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Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Defending NCAA champion Notre Dame Fighting Irish are ready for new season and new puzzle

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — As much as the wins, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw craves solutions. The first is a job requirement. The second is her compulsion.

In Paris this spring for son Murphy’s wedding, at least as her husband tells the story, she transformed the subway system into a brain-teaser. For more than a week, she studied the layout and searched out efficient routes. It wasn’t merely a means of transportation. It was a puzzle with a solution waiting to be found.

So, yes, the 2017-18 women’s basketball season was her hardest. It was her most challenging, the most demanding. All the adjectives are hers. After all, by the Final Four, the Fighting Irish had barely as many healthy bodies as the famed photo of Knute Rockne’s Four Horsemen. Fewer if you count the horses. But the adversity also made the riddle that much more satisfying to solve.

“I love puzzles, McGraw said. “I hate to say I enjoyed it, but I liked that part of it, trying to figure out how we were going to do it, how it was going to work.”

Notre Dame won its second national championship because Arike Ogunbowale made two of the most audacious shots in the history of basketball. But the Fighting Irish had the opportunity because for months they found a way to turn five or six puzzle pieces into a complete picture. Their limitations became strengths, never clearer than when a team that needed Ogunbowale to take as many shots as possible watched her calmly hit two such unlikely winners in Columbus.

Now the challenge is to see if those same pieces fit as seamlessly in a different picture. With four of five starters back, this is much the same team. With a host of newly healthy players, including All-American Brianna Turner, and four freshmen, this is a very different puzzle.

“There’s definitely going to be a lot of scoring, but we’re going to have to put together some defensive stops,” Ogunbowale said. “If we’re not getting stops and we’re off, we can be beat. But [the team’s identity depends on] just knowing when to take shots because there’s going to be a lot of scorers on the court at the same time. So you definitely have to share the ball — and take your shot when you need it, but the second pass is going to be open a lot.”

McGraw tried this once before, to do what only UConn, Tennessee and USC ever managed in winning back-to-back titles. But when the Irish assembled again after winning their first title in 2001, they did so without Ruth Riley, Niele Ivey and Kelley Siemon. Those three represented roughly 40 percent of the points for the championship team and a greater share of its identity.

Still, when the time came to talk goals before the 2001-02 season, the new and returning players excitedly talked about winning another championship.

“I didn’t say, ‘No, we’re not,’ but my face was probably like, no,” McGraw recalled. “In my mind, we were rebuilding. I didn’t handle that all that well.”

The challenge this time is how tantalizingly familiar this team appears but how different it will be.

The most important case in point is Turner, who suffered a torn ACL in her left knee during the 2017 NCAA tournament and sat out last season to complete her rehab. The lack of anything more substantial than a protective sleeve on her left leg supports her contention, seconded by those around her, that she is 100 percent, but she was an almost spectral presence last season.

“I don’t think anybody understands that unless they go through it,” McGraw said. “That is so lonely. That rehab is so hard and so lonely. You feel isolated — you’re not ever doing anything that the team is doing.”

Turner, for her part, said she felt a part of the championship run. It helped, she noted with the dry humor that she only occasionally frees for public consumption, that there was essentially an entire lineup in street clothes for much of the season — their own support group.

And while knee and previous shoulder injuries have afforded Turner more of an opportunity than she would like, she attempted to take something from it that will help her reacclimate.

“You see so much more when you’re just watching versus when you’re actually in the game,” Turner said. “I don’t know if it taught me to be more patient with myself, but it was just seeing more.”

Without Turner, and without much in the way of a bench, Notre Dame abandoned its man-to-man defense last season in favor of a zone to protect against fatigue and fouls. A concession to circumstances, the zone fit the remaining personnel so well that McGraw, who initially assumed they would revert to man-to-main this season, might stick with the zone at times. Either way, the presence of a 6-foot-3 shot-blocker changes everything about the look of a defense.

“Help side defense — if you get beat, we know she’s in the paint,” said Ogunbowale of Turner. “She definitely defends the paint well. And she runs the floor well as a post. You can always throw it up to her, and she’ll be down there. She can go get balls, get rebounds, she can get blocks.”

Adding Turner, not to mention 6-3 sophomore Mikayla Vaughn in her own return from a knee injury, should make Notre Dame immediately better on defense. The math gets trickier at the other end of the court. Improvement isn’t as simple as adding another All-American to four national champions in Ogunbowale, Marina Mabrey, Jessica Shepard and Jackie Young.

Notre Dame adjusted its defensive expectations amid the injuries. It didn’t slow down on offense. That suited those who remained just fine, Ogunbowale most of all. The Fighting Irish needed her to look to score like her idol Kobe Bryant, and she responded by taking 657 shots.

Now the Fighting Irish not only have another prolific scorer in the mix with Turner, but a scorer who will to a large degree depend on teammates to get her the ball. That’s an extra variable, and one McGraw and Ogunbowale have talked about. The more Ogunbowale scored a season ago, the better Notre Dame was. The Irish might be better this season if she scores less.

“She can get her shot anytime she wants; that’s a little bit of a problem,” McGraw said. “Other people are like, ‘I can’t get my shot because I’m guarded.’ She can usually still get it.”

Ogunbowale said she will continue to let the game come to her. She was the one, after all, who unselfishly told Young that the younger player needed to step up when UConn inevitably tried to take away the veteran’s touches in the Final Four. And the senior’s continued vocal presence throughout the preseason has been noted.

“I’m so proud of Arike, her leadership,” McGraw said. “Sometimes, honestly, [associate coach Ivey] and I are like, ‘Look at her — our little girl is growing up.’ It’s just great to see that side of her.”

Finding a harmonious balance isn’t all on Ogunbowale’s shoulders, or those of Mabrey and Young, the other two perimeter scorers who starred in the title run. Kathryn Westbeld didn’t score points by the bushel, but the lone departed starter’s value was impossible to miss. She and fellow senior Kristina Nelson were adept at the high-post passing that fuels Notre Dame’s offense and playing off Shepard, the low-post scoring threat.

On paper, Notre Dame is probably more talented with Shepard, Turner and Vaughn in the post. But transferring paper potential to on-court chemistry is a process.

“It’s still, a little bit in the post, like no matter which two are out there, none of them have played together,” McGraw said. “That’s where Kat and [Nelson], they just were facilitators, they did all the little things, they made it easy for everybody else. Now nobody is really making it easier for somebody else — I mean, they’re trying and they’re helping, but it’s not quite the same.”

Nothing is quite the same. In addition to Vaughn, who played just six games a season ago before her injury, the Irish add a well-regarded freshman class. Among them, Jordan Nixon likely will play significant minutes from the outset as a true point guard. That frees Mabrey, a natural off-guard, from those responsibilities, but again, changes the picture ever so slightly.

McGraw said that when asked to share a favorite moment from last season, Mabrey submitted every instance in which she committed a turnover, saw McGraw shake her head and then look down the bench, only to do nothing. There were no replacements. The coach had to live with it.

It was a lot of responsibility for the players, but it also set them free. There was no worrying about mistakes costing them minutes, and that swagger offset fatigue. The Irish turned its liabilities into its greatest strengths. The pieces fit together perfectly in the end.

That doesn’t mean they would choose that route again. They are happy to have depth.

But it does mean starting anew.

“Every season is different,” McGraw said. “But this one is a bigger puzzle for me because of all the people looking down the bench.”

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