Commentary

Baylor favored in title-game rematch

Notre Dame still seeking identity as defending champs head to South Bend

Originally Published: December 4, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw is a natural-born tweaker, someone who is always trying to figure out if even some slight adjustment might make a difference.

The past two seasons, though, didn't allow for a lot of that with the Irish. Their starting lineup in 2010-11 and 2011-12 -- seasons in which Notre Dame reached the national championship game -- was pretty much always the same.

So far this season, though, after Notre Dame graduated three starters, McGraw has had more arranging and rearranging to do. The Irish are 5-0, but haven't had the same starting lineup in any of those games.

[+] EnlargeKayla McBride
AP Photo/Eric GayKayla McBride leads Notre Dame in scoring at 14.6 points per game.

The freshmen are still getting their feet wet, while some returning players are taking on bigger roles. So this is an Irish squad that really isn't necessarily going to be thinking too much about its Wednesday game against visiting Baylor (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) as a "rematch" of last season's NCAA final. Rather, it's the first really, really tough test for a team establishing a new identity. The Irish already have defeated the likes of Ohio State and UCLA, but this is their toughest challenge yet.

Baylor, meanwhile, returned all five starters, but the Lady Bears are having to grow in new ways, too. Their 40-0 season concluded with an 80-61 victory against the Irish at the Pepsi Center in Denver last April. But Stanford ended the perfect streak on Nov. 16 in Hawaii, the same game in which Baylor junior point guard Odyssey Sims suffered an injured hamstring.

She hasn't played since, but Baylor actually hasn't needed her. The Lady Bears have won their four games since the Stanford loss by an average of 30.5 points. Freshman Niya Johnson has been thrust into the starting point-guard role, which could end up benefitting both her and Baylor down the road because of the experience she's getting.

Baylor center Brittney Griner is averaging 21 points per game and shooting 65.6 percent from the field. Fellow senior post player Destiny Williams is also shooting better than 60 percent from the field (62.5). Baylor as a team is shooting 51.9 percent.

So just what are the Irish supposed to do about all that? Well, the BCS Championship Game-bound football team isn't the only defensive-minded squad in South Bend. McGraw's bunch has held its opponents to 52.8 points per game and 35.7 percent shooting thus far.

Star point guard Skylar Diggins is still the centerpiece player for the Irish, averaging 14.0 points and 4.8 assists. But junior guard Kayla McBride actually is Notre Dame's leading scorer at 14.6 points per game.

With Natalie Novosel having graduated, McBride snared the No. 21 previously worn by Novosel (and past Irish stars such as Beth Morgan and Jacqueline Batteast). McBride wore 23 her first two seasons at Notre Dame, but this season went to the same jersey number she had in high school.

Speaking of changing numbers, McBride has upped her scoring average by three points thus far, the same increase she had between her freshman and sophomore seasons.

Junior forward Natalie Achonwa (13.6 ppg) and freshman guard Jewell Loyd (12.6) are also averaging in double figures. Junior forward Ariel Braker's role is definitely increasing; a lightly used reserve her first two years, she has already started three games this season. And sophomore post Markisha Wright is another Irish player with more potentially on her plate after the graduation of Devereaux Peters, who like Novosel was drafted into the WNBA.

Especially if Sims is able to play, Baylor will look more familiar to viewers because so many of the components are the same as last season. Notre Dame is doing more exploring with personnel and combinations.

That 71-69 Stanford victory over Baylor in mid-November was, all things considered, the best game thus far this season. But it wasn't televised. Unfortunately, some duds have hit the airwaves. So might Notre Dame-Baylor fulfill high expectations?

It will depend a lot on the readiness of the Irish's young players and the team's overall defense. No question, the Lady Bears come into Notre Dame as the clear favorites. But this game, like this entire season so far, gives McGraw a chance to see what she can cook up.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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