two seasons (the state championship years) when she was twice named the state's Class AA Player of the Year, as well as the 2010 Gatorade Pennsylvania Player of the Year.
As if that weren't enough, McBride was named to the 2010 USA Basketball Under-18 National Team that won the gold medal at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship back in June in Colorado Springs. McBride started all five games for Team USA, averaging 8.2 ppg., and 3.8 rpg., with a .500 field goal percentage, becoming one of three players on this year's Notre Dame roster with a medal in international competition (joining Diggins as a USA Basketball gold medalist).
McBride offers an intriguing blend of scoring punch from the outside with a tough physical style on the blocks. Quick off the dribble with a solid pull-up jumper and a nose for the glass, she could see considerable action as one of the young contributors to the Fighting Irish rotation this season.
"Kayla will really have an opportunity to step in and do some good things with losing Lechlitner and particularly Barlow. Kayla will be someone that can take (Barlow's) place. She is someone that can score from the perimeter -- she has really worked on her shot and her three-pointer looks great. She's also a big guard who can rebound, so she will look a little bit like (2010 graduate) Lindsay Schrader when we put her down on the block. She can do so many good things and we expect that she is going to play a lot."
Perhaps no area can better illustrate the unique nature of this year's Notre Dame squad than its depth at the post position. Since the graduation of 2001 consensus national player of the year Ruth Riley, the Fighting Irish have had numerous forwards and centers whom have produced successful careers, but never with the concentration of talent they expect to feature in 2010-11. What's more, the post position at Notre Dame has evolved in recent years to rely less on a true back-to-the-basket player and more on the ability to combine scoring and rebounding prowess on the block with passing and shooting skill away from the basket.
Ironically, the biggest development in terms of the Fighting Irish post presence this season could come from someone who will never put on the Notre Dame uniform. Associate coach Carol Owens, who spent a decade on the Fighting Irish staff from 1995-2005 and was instrumental in the growth of Riley and two-time All-American Katryna Gaither (1996-97), returns to Notre Dame this season following a successful five-year stint as the head coach at her alma mater, Northern Illinois. Entering her second turn with the Fighting Irish, Owens now not only has an acute understanding of the program's history, but she also brings along the knowledge and savvy that comes with having been a head coach, both at NIU and in the USA Basketball system, while twice leading American youth squads to gold medals (2008 FIBA U18 Americas Championship, 2009 FIBA U19 World Championships).
One of Owens' first assignments will be continuing the development of Notre Dame's veteran posts, beginning with senior forward Devereaux Peters. Considered to be one of the most talented bigs in not only the BIG EAST Conference, but the country as well, Peters has been on the verge of incredible things in each of her three seasons with the Fighting Irish, only to be slowed by ACL injuries.
With two years of eligibility remaining after missing the balance of the '08-09 season with her second ACL injury, Peters probably benefited more from this past off-season and the team's workout program, as it marked the first time she had the opportunity to be at full strength for those workouts since the start of her freshman year. Toiling under Owens' watchful eye, the athletic frontliner is expected to step into the Fighting Irish starting lineup and, much like Mallory, her growth should be exponential in her second season following knee surgery. With a massive 77-inch wingspan, good agility and solid quickness for a post, Peters will undoubtedly be a significant factor in Notre Dame's fortunes in 2010-11.
"Dev is going to have a big year," McGraw said. "This is the first time she has really had the summer to really work on her game and she looks great. She is in the best shape of her career. She is playing extremely well. She is just a phenomenal athlete. All the things that we hoped that she could do for our program -- I think that she is going to do all of them this year. She will be a focus on the other team's scouting report because of her ability to do so many different things. We are so excited about what she brings to us this year."
Senior forward/co-captain Becca Bruszewski has been one of the primary examples in Notre Dame's development of versatile post players. The Valparaiso, Ind., resident has been a key cog in the Fighting Irish starting lineup for the past two seasons, earning the nod for 57 of 65 games in that time. She also has beefed up her scoring production, averaging just under 10 points per game while maintaining a high field goal percentage (close to 50 percent) and a nearly-even assist/turnover ratio, something not often seen from a post player.
