Nov. 14, 2008
It's difficult for anyone to go more than an hour without hearing something about the state of the American economy today. From the politicians in Washington, to the talking heads in the media, Wall Street's roller-coaster ride has everyone wondering what the future will hold financially.
Experts also have differing opinions on how to weather the crisis. Some offer the "wait-and-see" approach, electing to ride out the current situation and maintain the status quo in hopes that things will work themselves out. Then, there are others who subscribe to the notion that now is the perfect time to invest in the future and get going while you can before the market skyrockets back to its customary heights.
The latter theory could very well hold true when it comes to the Notre Dame women's basketball team. Not to say that the Irish are in any sort of a "bear market" -- in fact, far from it. Notre Dame is coming off a 25-9 season that saw the Irish advance to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the seventh time in program history (all in the past 12 seasons), place in the top four in the nation's toughest conference, the BIG EAST, for the 10th time in their 13-year league membership, and be ranked in the Top 20 of both major national polls all season long, now reaching the Top 10 in the Associated Press poll during eight of the past 12 years.
The future for Notre Dame would appear to be even more bullish, with seven returning monogram winners, including three starters from last year's club. The Irish also welcome a four-player incoming freshman class that has been ranked as high as ninth in the nation. What's more, Notre Dame will enjoy the prospect of playing host to the first two rounds of the 2009 NCAA Tournament at the Joyce Center before one of the country's largest and most rabid fan bases. Yet, with all of these harbingers of promise, there are two simple words that may be most telling when it comes to the long-term success of the Irish:
For the first time in head coach Muffet McGraw's 22 years at Notre Dame, the Irish anticipate not losing a single player off this season's roster. Guard Lindsay Schrader is listed as a senior by academic standing, but she fully intends to seek a fifth year of eligibility, made possible when she missed the 2006-07 season (her sophomore campaign) after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee during a preseason scrimmage.
Thus, the Irish will have a tightly-knit core group of 11 players together for the next two seasons, united in the common goal of advancing further along the road of success and ultimately bringing another national championship back to Notre Dame. It's this confluence of possibilities that has McGraw so enthused about the future of Irish women's basketball.
"We're definitely on an upward trend with this program right now," McGraw said. "Beginning two years ago when we took North Carolina to the wire in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and then continuing with last year's run to the Sweet 16, we're building up the confidence to think that now we can take it even further this year.
"This is still a young team that's gaining confidence and maturing," McGraw added. "We've really accomplished a lot in a short time with them. Now is the time where we're not going to surprise people, and the expectations are understandably going to be greater. We overachieved in that underdog role the past couple of years, so it will be interesting to see how we handle these new expectations now that we're no longer in that position."
One of the hallmarks of last year's Notre Dame squad was its extraordinary balance on offense. The Irish ranked eighth in the country in scoring offense (76.2 points per game), 10th in scoring margin (+14.6 ppg.) and 22nd in both field goal percentage (.447) and free throw percentage (.758), all while fielding nine players who averaged at least five points per game, and three who would up in double figures. Despite an up-tempo, transition-based offense, McGraw developed a reliable nine-player rotation that kept fresh legs on the floor almost constantly from the opening tip to the final horn, with only one player averaging 30 minutes per game.
Notre Dame's increased productivity on offense was due in no small part to its aggressive defense. The Irish led the BIG EAST in steals for the second consecutive year and ranked 13th in the country in that category with 11.7 thefts per night. Notre Dame's overall total of 397 steals also tied the school record, while the Irish set another program high-water mark by forcing opponents into a whopping 737 turnovers (21.7 per game). That figure helped Notre Dame finish 18th nationally with a 1.04 assist-to-turnover ratio, marking the second time in school history (after the 2000-01 national championship season) that the Irish posted a positive A/TO ratio for an entire year.
All told, Notre Dame was one of only 12 programs in the land to rank in the Top 25 in six of the year-end NCAA statistical categories (excluding won-loss percentage). Heading into the 2008-09 campaign, the Irish will retain two-thirds of that high-powered scoring offense from a year ago, while also bringing back three-quarters of their rebounding total and nearly 70 percent of their steals and blocked shots (ranking third in the conference in the latter category last season).
