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Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s quest to repeat one of top story lines to watch in 2018-19 season

Halloween is creeping up. Which means it’s almost November. Which means it’s almost time to tip off the college basketball season. After perhaps the most thrilling Women’s Final Four ever, the bar is high for what’s next. There are endless story lines, but here’s a quick look at five of the biggest we’ll be following this season.

1. Can the Irish do it again?

It really was the ultimate twist ending. The team that many observers felt bad for most of last season — “Poor Notre Dame and all its knee injuries!” — ended up as the last one standing. After several years in which the Irish seemed so close to winning their second national championship, a season in which they seemed a little too far away instead had a magical conclusion.

Two of them, actually: The buzzer-beating shots to defeat UConn in the national semifinals and Mississippi State in the final, both by Irish guard Arike Ogunbowale, became instant classics. We might never see anything like that again.

But will we see an Irish repeat? History says it’s not likely; in the NCAA era, UConn, Tennessee and Southern Cal are the only teams that have won at least two titles in a row. The Trojans did that back in 1983-84. The Huskies’ most recent repeat was four in row (2013-16), and Tennessee’s most recent was 2007-08.

Notre Dame will try to join that group. It’s a tall order, to say the least, and one that requires an ability to continually play with a target on your back. Notre Dame has tended to like the underdog role, and with the Irish’s injury situation last season, they fit that (nationally, if not in the ACC). But as their NCAA title showed, they still had a ton of talent. With Ogunbowale, Marina Mabrey, Jackie Young and Jessica Shepard returning as starters, plus All-American forward Brianna Turner back from the knee injury that kept her out all last season, the Irish are loaded and will be in a favorite’s role this season.

2. Can the Pac-12 break through for a title?

The Pac-12 has elevated itself over the past few years, and it has been a blast to watch. Teams such as Cal, Oregon State and Washington made their Final Four debuts. Standard-bearer Stanford has remained strong. UCLA climbed back to national prominence. Oregon, this year’s Pac-12 favorite, plays exciting, up-tempo basketball and showcases some real star power, led by triple-double threat Sabrina Ionescu.

The one thing the Pac-12 is still chasing is another national championship because it has been a while. Stanford’s 1992 title is still the last time a Pac-12 team won it all in women’s basketball, and that was long before any of today’s college players were born.

Last season, UCLA, Oregon and Oregon State all lost in the Elite Eight. It was a terrific season for the Pac-12, but there’s another level to be reached. It helps that programs across the conference have really improved or are working on it, increasing the strength of the conference from top to bottom.

Whether or not this is the season when one of the Pac-12 teams comes home with the big trophy, there’s a feeling that it’s going to happen sometime in the near future.

3. How will these teams respond to their disappointments?

That word is relative, of course. What is a big disappointment to one team might be a really good season for another. But we define “disappointment” to mean what these teams were vying for versus what happened. In the case of all four, they had viable national championship aspirations last season but fell short.

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs revamped their offense from the 2016-17 season, when they lost to SEC rival South Carolina in the NCAA championship game. In 2017-18, Mississippi State won the SEC regular-season title and was undefeated until the league tournament title game, in which the Gamecocks got them again. Even so, the Bulldogs went to the NCAA tournament with a great deal of confidence. They had a 58-53 lead over Notre Dame with just less than two minutes left in the NCAA final.

But Mississippi State didn’t score again, and as mentioned, Ogunbowale’s shot sent them to a 61-58 defeat. For the Bulldogs, with four senior starters, that stung badly. The interesting thing is Notre Dame and its fans knew exactly how that felt because the Irish lost back-to-back NCAA finals twice: in 2011-12 and 2014-15.

The Bulldogs return just one starter, but she’s their rock: 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan. They also have a standout transfer in Anriel Howard from Texas A&M, some veterans who should get more playing time and some youngsters who have a lot of promise. There’s a lot to replace, but Mississippi State is picked to win the SEC again and could make another run at the Final Four.

UConn and Louisville: Both lost in overtime in the national semifinals on that fabulous Friday night (unless you were Huskies or Cardinals fans) in Columbus, Ohio. Those were great games to watch, but they left the losing teams agonizing over being so close.

The Huskies’ big losses, personnel-wise, are Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse, who are both now in the WNBA. With starters Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield back, the Huskies should still be right where they virtually always are: going for another title.

The Cardinals lost Myisha Hines-Allen, who is also in the WNBA, but return starters Asia Durr, Sam Fuehring, Jazmine Jones and Arica Carter. They’d be the ACC favorites if not for the Irish, but that rivalry — which isn’t the friendliest — definitely will spice up the season. Watch out for the Cardinals.

Baylor: When the Lady Bears were celebrating their perfect season in Denver in 2012, you wouldn’t have guessed that would be their last Final Four appearance for a while. But the past six years, they’ve lost four times in the Elite Eight and twice in the Sweet 16. Last year, they suffered a big blow in losing senior point guard Kristy Wallace in late February. They still won their ninth Big 12 tournament title but then fell to Oregon State in the regional semifinals.

Freshman Alexis Morris did a good job filling in for Wallace and was expected to be the starting point guard this season. But she was dismissed from the team in September. Baylor has one of the best frontcourts in the country, with 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown and 6-foot-4 Lauren Cox, and the Lady Bears are the Big 12 favorites again. The big question, though, is about their guard play.

4. What will be the Whalen effect?

It’s not fair to expect too much from a first-year coach … but everybody is watching how longtime WNBA star Lindsay Whalen does at her alma mater, Minnesota. It’s exciting to see a player of her caliber join the coaching ranks.

The Gophers’ highlight as a program was 14 years ago, when Whalen came back from a broken hand during her senior season to lead the team to the Final Four. Her WNBA career, first with the Connecticut Sun and then with the Minnesota Lynx, was epic, including four league titles with the Lynx.

The Gophers have talent, led by Kenisha Bell and Destiny Pitts, who were both on the media’s preseason all-Big Ten team. Bell also made the coaches’ preseason team.

The expectations should not be too big for Whalen’s first season, but they won’t be small. The native Minnesotan is used to carrying the hopes of a state on her shoulders, though, so this will be nothing new for her.

5. Who is the favorite for player of the year?

Last season, South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson was the front-runner as the top player in the country, and she never lost her lead in that race. Wilson was the consensus college player of the year, the WNBA’s No. 1 draft pick and that league’s rookie of the year.

It’s harder to say if there is a front-runner this season because there are several strong candidates, including Durr, Samuelson, Collier, Ogunbowale, Ionescu, Brown, McCowan and Iowa’s Megan Gustafson. Of those eight, all are seniors except the junior Ionescu. Others might emerge, too.

This is a season when some of the marquee head-to-head matchups of top teams could help determine the player of the year race. And voters might go right until the end of the season before making their choices.

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