Despite standing just 6-foot-1, Bruszewski has never been one to shy away from the physical play on the blocks, as evidenced by her nickname of "Bruiser". With a fundamental skill set at both ends, plus a reliable three-point shot, she has been a focal point for more than a few opponents in recent seasons. Now as one of the team captains, she will be asked to provide guidance to the younger Fighting Irish players, not only on the court, but in the locker room as well.
"Becca is ready to have a really great senior year," McGraw stated. "I think that she is someone that we can count on to set the tone defensively and set the tone in the locker room. She has the sense of urgency, being the (lone) senior and that this is her last year and she wants to go out in a good way. She has been a great contributor to our program throughout her career and this year, she would like to take on a bigger role in terms of stats, especially in the rebounding column. That is something that we are really looking for her to do a little more of."
Notre Dame's other returning veteran post this season is junior forward Erica Solomon. Another agile, athletic forward who can contribute defensively both in the press and half-court set, as well as offensively with her strong skills on the block, Solomon has been a solid reserve for the Fighting Irish during her first two seasons, averaging 5.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game in 42 career outings. The Charleston, W.Va., product is another player who already has shown great progress in the run-up to this season, both through summer workouts with Owens and an elevated strength and conditioning regimen.
"Erica is really coming along right now," McGraw said. "She is playing well and is in good shape. She is probably the best on the team in posting up. She uses her body well and is she is not afraid to be very physical. She can also block shots and rebound, and I think she is going to have a much bigger role for us this year."
Freshmen often need a bit of time to get acclimated to the pace and intensity of the college game. However, Natalie Achonwa is not your average rookie, as the 6-foot-3 forward has spent the past two years as a contributing member of the Canadian Senior National Team after being the youngest player ever to join that program at the ripe old age of 16. Most recently, the Guelph, Ontario, native suited up for Canada at the 2010 FIBA World Championships in the Czech Republic, averaging 4.6 points and 3.9 rebounds in eight games, including a near double-double (12 points, eight rebounds) in a last-second loss to defending European champion France. Achonwa also embraced the opportunity to match up against some of the world's top post players, including three-time WNBA Most Valuable Player and Australian National Team forward Lauren Jackson, during that tournament.
The first international player to suit up for Notre Dame in the program's 34-year history, Achonwa brings an intriguing skill set to campus, blending scoring power and rebounding punch on the blocks with soft hands, a feathery mid-range jumper and solid ballhandling ability. Although the youngest player on the Fighting Irish roster this season (she doesn't turn 18 until mid-November), Achonwa already has the maturity of a wily veteran, thanks to her national team experience, which includes winning a bronze medal at the 2009 FIBA Americas Championship and leading the Canadian Junior National Team to a fourth-place finish at the '09 FIBA U19 World Championships (an event won by Team USA, which was coached by Owens and led by co-captain Diggins).
"Natalie is coming off a great experience with the national team from Canada," McGraw noted. "She is probably the biggest body on the team. She is someone we are going to count on to be physical inside when we have to guard some of great post players that are on the schedule, so we look for her to contribute early. We expect that she can score and rebound and defend and really do a lot of things for us. We have got a lot of depth (in the post), so it will be interesting to see her contribute, but we do expect that she is going to make an impact."
Achonwa's classmate and fellow frontliner, Ariel Braker, could also be heard from this season. Braker is a two-time Michigan Class A Player of the Year and was third in the Michigan Miss Basketball voting last year. Hailing from Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., the 6-foot-1 forward averaged 14.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, 6.0 steals and 3.4 assists per game during her career while helping Grosse Pointe North High School to a 94-11 (.895) record and the 2007-08 Class A state title.