Here's a position-by-position breakdown of the 2008-09 Fighting Irish:
Coming into this season, one of the unknown quantities may be how Notre Dame adjusts to a new point guard. Tulyah Gaines held the reins of the Irish offense for the past two seasons, expertly guiding Notre Dame's frenetic "catch-me-if-you-can" style with her speed and athleticism. However, if outside observers are expecting any sort of drop off in play with Gaines' graduation, they're likely to be disappointed.
Junior tri-captain Melissa Lechlitner
will take over as Notre Dame's everyday floor general, having served as Gaines' understudy for the past two years. In that position, the Mishawaka, Ind., native has averaged 5.9 points and 2.6 assists per game while coming off the bench in all but one of her 65 career games to date. A steady ballhandler and passer, Lechlitner also owns a 1.32 assist-to-turnover ratio while averaging 23 minutes per night in her college career.
Due partially to the secondary role she played early in her career, Lechlitner has not yet been called upon to be an integral part of Notre Dame's scoring offense, something that could change in 2008-09. The 5-foot-7 point boasts a smooth outside shot with range to the three-point line, along with a pull-up jumper that rivals the best in the BIG EAST. What's more, her confident, attacking style and ability to push the pace against any opponent's style of play should allow her to make a seamless transition to the starting lineup.
"I'm just thrilled to have Melissa out there leading us," McGraw said. "She's such a great floor leader and is somebody who can really make us go. She's a spark defensively, she's relentless and if the saying holds true that a team takes on the personality of its captain, we're going to be in great shape."
Lechlitner is expected to see the majority of minutes at the Irish helm this year. Junior Ashley Barlow, sophomore Brittany Mallory and freshman Natalie Novosel also may see time at the point during the course of the season.
It's no surprise that one of the cornerstones of Notre Dame's resurgent offense in recent years has been its play on the wings. Last season, the top three scorers on the Irish roster came from the perimeter, with Barlow, Schrader and Charel Allen all thriving in Notre Dame's transition game and motion-based offense.
Of course, with Allen's graduation and subsequent elevation to the WNBA with the playoff-qualifying Sacramento Monarchs, there's room for a new crop of wings to add their stamp on the Irish offense. Allen departed as one of the top scorers in school history, ranking eighth all-time with 1,566 points, and she became the first Irish player ever to amass 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 200 assists and 200 steals in her career. A two-time honorable mention All-American and all-BIG EAST selection, Allen capped her four-year tenure in grand fashion during the 2008 NCAA Tournament, pouring in a career-high 35 points in the second-round win over Oklahoma.
Yet, just as the case is with the point guard spot, if the so-called experts think losing Allen will signal the start of a "bear market" for Irish fortunes, they're going to be waiting for a long time. In fact, while Notre Dame loses one all-conference selection, they bring back two others in '08 honorable mention all-BIG EAST picks Barlow and Schrader, who ranked second and third on the team in scoring, respectively.
Barlow, who also made the BIG EAST All-Freshman Team in 2006-07, has posted double-digit scoring averages in each of her first two seasons at Notre Dame, logging 12.1 points per game and scoring in double figures 21 times while starting 32 of 34 contests a year ago. The Indianapolis native and team tri-captain is a package of dynamite on the floor, whether fearlessly driving to the basket and finishing with contact, or stepping away from the rim to dial up a long three-pointer. Her .469 field goal percentage is third among returning players, and she also was second on last year's squad with 27 three-pointers.
For all of her offensive prowess, Barlow's biggest contributions for Notre Dame appear to have come on the defensive end, where she has averaged nearly two steals per game in her two-year career, including a personal-best and team-high 68 thefts last season (ranking sixth in the BIG EAST in that department). She also gets every ounce of effort from her 5-foot-9 frame, averaging 5.0 rebounds per game during her career.
"Ashley seems to come back every year as our most improved player," McGraw said with a smile. "She works so hard on her game over the summer, and has expanded her repertoire to be deadly from the three-point line. She's always been a battler and a great competitor and will be someone we'll count on to be a scoring threat for us this year."
