SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A crowd waited outside the Joyce Center when the Notre Dame women's basketball team returned to campus shortly after losing to Connecticut in the national championship game this past April. The loss in Nashville a night earlier marked the Fighting Irish's first in a calendar year. But Muffet McGraw focused neither on that bitter defeat against an old rival nor on the 37 wins in a row that preceded it when the coach spoke to those who greeted the team.
McGraw wanted to talk about the new season, the one she said started that day. A new opportunity awaited.
As the falling snow after a recent Halloween practice made clear, one stops to smell the roses at one's own risk on more or less any occasion in South Bend. And after four consecutive trips to the Final Four ended with four consecutive disappointments, that particular bloom might not be in the best condition anyway.
"I think the first year or two we were kind of happy to be there," McGraw said of a sense of overachieving to reach the recent Final Fours. "And then after the second or third year you're going, 'Damn, can we just win one more game?'"
There is something to be said for continuing to get the opportunity.
In coming up just short in each of the past four seasons, losing three times in the national championship game and once in the semifinals, Notre Dame nevertheless did what it could not after it won a national title in 2001. Only 14 Division I schools possess championships in women's college basketball. It is a small club. But it is not as small as the one Notre Dame will try and join this season by becoming just the fourth school, along with Connecticut, LSU and Stanford, to reach five consecutive Final Fours.
Even without a championship to show for the recent run, Notre Dame has become part of college basketball's ruling class.
The question for most teams at this time of year is: can they get to the Final Four? For the Fighting Irish, it seems to be: how will they get there?
Notre Dame lost Brittany Mallory, Natalie Novosel and Devereaux Peters from teams that made back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2010-11 and 2011-12 and still made the trip again the next season. They lost Skylar Diggins, the player who most embodied the new era of basketball in South Bend, after the 2012-13 season and not only made it to Nashville a season ago but swept through their debut campaign in the ACC en route to an undefeated regular season.
No wonder, then, that despite losing Natalie Achonwa and Kayla McBride, and a third starter in Ariel Braker whose statistics belied her importance, Notre Dame is ranked third in the Associated Press Top 25 and the favorite to win the ACC. The jersey has become almost a guarantor of success, the equivalent of an HBO drama or Apple gadget.
"I feel like we all already know what this team can be," sophomore Taya Reimer said. "We see the potential."
That's good enough for us these days.
It doesn't hurt that it isn't necessary to rely on potential alone to envision what Jewell Loyd can be.
As good as McBride was a season ago, Loyd led Notre Dame in scoring at 18.6 points per game and earned second-team All-American honors from a number of organizations, espnW among them. She was one of the most efficient scorers in the country. She shot 52 percent from the field, including 40 percent from the 3-point line, and 81 percent from the free throw line. And for all those touches, Loyd turned over the ball fewer than two times per game. If she had the ball, positive results followed.
Loyd is all confidence and very little bravado. Teammates talk about her sense of humor and propensity to dance, but there can be an almost Vulcan-like logic to her on-court approach and public demeanor. She contends she wasn't nervous before her first college game, or any game thereafter, because she knew that growing up competing against her brother Jarryd, who played at Valparaiso and professionally overseas, had prepared her for whatever came her way. She will say she wasn't nervous on her first day of classes at Notre Dame, or any day thereafter, because she felt like her high school, ranked as one of the best public schools in Illinois, had prepared her for the coursework.
Asked how she would take on the challenge of defending herself, she took a decidedly logical approach.
"The only person who knows how to guard me is my brother," Loyd said. "I think guarding me, it's tough because I'm not just a shooter or a driver; I switch it up at times. A lot of people haven't seen me pass, so that's another aspect of my game that's coming to life definitely more this year.
"I don't know. I wouldn't guard me. I would not want to get embarrassed by myself."
The challenge that McGraw highlighted and Loyd readily acknowledged is that more resources than ever before will be devoted to solving that conundrum. As good as Loyd was a season ago, opponents had to choose how to deploy their best defender. More often than not, they chose McBride, compared by her coach to an assassin.
That means that in a perfect world, at least for those in South Bend, Loyd's point production might hold steady this season while her assists rise.
It wasn't just Diggins after Novosel and Peters left; it was Diggins, McBride and Achonwa. It wasn't just McBride and Achonwa when Diggins left; it was those two and Loyd.
Michaela Mabrey is going to play a big role for this team, not just as a shooter but as someone McGraw singled out in the ongoing search for a vocal presence to say what needs to be said and what Achonwa and Diggins said in years past. Madison Cable will play a significant role, likely as the first option off the bench. Freshman Kathryn Westbeld, a forward with size and ballhandling ability, already appears a favorite of her coach. But if Notre Dame is going to reinvent itself again, the same way Connecticut continually does and Tennessee used to, it will do so with sophomores Taya Reimer and Lindsay Allen stepping up and freshman Brianna Turner stepping in.
"Taya's ready to make a big jump," McGraw said of Reimer, who survived the unenviable task of replacing Achonwa in the starting lineup amidst the bright lights of the Final Four. "She's going to make a really big jump this year. I think it's a mindset change. When you play with really good players, you defer. And I think now her mindset has changed. She came back and she was ready to be the aggressive person on offense. She was ready for the role that we're trying to give her. I think she's ready to undertake it. It takes a little while to play that role with the team."
Allen started every game at point guard, something not even Diggins did as a freshman. But she was still a freshman willing to defer to those around her. Loyd did that as a freshman. So did McBride. They didn't keep doing so.
"Last year I still believe she was holding back," Loyd said of Allen. "That was not even half of what she can do. This year she's not holding back. She's playing how she plays in pickup. She's not shy, she's definitely not scared of anything. She's more motivated to shoot and to score and to kind of like break out and do things people have never seen before. And I know she's capable of doing it."
Diggins, Loyd and Reimer were top-five recruits but also essentially local products. McBride and Achonwa were well regarded but not at the very top of their classes. The first Texan to commit to Notre Dame in 15 years and the No. 2 freshman in the nation according to HoopGurlz, Turner is perhaps the clearest evidence that South Bend is now a destination.
"The thing that she impressed me with is just the way she can run the floor and rebound," McGraw said. "We keep track of rebounds each week to see who the leading rebounder is, and she's probably a good 15 rebounds ahead of all the other posts every week."
The coach insists the current era is a separate entity from that which produced the national championship more than a decade ago, that what we see now is only an indirect descendant. But winning that title provided at least two lessons that endure. First, and self-evidently, it showed that someone could win a title at Notre Dame. The second lesson, McGraw said, was that she was "too realistic" in the aftermath of the title. Without Ruth Riley and Niele Ivey, she assumed there would necessarily be regression.
The lesson should have been that knowing they got there once, they just needed to work backward. Instead, Notre Dame drifted out of the championship mix. It was a very good program with Sweet 16 expectations and Final Four tee times.
That isn't how people perceive the program these days. That isn't what the program is these days.
Loyd, Allen, Reimer, Turner and those in recruiting classes to come expect to win championships in South Bend.
"It's interesting to hear the outside perspective because when you're in it, you're so in that one year," McGraw said. "You're not looking back and saying, 'Oh, let's rest on that; we were pretty good last year.' I think every year is kind of a new challenge. so we don't look at it that way as much as other people do. But then when you go out recruiting and you're getting interest from the top players in the country, you start to think, 'Well, maybe we are at that elite level.' I mean, I think we are at that elite level.
"We just want to win one more game."
It gets easier by the year to take it on faith that the puzzle pieces will produce that chance.