Skylar Diggins is no longer running the point for Notre Dame, rival Connecticut is no longer on the schedule and it will be a year of transition as the Fighting Irish learn their way around the Atlantic Coast Conference. The goal, though, remains the same.
"To win that national championship," forward Natalie Achonwa said. "We have a lot of mini-goals, but at the end of the day, the goal is to win the national championship."
Notre Dame's seniors have been to the Final Four every season, making it to the championship game the first two seasons before a disappointing semifinal loss last year to eventual champion Connecticut, a team the Irish had beaten three times earlier in the season. Diggins was a major reason why the Irish were as successful as they were the past three seasons, but with four returning starters, Notre Dame isn't lowering expectations.
The Irish leave the Big East conference and UConn behind and enter the ACC, with the goal of winning the league title immediately. They start the season ranked No. 6. A panel of media members and school representatives picked the Irish to finish second in the league behind Duke, which returns all five starters and the top seven scorers from last year's 33-3 team.
With some experienced reserves and two highly rated freshmen expected to contribute immediately, the challenge for coach Muffet McGraw is to figure out how to put all the pieces together. The players McGraw knows she can count on are Kayla McBride, who was second on the team in scoring with 15.9 points, Achonwa, who averaged 13.8 points and 9.5 rebounds a game and Jewell Loyd, who averaged 12.5 points a game and was their best defender.
McBride is the player expected to provide the offensive spark.
"She should be up for player of the year," McGraw said. "I certainly think she's one of the best players in the country."
Achonwa is out for more than a month after undergoing surgery last week for a small meniscus tear in her right knee, but should be back before the Irish being ACC play. Five things to watch for with the Irish, who open the season Nov. 9 against North Carolina-Wilmington:
REPLACING SKYLAR: Freshman Lindsay Allen will start at point guard immediately, which is a bit surprising considering even Diggins didn't start at point until her sophomore season. But McGraw believes with four upperclassmen around her, Allen is ready.
TEAM IDENTITY: Without Diggins, even McGraw doesn't know yet what the team identity will be. "I don't think we're exactly sure what our M.O. is going to be. What are our strengths? We know some of them individually, but as a team, what is really going to be the strength of this group?" she said.
DEPTH INSIDE: Notre Dame has run a four-guard offense frequently in recent years, leaving a big burden on Achonwa. She'll get help this year, though, with the Irish expected to use two forwards at a time far more often. Freshman Taya Reimer is expected to give the Irish a boost, showing what she could do when she went 11 for 11 from the floor in scoring 27 points in an exhibition win. Senior Ariel Braker and junior Marsiha Wright are expected to see more playing time and give the Irish their deepest front court ever.
TOUGH DEFENSE: McGraw stresses defense, and the added depth at forward should allow the Irish to play more zone defense and to press in different ways. Loyd is key to the defense, as she usually defends the opponents' best player.
CHANGE OF SCENERY: McGraw wasn't even sure where Clemson was on the day Notre Dame announced it was joining the ACC. The Fighting Irish won't be heading to Clemson this season, since the Lady Tigers will be Notre Dame's first ACC opponent in South Bend. The Irish will be making their first trips to Florida State, Wake Forest and North Carolina State and also will host North Carolina for the first time. "We're looking at a lot of new teams we don't know a lot about," McGraw said.
Author: TOM COYNE, Associated Press