Schrader made a successful return to action in 2007-08 after missing the previous year with the aforementioned knee injury. It didn't take long for the Bartlett, Ill., product to get back in the groove, as she scored 20 points (on 10-of-12 shooting) in only 17 minutes during Notre Dame's season-opening 98-50 win over eventual Mid-American Conference champion Miami (Ohio) in the first round of the Preseason WNIT. Schrader finished the season averaging 10.3 points and a team-high 6.2 rebounds per game with a steady .460 field goal percentage while starting all but one of her team's 34 games.
The team's other tri-captain, Schrader builds her game around a dangerous blend of power and athleticism that constantly makes her an enigma for opposing coaches. She has the strength to back a smaller defender down on the blocks and work one-on-one in the paint, and the agility to either step outside for the long jumper or slash into the lane and create off the dribble. Schrader also brings the most starting experience of anyone on this year's Irish roster, with 60 starts in her 64-game college career.
"Lindsay has really worked hard on her shot during the offseason and it looks great," McGraw noted. "She's another one of those players with the winning mentality, the winning attitude, and she's a fierce competitor who hates to lose. Her intangibles, along with her skill, are what make her such an important part of our team."
Mallory adapted well to Notre Dame's offensive style, with her primary role being the team's three-point specialist. The Baltimore native connected on a team-high 34 treys during her rookie season, averaging 6.3 points in 33 games while earning BIG EAST All-Freshman Team honors. She scored in double figures six times last season, including a personal-high 15 points in a mid-January win at Georgetown.
A very cerebral player, Mallory quickly learned how to read opposing defenses and does the little things well, reacting without the ball and showing little hesitation when getting to the rim and drawing contact. What's more, she understands defensive angles and rotations and has used that to her advantage, rolling up 42 steals (1.27 per game) last season.
"Brittany really came on during the BIG EAST part of our schedule last year," McGraw observed. "She's someone who really understands her role as a three-point weapon, but she's also someone who's not afraid to mix it up inside."
Lining up behind the three Irish veterans is a trio of talented freshmen with unique complementary skill sets that should expand Notre Dame's arsenal even more in the coming years.
Novosel is a versatile 5-foot-11 wing who blends a creative playmaking flair with a scorer's mentality. Whether driving the lane or firing from the perimeter, Novosel displays exceptional court awareness and a winner's mentality, and her gritty, feisty style is likely to endear her to Irish fans from the moment she first puts on the Notre Dame uniform.
During her four-year prep career at Lexington Catholic High School in Lexington, Ky., Novosel averaged 14.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.7 steals per game and is one of only five players in school history to register 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in her career (2,103 points, 1,021 rebounds). Ranked as high as 32nd in the nation according to some national recruiting services, Novosel was a three-time all-state selection and two-time preseason All-America choice, in addition to being one of the top three vote-getters for the 2008 Kentucky Miss Basketball award. She also helped lead her school to consecutive USA Today Super 25 rankings, back-to-back state championships and an outstanding 130-11 record during her tenure.
"We're expecting big things from Natalie," McGraw said. "She's someone who can come in and contribute right away because she has a great skill set. Natalie's also got that intangible `refuse-to-lose' drive and that relentless attitude is going to be something we'll be seeing a lot of during her four years."
Kellie Watson joins this year's squad as one of the tallest wings ever to play for the Irish. At 6-foot-2, the Ionia, Mich., resident is sure to give opponents fits with her height and strength, not to mention her ability to stretch the defense with impressive perimeter shooting skills. She's also expected to be an added contributor on the boards for Notre Dame, and her length will be valuable on the defensive end of the floor as well.
Watson enjoyed a highly successful prep career at Ionia High School, averaging 19.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game while playing virtually every possible position on the floor. She logged better than 21 points per game over her final two seasons, including a career-high 24.0 points per game as a junior on the way to owning the school's career scoring record (boys or girls) with 1,529 points. In addition, she led the state in three-point percentage as a freshman (.452).