Braker's biggest early contributions may come on the defensive end, thanks to her long arms and agility that make her an asset in presses, traps and on the backline of half-court defenses. She also has the potential to be a viable threat on offense between her fearless nature in the paint and ability to step away from the basket.
"Ariel is a long athletic post player that can really help us in the press," McGraw stated. "She can defend, she can rebound and we are hopeful that she will give depth to the post position."
Notre Dame consistently has challenged itself during the non-conference portion of the season, taking on several of the country's top programs and leagues in an effort to expose itself to numerous different environments and styles of play. It's this kind of experience that has helped the Fighting Irish remain one of the top programs in BIG EAST history (second all-time with a .758 regular-season conference winning percentage) and a constant threat once the NCAA Championship rolls around in March.
Once again this season, Notre Dame will follow that philosophy, taking on teams from each of the nation's top six conferences, and playing 22 regular-season games against teams that qualified for postseason play last year (including 11 NCAA Championship qualifiers and four NCAA Sweet 16 participants). In addition, the Fighting Irish will play seven first-time opponents during their 14-game non-conference slate, and they have a school-record 17 regular-season home games lined up inside Purcell Pavilion during the upcoming campaign.
Among the marquee matchups on this year's schedule are a home-and-home series with BIG EAST rival and two-time defending national champion Connecticut (Jan. 8 at Notre Dame; Feb. 19 in Storrs, Conn.), first-ever trips to 2010 NCAA Women's Final Four participant Baylor (Dec. 1) and 2010 NCAA Kansas City Regional finalist Kentucky (Nov. 21), and a post-Christmas visit to Seattle for matchups with 2010 NCAA Sweet 16 qualifier Gonzaga (Dec. 29) and Loyola Marymount (Dec. 30) in the Seattle U. Holiday Classic inside KeyArena at Seattle Center (home of the 2010 WNBA champion Seattle Storm). The Fighting Irish also will welcome `10 Pac-10 Conference runner-up and NCAA second-round participant UCLA to town for the inaugural Super Six Series (Nov. 18) and entertain in-state rival Purdue at Purcell Pavilion (Dec. 5), along with a trio of teams -- Wake Forest, Butler and IUPUI -- for the WBCA Classic from Nov. 26-28.
In addition, Notre Dame is slated to open its season on Nov. 12 against New Hampshire at Purcell Pavilion. Both prior to that game and at halftime, the Fighting Irish will celebrate the 10th anniversary of their 2001 NCAA national championship, with all of the members of that team scheduled to return to campus for the reunion weekend.
Collectively, the BIG EAST sent 13 of its 16 teams to postseason play last year, and early returns would indicate that number could be even higher this season. In fact, most media outlets have pegged as many as five BIG EAST teams among the top 15 programs in the nation, according to their preseason polls, cementing what many observers already have pointed out -- that the BIG EAST is the nation's top women's basketball conference.
For the third consecutive season, Notre Dame also will take part in the WBCA's annual Pink Zone initiative, which is designed to raise funds for breast cancer awareness and research. Last year, the Fighting Irish set the pace among all women's basketball programs by raising $103,750 at their Pink Zone game, with those proceeds split between the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund and the Foundation for St. Joseph Regional Medical Center's Women's Task Force in South Bend, which includes the Secret Sisters Society and Young Survivors.
This year, Notre Dame has designated its Feb. 12 home game against Rutgers as its WBCA Pink Zone game. The Fighting Irish are hoping to exceed last year's record-setting fundraising total through a variety of activities during the season and on the day of the Pink Zone game, including the very popular Silent Auction, which raised approximately $16,000 all by itself.
"I think when you talk about the schedules we've had through the years, this has to rank right up there as one of the most challenging ones we've put together," McGraw said. "We always want to test ourselves during the non-conference season in order to prepare for the demands of playing in the BIG EAST. The combination of our non-conference and BIG EAST schedules this year also will serve as excellent preparation for the postseason. We're going to see many different styles of play and compete in a number of hostile environments, which will only make us a better team when March rolls around."