Oct. 18, 2016
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By Leigh Torbin
NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Speaking at the team’s annual media day, Muffet McGraw, the Karen and Kevin Keyes Family Head Women’s Basketball Coach at Notre Dame, did not shun or even deflect from the lofty potential many in the women’s basketball community have foreseen in the 2016-17 Irish.
McGraw spoke proudly of her team’s depth as it stands less than a month away from its season-opener, Nov. 11 against Central Michigan in the Preseason WNIT. She spoke of a national landscape where parity could reign, affording many teams, including her own, a potential tenure at number one. Optimism and confidence permeated through the press conference as McGraw prepares to embark on her milestone 30th season at the helm of the Irish.
A transcript on McGraw’s insightful talk with the local media follows:
Are you still in a good mood?
“(laughs out loud) I am. We’re seven or eight practices in and I’m really pleased. We have not had a full contingent yet, but it’s coming. We can see it coming. This is a group that is intense, focused, competitive, and hard-working. I’ve got no complains about they way they are handling practice right now. I’m really, really excited. They don’t back down from a challenge and I love that.”
How early to you talk about big picture goals with them?
“We’re actually going to do that pretty soon. That’s something that we need to get to and might even do it today. We always talk about statistical goals for a game. We’ll have maybe 10 things that we’re trying to do every game and each game we’ll rank ourselves on how we did. They’re they ones who set the goals. They decide how many points they’re going to give up, what (shooting) percentage, turnovers forced and things like that. It’s a good buy-in from them.”
Is there a lot of confidence given what you have coming back and what you’ve brought in?
“I have a lot of confidence about this group because they have a lot of confidence. I think just watching them work gives me confidence. I know we have a lot of depth this year. We also have a lot of talent. There’s no question. We have the best point guard in the country (Lindsay Allen). I think Brianna Turner’s the best player in the country. We’ve got great people around her. We’ve got a lot of positives.”
Is it too soon (in preseason) or are the to the point where they’re ready to play someone besides themselves?
“We scrimmaged against our guys with refs the other day and I think that was good. It was only five practices in but I thought we were ready for it. I think they like when the guys are here. We’ve been going against ourselves because of the fall break this week. It’s been very competitive which I think is good for us too. But, I think we’re going to be ready to play somebody (else) pretty soon.”
Is the big picture goal pretty much the same every season?
“It is. Every year we’re trying to win a national championship. That’s what we want. That’s our primary goal. But, there’s a lot of goals that lead up. How are we going to get there? What do we have to do every day to get there. That’s really what we focus on.”
Did the disappointing end of last year (losing in the Sweet 16) motivate them?
“I think any time you end your season on a loss it’s motivating. I think every year we’ve ended our season on a loss. So, this year, we look at what happened a lot earlier than we wanted. We had a lot of motivation and a lot more time to think about it. It’s something we don’t talk about as much but something in the back of everybody’s mind.”
What does it take for two freshmen to assimilate into the program?
“It’s difficult for freshmen to fit in because we have such a veteran team and our offense has been the same every year. There’s a comfort level that everybody else on the team has and, with the freshmen, it’s a little bit of a learning curve. I think we started in the summer. We continued in the fall so when we get to practice they’re a little more comfortable with what we’re doing. But, every time we put in something new, there’s a little bit more of a learning curve because every body else already knows it. You feel like you’re the only two that don’t know exactly what you’re doing. But, the rest of the team has been so helpful. They’re constantly talking to them on the sidelines. They’re helping them get immersed in what exactly what we’re doing.
“I think for them to play defensively is always the biggest challenge. High school defense is not quite like college defense and what we expect from them. I think Jackie (Young) has made great strides. I think she’s athletic. She can really guard on the perimeter and we really need that. The defense, the rebounding, those kind of things, I think they get a little bit quicker than offense. Both of them are so accomplished on offense, I think that’s the least of my worries. It’s can you guard at the other end.”
What is the next step for sophomore Arike Ogunbowale?