A four-time all-state selection, Watson was ranked as high as 35th nationally among this year's incoming class, despite the fact that girls' basketball was a fall sport in Michigan until her senior year of 2007-08 and not many recruiting services got a chance to see her play. Nevertheless, the folks in Michigan knew exactly how good she was, naming her the 2008 Michigan Miss Basketball, Gatorade State Player of the Year and the Associated Press Class B Co-Player of the Year.
"Kellie is an outstanding three-point shooter, but what sometimes gets overlooked is the fact that she's also a great passer," McGraw pointed out. "She knows how to find the open man and uses her size very well. I think she's someone that this team is really going to enjoy playing with because of all the skills she brings to the table."
While Notre Dame lost some of its quickness quotient when Gaines graduated, it may have filled that gap (and then some) with the addition of Fraderica Miller to the fold. A late signee out of Ellenwood, Ga., Miller has speed to burn, and with her long arms and aggressive style, she could be an early impact player for the Irish on defense.
Like Novosel and Watson, Miller comes from a winning tradition at The Marist School in suburban Atlanta. On a team filled with high-caliber future college players, Miller more than did her part, averaging 10.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.5 steals per game in her prep career. As a senior in '07-08, Miller tallied team highs of 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.5 steals per game with a .494 field goal percentage and four double-doubles for Georgia's second-best Class AAAA team, which averaged more than 25 wins per season during her career.
"Fraderica is probably the best athlete on the team," McGraw said. "She's really help us in the presses or if we need someone to come in and shut people down. I expect she'll be one of our best, if not our best defensive players this year."
In its post players, Notre Dame values strength, agility, versatility and solid passing skills. The Irish should have those qualities and more in the quartet of players who will hold down the paint in 2008-09.
Junior Erica Williamson split time as Notre Dame's everyday center last season, starting 21 times while averaging a career-high 6.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. She also has been a consistent inside threat at both ends, posting a .468 career field goal percentage and rolling up 77 blocked shots in her first two years, putting her in position to crack the school's career top 10 in that category by season's end.
Standing 6-foot-4, the Charlotte, N.C., native is strong with both hands and also has revealed a mid-range jumper that should only help to further diversify her game. At the other end of the floor, she has been more than willing to sacrifice her body in the name of team defense and always relishes the chance to match up with some of the nation's other top post players.
"I'm really pleased with the progress Erica has made in the past two years," McGraw commented. "She is somebody that wants to do a little bit more each time out. She's unselfish, she sets great screens, she runs the offense well, and basically does whatever she can to help the team win. We're counting on her to take up space and be that presence in the lane for us, and we're counting on her to have a big year for us."
Sophomore Devereaux Peters will be one of the other interesting developments for Notre Dame in 2008-09. The lanky 6-foot-2 forward was enjoying a very productive rookie campaign before it ended after 23 games due to a torn ACL in her left knee. At the time of her injury, Peters ranked fourth on the team in scoring (9.0 ppg.), second in rebounding (5.6 rpg.) and led the BIG EAST in blocked shots (2.0 bpg.). Despite her setback, the Chicago native joined Mallory as Notre Dame's two selections to the BIG EAST All-Freshman Team.
Following successful knee surgery and the subsequent rehabilitation, Peters remains an imposing defensive threat in both the press and as a shot blocker. She also has shown an efficient offensive touch with a handful of moves on the block to go with a reliable mid-range game. In addition, Peters runs the floor well in transition and will be a key component of the Irish attack for years to come.
"By January, I think Devereaux will be back in the groove after her surgery and feeling like her old self," McGraw observed. "Talent-wise, she's definitely a first-team all-league performer. She is somebody that does more for us at both ends of the floor than anyone else on our team. If she can stay out of foul trouble, which was a bit of a problem last year, you can expect big, big things from her this year."
Peters' classmate, Becca Bruszewski, showed immense promise at the end of last season, capping her first year with a pair of season-high 16-point performances in the NCAA Tournament against SMU (first round) and Tennessee (Sweet 16). For the season, the 6-foot-1 frontliner averaged 5.0 points per game with a team-best .558 field goal percentage. She also turned in some of her best results against other elite-level teams, chalking up a season-high seven rebounds in her third career game at Maryland, and adding six rebounds in the season-ending contest against Tennessee.
