Notre Dame Fighting Irish - Official Athletics Website

Commentary: Plenty of Irish Are Plenty Good

Nov. 28, 2017 By John Heisler

University of Notre Dame sports fans happening by the Joyce Center or Compton Family Ice Arena Tuesday probably were disappointed.

No balloons.

No confetti.

No billboards.

Even the social media posts trumpeting all the latest Irish successes had long since fallen down in the queue.

Still, think about it: Three of Notre Dame’s most prominent winter sports programs all posted top-five national rankings Monday within a handful of hours.

Muffet McGraw’s Irish women’s basketball team (6-0) came in at second in the USA Today poll and third in the Associated Press rankings after its emphatic Sunday night win over then-third-ranked South Carolina in the title game of the Gulf Coast Showcase in Estero, Florida.

Jeff Jackson’s hockey team (12-3-1) earned a number-three rating in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll and maintained its number-four standing in the USCHO poll after a pair of wins over sixth-ranked Minnesota extended the Irish win streak to nine.

Mike Brey’s men’s basketball squad (6-0) jumped up to fifth (both Associated Press and USA Today) after bouncing back from a 16-point deficit to defeat sixth-rated Wichita State last week to claim the Maui Invitational title.

Any one of those three would be worth a blue ribbon — much less all three by the same school on the same day.

There are several reasons why fans didn’t find any leftover banners or beads:

  1. Remember, it’s only November. All three of these programs are used to winning, so these are only nice early-season steps. Heck, just a year ago, the men’s hoops team went 7-0 in November.
  2. These Irish teams have been there before. This is a women’s basketball program that has won an NCAA title and not long ago advanced to the Final Four five years in a row. Brey’s men in both 2015 and 2016 played in the NCAA Elite Eight. Jackson’s hockey team only a year ago qualified for the NCAA Frozen Four. So lofty goals are nothing new for any of them.
  3. There’s not much time to celebrate, with all three teams headed back out for tough road challenges.

If Brey, McGraw, Jackson and their staffs all were behind closed doors Tuesday, consider their schedules:

–The next assignment for the Irish men’s basketball squad is to play one of the four teams ranked ahead of the Irish and do it on the road. That’s against third-rated Michigan State Thursday night in East Lansing in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

–The women do basically the same thing, heading to Ann Arbor to meet 22nd-ranked Michigan Wednesday night in that same Big Ten/ACC Challenge and then traveling to play Sunday against the top-rated team in the country, Connecticut.

–Jackson’s hockey team will try to protect its success streak away from home — with two games this weekend at Michigan State and two more next weekend at Wisconsin. The Irish don’t play at home again until a Jan. 7 date versus Michigan.

Consider a few other ranking and statistical tidbits for these Irish squads:

–The last time the Irish men’s basketball team ranked this high this early in the year came in 1979-80 when Notre Dame began the season rated fourth. The best early standing by a Brey team was seventh in 2008-09 in the first week of December.

–The current Irish success in men’s basketball has been fueled by NCAA rankings of third in turnovers (fewest per game at 8.7), seventh in assist/turnover ratio (1.75), 10th in scoring margin (24.3) and 12th in field-goal percentage (.528).

–McGraw’s women average 86.0 points per game and boast a 13.7 average rebound margin.

–The Notre Dame victory over South Carolina ended the defending NCAA champion’s 17-game win streak and marked the highest-rated opponent to fall victim to Notre Dame since a 2015 Final Four win over that same South Carolina team that was ranked third and fourth in the polls.

–Notre Dame’s nine-game hockey win streak (best since a 10-game streak in February and March 2009) has included a pair of wins over a Minnesota team currently ranked seventh and two more on the road over an Ohio State team currently rated 11th.

–Jackson’s squad has benefited from the play of senior captain Jake Evans (he leads the NCAA in points and assists with 25 and 19, respectively) and sophomore goaltender Cale Morris (he leads the country in save percentage at .952 and is third in goals-against average at 1.62).

Consider that just a few months ago the Irish hockey program had hoped both goaltender Cal Petersen and forward Anders Bjork might opt to stay at Notre Dame for another season and possibly be in contention for slots in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Both ultimately signed pro contracts, but that hasn’t stopped the Irish from putting together a great early run.

Likewise, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team had been expecting the return of projected All-America center Brianna Turner for 2017-18. But her ACL injury at the end of last season prevented her from being ready this time around. That’s left Arike Ogunbowale (18.8 points, 6.7 rebounds) and Jackie Young (17.8 points, 7.7 rebounds) to help shoulder the load — with inside help from transfer Jessica Shepard (13.7 points, 9.3 rebounds) and freshman Mikayla Vaughn (8.0 points, 4.3 rebounds).

Meanwhile, on the men’s basketball side, veterans Bonzie Colson (20.0 points, 10.5 rebounds) and Matt Farrell (17.5 points, 26 assists) continue to play with chips on their shoulders — almost as if they’re afraid someone is going to take their basketball from them and never let them play again. They set the tone for the Irish approach by seemingly cherishing every second they spend on the court.

Young was the MVP at the Gulf Coast Showcase — as Farrell was in Maui.

So, for any Irish fans who stopped by Irish athletic facilities today expecting a celebration, maybe apologies are in order.

But it’s worth noting that the banners these Irish teams and coaches are really interested in acquiring don’t become available until March and April 2018.