“She made a huge jump when she came back (this year) in terms of her discipline and her sense of urgency. I was really impressed with how she approached this summer. She has worked out. She’s in really great shape. That’s helping her. She’s confident, which she was last year. She’s fearless, which she was last year. Her three-point shot looks a lot better. It looks like she spent a lot of time working on her shot. We are expecting similar to what she did last year but a lot more help on the defensive side.”
If you started tonight, would Arike and Marina (Mabrey) join last year’s starters?
“If we started today, we would start Koko (Kristina Nelson), Kat (Westbeld) with Arike and Marina with Lindsay Allen with Bri (Turner) not being back 100% just yet. Koko is probably the surprise player of the preseason right now. She’s playing really well. She did really well in our first scrimmage against the guys. (She) had 23 points and eight rebounds. She is a completely different person. She’s dominating the paint. I couldn’t be happier with where her game is right now.”
Do you expect Koko to be a pretty important piece then?
“She will definitely be. Those three — Kat, Bri and Koko — will rotate and I could play all three of them together. We’ve tried that and that’s not a bad look either. Generally, I think two of them at a time.”
How big of a step is that?
“She’s made tremendous strides with her mindset. She’s always had the ability but not the mindset. She’s in better shape. She’s moving well. Her feet look just a little bit quicker. Offensively, she’s killing on the block and that is her biggest improvement.”
Will Bri be ready for the opening game?
“Yes. She will be.”
Do you plan on going with a three guard rotation?
“I think initially. There will be times when we play four guards, just because with only three posts and foul trouble, there will be times when we have one post in with the four guard look. That’s really good for Jackie in there.”
More on Brianna Turner’s shoulder
“She’s just not 100% cleared. By the time she comes back (from mid-semester break) on Monday, she’s going to be 100%… She had surgery in April. It went really well. They’re just being extra cautious because of the time of the year. She’s been playing three-on-three and half-court. She just hasn’t been going all-out in the scrimmages yet.”
How much better can she be?
“Her big improvement is going to be the free throw jumper. She’s got to be able to face up and hit the jumper. She’s actually shot some threes because all she can do is just shoot right now. She’s been really working on her shot. Her free throw looks much better. Being comfortable taking the jumper is the biggest improvement she can make.”
Can you see a ten-person rotation?
“I think we can. I think Mychal (Johnson)’s strength ahs always been in her ability to guard the ball in the backcourt when we want to press. She’s somebody that we can put in and do that. She’s also a really good three-point shooter and smart. She’s been just sidelined with a lot of injuries. She has not been out there the whole time. The same with Ali (Patberg). She’s not cleared yet. She’s just doing a little bit of three-on-three. She hasn’t played five-on-five yet. She’s a little slower coming along but, eventually, I could see us playing 10 people.”
Is it difficult to create chemistry when you are rotating like that?
“It can be. That’s been a problem because you have different people on the floor all the time, but this group’s really jelling well together. I think there’s some combinations that will look better than others. That’s going to be my challenge. I need to figure out who plays well together.”
On the mid-season stretch with 10 out of 12 games on the road:
“Between the break for exams and the break for Christmas, there’s a lot of time inbetween (games). I think it will challenge us. It’s a good time of the year to go on the road, hopefully to warmer places. It’s good for them. They’ve got to go out there and play in front of hostile crowds. It’s only going to make us better.”
How can Arike and Marina’s freshman contributions last year help Jackie and Erin (Boley)?
“I think they’re excited and anxious to see how it’s going to go in a game and how much playing time they’re going to get. (To see) what their contribution is going to be, what their role is going to be. It’s obviously going to be smaller than it was in high school, but it’s going to be pretty big for a freshman. I see both of them coming in and having the green light to score. That’s what they do best. I want them to be comfortable doing it and try not to do anything to discourage their confidence.”
What have you seen from Lindsay during the offseason?
“Everything’s different when Lindsay’s in the game. We just look so much better when Lindsay’s in the game. She’s in complete control of the offense. She’s the leader on the floor. She knows exactly where everybody’s supposed to be, when to get them the ball and where to get them the ball. (She’s a) great defender. She does it all. She’s a tremendous leader. I think we’re not going to look as good when she’s not in the game.”