During the offseason, Bruszewski dedicated herself to further expanding her offensive potential and versatility. As a result, she has evolved into a threat on the blocks and beyond the arc, adding a reliable three-point shot to her arsenal. With an uncanny toughness and willingness to do the dirty work in the paint, the Valparaiso, Ind., product also remains an important defensive asset.
"Becca really played well down the stretch last year," McGraw said. "She built off those games, came back from the offseason in great shape and really worked hard on her perimeter game. She brings that physicality to the post and is someone who will never back down to anyone."
Freshman Erica Solomon gives Notre Dame even more depth and options in the post. Standing 6-foot-2 and hailing from suburban Detroit, Solomon was the AP Class B Co-Player of the Year last season (along with Watson) after helping leading Detroit Country Day School to the Class B state championship. Individually, she averaged 12.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 4.0 blocks per game during last year's title-winning run and earned the last of her four consecutive all-state honors.
Despite missing a good portion of her junior season with a knee injury, and like Watson, going largely unseen due to Michigan's unorthodox playing schedule, Solomon still was ranked as high as 18th in the country by some recruiting services. An intense rebounder and shot blocker, she will be most valuable on defense early in her career, although she does bring a strong set of post moves to the table.
"Erica is a little bit of an unsung player who didn't come in with as much hype as the other players because of her injury," McGraw said. "She's a really strong addition to what we've already got inside with her bigger presence, aggressive rebounding and shot-blocking abilities. I'm really looking forward to seeing her out there because I think she can do some damage, particularly at the defensive end."
The 2008-09 schedule could be one of the most difficult slates in Notre Dame's 32-year history. The Irish are penciled in to play 20 of their 28 regular-season games against teams that advanced to the postseason a year ago, including six contests against other '08 NCAA Sweet 16 participants.
Among the featured games on this year's schedule are visits to 2008 NCAA Women's Final Four participants LSU (Nov. 16) and Connecticut (Feb. 22), and NCAA Sweet 16 qualifiers Vanderbilt (Dec. 30) and Pittsburgh (Feb. 3), as well as home contests with '08 NCAA Elite Eight participant Rutgers (Jan. 27) and NCAA Sweet 16 combatant Louisville (Feb. 11). The latter two matchups highlight Notre Dame's 13-game regular-season schedule at the Joyce Center, with the Irish also playing host to first- and second-round games in the 2009 NCAA Women's Basketball Championship (March 22 and 24).
"This may be one of the toughest schedules we've ever put together," McGraw said. "You start with the conference schedule. The BIG EAST is already coming off probably its best across-the-board season ever, and now you're adding in some young up-and-coming teams that are going to make it even tougher. Then, you look outside of the conference and we're going to face a difficult test right off the bat with LSU at their place, not to mention trips to Vanderbilt and Boston College along with Purdue and Michigan State coming in here.
"We always try to build our schedule so that we use the non-conference season to help prepare us for the BIG EAST, and then play the BIG EAST schedule to get us ready for the NCAA Tournament," she continued. "I think this kind of schedule helps us and probably explains why we've had such a tradition of success in the NCAAs. We get a chance to play just about every different kind of team, with every different style of play, during the regular season. We also learn a lot about ourselves and what our weaknesses are, so that when the NCAA Tournament rolls around, we're ready and we haven't built up a false sense of confidence from beating up on teams that aren't very good. We believe it's important to challenge our players, and I think they like that and get excited about playing good teams."
Notre Dame's 2008-09 schedule opens with its first-ever appearance in the State Farm Tip-Off Classic on Nov. 16 at LSU (ESPN2 live broadcast). The Irish then return home for four of their next six games, opening the '08-'09 Joyce Center slate with a matchup against Missouri Valley Conference regular-season co-champion Evansville (Nov. 19), before Georgia Southern (Nov. 25), Michigan State (Nov. 29) and Purdue (Dec. 7) all come to South Bend.
