It’s been a busy few months for Muffet McGraw and her Notre Dame Fighting Irish after they won the national championship in April on a last-second shot by Arike Ogunbowale.
There were award ceremonies, a trip to the ESPYs and Ogunbowale’s appearance on “Dancing with the Stars.” Now with the season beginning in a little over a week, the Irish are focused on the new task at hand rather than with the idea of defending the title.
“We’ve turned the page. We enjoyed it and moved on,” McGraw said. “We talked about our goals and what we wanted to do and nothing that was based on last year. We are looking forward and that’s important to us.”
The Irish are the heavy favorite to get to Tampa for this year’s Final Four with four starters back along with a few players coming off ACL injuries. They’ll open play on Nov. 9 against Harvard. The college basketball season officially begins three days earlier.
“I see a team that really wants to prove something again,” said McGraw, who is entering her 32nd season at Notre Dame and won her only other title in 2001.
Only a few programs have won consecutive titles since the NCAA Tournament began in 1982. The Irish hope to join UConn, Tennessee and Southern Cal in the back-to-back club.
The Huskies looked poised to win the title the past two years only to fall in overtime in the national semifinals each season. UConn lost three starters to the WNBA and coach Geno Auriemma’s squad for the first time in a few years may lose a game in the regular season. The Huskies haven’t lost in the regular season since a setback to Stanford in 2014.
Here are few things to look for in the upcoming season:
NEW ROLES: Former WNBA stars Lindsay Whalen and Tina Thompson are now college head coaches. Whalen returned to Minnesota, her alma mater, after ending an incredible WNBA career this summer. Whalen has no previous coaching experience, but has won four WNBA titles and two Olympic gold medals. Whalen admits she’s still learning on the fly.
“Being the coach and making the decision is just a little different,” the former Gopher great said, “but I’m getting there.”
Whalen has surrounded herself with a strong group of assistant coaches to help with the transition.
Thompson took over at Virginia last spring after being an assistant coach at Texas for a few years. The two-time Olympic gold medalist and four-time WNBA champion with the Houston Comets was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame last month. While she can draw on her time as an assistant, Thompson knows things are a little different as head coach.
“I’m not afraid to ask questions,” she said when she was hired. “That’s why I have no fear about this because you put yourself in a comfortable place when you can admit there are things you’re just not going to know and you’re not going to have an understanding of it until you go through the process.”
MILESTONES: Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer is three victories short of becoming the fifth Division I — and sixth coach overall — to reach 1,000 victories. If the Scarlet Knights win their first two games, Stringer’s first chance will come against Central Connecticut State on Nov. 13.
“The only reason that I, in my own mind, want to get it done is I have a lot of family members that are coming from all areas of the country and I don’t want them to come up here for nothing — and they can’t get their money back for the ticket,” the Hall of Fame coach said at media day last week. “My family and my assistants know me well enough to know that it’s not about the number. It’s just that I don’t want to disappoint anybody. I just want to get it over with.”
Stringer isn’t the only coach approaching a wins mark. McGraw is 12 victories short of 900 overall in her career. She got her 800th at Notre Dame when the Irish beat Mississippi State for the title.
STAR POWER: With A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Mitchell gone to the WNBA, there are still many great players returning this season. Besides Ogunbowale, Louisville’s Asia Durr, Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu are two of the most talented guards in the country. There is no shortage of talented centers with seniors Kalani Brown (Baylor), Teaira McCowan (Mississippi State) and Megan Gustafson (Iowa) leading the way.
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