Notre Dame women have the talent to fill holes
Notre Dame reached the national championship game last season for a second consecutive time. The Irish posted a 35-4 record, and for the first time in school history won the Big East women's basketball regular-season title with a 15-1 mark. McGraw, entering her 26th season at Notre Dame (591-215, one national title, four Final Fours), saw her team establish 22 team records.
The Irish graduated three starters from last season's national runner-up team - Devereaux Peters, Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory - but have plenty of firepower for the 2012-2013 campaign.
"We've still got the Big One back," McGraw said. "I think any time you have a team with Skylar Diggins at the point, you'd better not count us out. She's got the competitive drive, she's going to get the freshmen in line.
"I think we have a lot of talent offensively. Our big question marks are defense and rebounding, and how are we going to handle that."
Notre Dame opens the season against Big Ten power Ohio State on Friday, Nov. 9, on the deck of the USS Yorktown in Charleston, S.C. The Irish play Edinboro in an exhibition game on Thursday, Nov. 1, at the Purcell Pavilion (7 p.m. ET). The home opener is Sunday, Nov. 18, against Massachusetts (2 p.m. ET).
Diggins, a former South Bend Washington High School star, enters her senior season. The 5-foot-9 guard averaged 16.8 points and 5.7 assists a game in earning first-team All-America honors.
"This team has been my team," Diggins said. "It was my team last year, it was my team the year before that. Even now, I feel like people say that because we lost Dev and Natalie and Brittany, players who were All-Americans and had experience. But I still think we have great players willing and able to step into leadership roles similar to what we lost.
"It's just a matter of finding out, 'What can you do for us every day, consistently?' and doing that. That's what we're trying to figure out now, with the new players."
Expectations are still high. Notre Dame was ranked No. 8 in ESPN's preseason poll.
Kayla McBride, a 5-11 junior guard, is the other returning starter after averaging 11.6 points and 4.6 rebounds.
Natalie Achonwa, a 6-3 junior forward, averaged 7.6 points and 4.4 rebounds off the bench. Achonwa played on Canada's Olympic team this past summer and is being counted on to anchor the inside game.
Jewell Loyd, a 5-10 freshman guard, will play plenty of minutes even if she doesn't start. Loyd was the No. 4 ranked player in the nation and the No. 1 ranked player in the nation at her position. She averaged 27.5 points, 12.2 rebounds and four blocks last season for Niles West (Ill.) High School.
Markisha Wright, a 6-2 sophomore (3.3 points, 2.1 rebounds a game), could emerge as a force inside, and McGraw is hoping Ariel Braker (6-1 junior) can also contribute inside.
If healthy, Madison Cable would give the Irish a 3-point threat, along with Kaila Turner. Whitney Holloway's point guard duties and defense were impressive last season for a freshman.
Michaela Mabrey and Hannah Huffman, a pair of freshmen guards, have impressed McGraw in practice.
"When I look at our team, I feel like we're young," McGraw said. "I really feel like we have a lot of new faces that are going to be playing major minutes for us.
"Obviously, Sklyar will lead us, and Kayla McBride, we're expecting to have an All-American year, and Natalie Achonwa. We're expecting big things from those three, but they can't do it all themselves. We need the freshmen to come along quickly."
Last season's team was second in the nation in scoring (78.9 points a game), and 13th in defense (52.9 points a game allowed).
"I think we're going to take some lumps early," McGraw said. "I think we'll be a little similar to two years ago. We came out, we lost a couple of games in November. We had to right the ship. We were just a little unsure.
"I think when you have freshmen who are going to be playing a lot of time, which we will have, we are going to be up and down. So as soon as we can get consistency, that's when we're going to be able to make our run. We hope it's by the Big East season, but we certainly expect it to be by March."
Although last season was one to savor, the 80-61 loss to Baylor in the national championship game is still a bitter memory for McGraw.
"No, we have not, I think for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was what happened after and what came out after," McGraw said when asked if the Irish had gotten over the sting of the loss in the title game.
Shortly after the national championship game, it was revealed that Baylor had committed a number of NCAA violations.
"It really made it harder to swallow," McGraw said. "We know we didn't play well and they were a team that was unbeatable, obviously. They were undefeated. It won't be a rematch this year, because we don't have the same team back and they do. But it's definitely a game that is already sold out, and we're all looking forward to it."
Baylor plays at Notre Dame on Wednesday, Dec. 5 (7 p.m. ET).