Sprinkled within that early spate of home games are a pair of trips to Eagles' nests -- Boston College (Nov. 23) and Eastern Michigan (Dec. 2). The Irish making their first visit to BC since the Eagles' final season in the BIG EAST (2004-05), while Notre Dame's journey to EMU also will be noteworthy, as it's the first time the Irish will take on the Eagles since Nov. 30, 1984 (a 70-59 victory in Ypsilanti).
A month-long stretch from mid-December to mid-January will bring on perhaps the most grueling span of games Notre Dame has seen in many years, with six out of seven contests on the road. A Dec. 10 junket to Michigan starts the run, with the always-dangerous trip down the Indiana Toll Road to Valparaiso looming three days later. After a brief return home to face former Midwestern Collegiate Conference sister Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 20), the Irish will return from the Christmas holiday with a rare two-game in-season road swing, starting in Charlotte (Dec. 28) before moving on to Vanderbilt (Dec. 30). The first stop will be a homecoming for Williamson, while the latter game will mark Notre Dame's first matchup with the Commodores since the 2001 NCAA Midwest Regional final in Denver (won by the Irish, 72-64, en route to their first national championship).
The BIG EAST sent eight teams to the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season in 2007-08, with a conference-record five squads (including Notre Dame) advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16. The conference road could be even more arduous for the Irish in '08-'09, as they open the league slate with trips to Seton Hall (Jan. 3) and DePaul (Jan. 6). A stopover at the Joyce Center to take on Georgetown (Jan. 10) sets the table for three consecutive games against '08 WNIT qualifiers -- tournament champion Marquette (road, Jan. 13), quarterfinalist St. John's (home, Jan. 17) and third-round participant Villanova (road, Jan. 24).
The heart of the conference schedule brings Notre Dame home for four out of five games, spotlighted by four games against NCAA Tournament qualifiers (three of which advanced to the Sweet 16 or beyond). Returning NCAA Elite Eight squad Rutgers (Jan. 27) and Cincinnati (Jan. 31) open that stretch, before a trip to Sweet 16 participant Pittsburgh (Feb. 3). The Irish then come back to the Joyce Center for the second of two meetings with DePaul (Feb. 8) and a Feb. 11 tussle with another Sweet 16 team, Louisville.
After trips to South Florida (Feb. 17) and Connecticut (Feb. 22 at the XL Center in Hartford), Notre Dame plays two of its final three games at home, welcoming Syracuse (Feb. 24) to town, heading off to face Providence (Feb. 28) and then returning for its regular-season finale on March 2, an unusual midweek matinee against West Virginia.
The 2009 BIG EAST Championship is scheduled for March 6-10 back at Hartford's XL Center, marking the sixth consecutive season the conference tournament will be held at a neutral site. This year's tournament will have a new feel, as all 16 BIG EAST teams will participate in the event, with the top eight teams earning a first-round bye, and the top four seeds garnering a second-round bye.
In the economic world, the people who are can identify the emerging companies and get in on them early are likely to be the ones who will benefit the most in the long run. A similar axiom holds true in the college basketball universe, where the ability to spot those programs on the rise will pay off with an extended pattern of success.
Notre Dame has built a strong and stable platform of prosperity through the years, and last season's run to the Sweet 16 is just the latest rung in that ladder of opportunity. With this foundation firmly in place, the Irish have not only gone beyond "emerging" status to arrive as one of the truly elite programs in college basketball and one likely to continue being an annual force on the national scene for seasons to come.
"It's taken a couple of years, but we've been able to create a team that is really of one mindset in that they all absolutely hate to lose," McGraw said. "These guys all want to win and they're all winners. When you have that mentality and it runs through the entire team from the veterans down to the freshmen, it breeds even more success.
"We're in a unique position with no seniors on this year's team," she added. "We have tremendous leaders in our juniors and I'm confident that as they set the tone, we have the chance to do some great things in the next couple of years. It's an exciting time for our program and we're all looking forward to what lies ahead."
-- ND --