Are you using Boley as a three or a four?
“Erin is going to be a stretch four. She’ll play in the four-guard lineup a lot but she can also play the three. She’s definitely somebody who’s got the three-point shot. She’s the best on the team. No question about it. We want her to be our leading three-point shooter. We’ll look at a four-guard lineup with her in the game.”
What does Ali bring?
“We don’t have a backup point guard right now. We’re desperately waiting for Ali to get healthy. She’s somebody that has the mind of a point guard. She just has the presence of a point guard when she’s on the floor. When we’re just doing five-on-oh, she’s directing. She’s telling everybody where to go even though she’s been out for so long. She’s really smart. She knows exactly what’s supposed to happen. She’s going to be a little rusty physically, but she’s going to bring that ability to stabilize the offense when Lindsay’s not in the game.”
Will she play with Lindsay in the game?
“She could. I don’t know right now that I would play them together. We have so many scorers that it would be hard to play them together.”
How much would you take Lindsay out of the game?
“She’ll play for 39 minutes (laughter). You know, last year she got in a lot of foul trouble. The couple of the games that we lost and the closer games that we had (and won), she was on the bench for stretches we did not want. With Ali, hopefully she’ll be able to keep us steady for those minutes when Lindsay does that. If she could stay on the floor for 40 minutes, I know she would like to and I’d feel good about it too.”
You have so many players who were star recruits. How to you balance that?
“The playing time part is the easiest part of that. I think that this is a team that is incredibly unselfish. They really don’t care how many points they score. I’ve talked to both freshmen about their goals and scoring wasn’t even mentioned.
“They obviously want to shoot the ball and be contributing but the biggest challenge for me is who is that glue player going to be? Who’s the guy who’s going to be out there who doesn’t need to score but just wants to facilitate. Who’s the Hannah Huffman going to be? Who’s going to come into the game and say `my job is to rebound and get the ball to Bri’? We lose Michaela Mabrey and 100 assists last season. Who’s going to do that?
“It’s great that we have all of these scorers, but there’s only one ball and we really want to make sure that the right people are getting the shots. I think that’s going to be a challenge for us to have so many weapons and everybody knows they can score. Who’s going to bring that ability to be the one that’s making the pass — the little plays. That’s something I’m actually a little worried about.”
Based strictly on talent, is this the best team you’ve had?
“Probably, I think it is, especially with where Koko is right now. We’ve got a lot of All-Americans and we’ve got a lot of veteran college players. I would say that we’ve got the depth at pretty much every position. I think it’s probably our best team.”
Even better than the 2001 national championship team?
“That team, we played six people and only because we had to sub. We played a different game. We played a two-three zone the entire game and it was different what was going on back then. That team was incredibly talented but, more than that, they weren’t the most outstanding team in the country. We had a great chemistry and everybody knew their job. That was the biggest thing with that team — everybody played their role exactly as it was supposed to be. Nobody did too much or too little. That was the strength of that team.”
When you look at the national scene, what are you expecting this year?
“I’m expecting that this is the year where parity finally hits women’s basketball. It’s a long time coming. I think it’s going to be great for the game. I think there’s a lot of teams that can win it, just in our conference. Louisville is a great team with just about everybody coming back. Miami’s got everybody coming back. Syracuse is coming off a Final Four. Duke’s a team that’s a little under the radar right now. There’s a lot of great talent in the ACC.
“Nationally, you’ve got Tennessee with just about everybody back. Baylor has almost everybody back. Stanford’s got a really good team coming back. This is a year where nobody lost a lot of talent except for Connecticut. I think that evens things out and I think maybe this will be a year where we’ll see a different number one every week like the men had last year — which I thought was really exciting. Unless, we’re the ones that are not number one. Then I wouldn’t be quite as excited.”
Would you put your own team at number one?
“I wouldn’t. I would put us in the top five but there’s a lot of good teams. This time of year, we haven’t earned anything. I want to earn it.”
Leigh Torbin, athletics communications associate director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013 and coordinates all media efforts for Notre Dame’s women’s basketball and men’s golf teams. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.