For a team that finished as runner-up in the national championship last year, there is only so much room to improve. But based on the commentary at Notre Dame's annual media day yesterday, that won't stop the Irish from trying to produce an even better season than their 2010-2011 campaign.
"Every season you approach, your goal is to do better than you did last season," junior guard SkylarDiggins said. "Last season we were the bridesmaids, and this season we want to be the bride."
The media day provided a preview of a 2011-2012 season surrounded by high expectations. Still several weeks away from their first exhibition game Nov. 2, the Irish have set their focus on making a return appearance in the title game.
"I think you look at what we have — obviously we want to compete for a national championship. That's something that has got to be our goal," Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. "We've got to start, and we aren't going to win the national championship today. And that's something I think we have to try to communicate … to the team — that each game is important, but we really do have to take it one step at a time."
With a veteran lineup that includes four returning starters from last year, the Irish are among the preseason favorites to be this season's champions. Notre Dame brings back Diggins, fifth-year forward Devereaux Peters, senior guard Natalie Novosel and fifth-year guard Brittany Mallory as starters, with Peters, Novosel and Mallory splitting captain duties.
Diggins, Peters and Novosel are preseason All-Americans and were recently named to the preseason list of candidates for the Coach Wooden Award, an honor awarded to the top player in NCAA women's basketball.
However, the sole departure from last year's starting lineup is a significant one, as the graduation of forward Becca Bruszewski leaves the Irish wanting for a physical presence. Along with replacing Bruszewski's contributions in the paint, Notre Dame will also have to replace her leadership ability.
"I think sometimes leadership is sometimes harder to replace than the stats," McGraw said. "We already miss [Bruszewski's] voice. When it comes down to it on the court, I think Skylar is going to be the leader. She is going to have the ball in her hands, she will definitely have that voice that Becca had."
To fill the void under the hoop, the Irish will turn to sophomore forward Natalie Achonwa. However, McGraw said she realizes that the team's strengths rely principally on the guard position.
"We can really score," McGraw said. "This is our best 3-point shooting team ever. I think we'll be able to be score, and our question mark will be inside — can we score on the block and can we defend on the block."
In the offseason, Diggins, Peters and Novosel helped lead Team USA to a championship in the World University Games, but Notre Dame's "big three" haven't let their success affect their approach to this season.
"I think they definitely still have the edge, and I think they are trying to get the rest of the team to get that edge," McGraw said. "I think right now, they are really, really intense at practice. Last year we were pretty intense, but it's almost obsessive with those three right now."
As she prepares to embark on what many hope will be a magical season, McGraw acknowledges her team still has plenty of room for improvement.
"If I had to rank where my team was at now, I'm not sure we'd be in the top-25," McGraw said. "I think we've got a long way to go and I think they know that."
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