SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Delivering a turnaround season from 10-10 to 24-9 and a Sweet 16 trip may have been the easy part.
Niele Ivey gets that.
The third-year Notre Dame women’s basketball head coach and former Irish player and assistant understands that the next step — a very big one that would give Notre Dame its 10th Final Four appearance — is built into the expectations.
So she went big through the transfer portal, adding 6-foot-4 junior Kylee Watson from Oregon and 6-4 Lauren Ebo from Texas, the latter of whom started 30 games last season and comes to ND with one year of eligibility.
Their experience with big-time programs may be as important as the work they do in the paint along with 6-5 junior Nat Marshall, who returns after missing the last half of last season with a knee injury after taking a medical redshirt as a freshman.
“I’m super excited about what Kylee brings.’’ Ivey said at Monday’s meeting with the media. “She has a motor, which you guys will see. … She’s a difference-maker. … And she’s exciting with her explosiveness.’’
If Ivey can tap into the potential that made Watson a top 20 recruit in the 2020 recruiting class after compiling modest numbers at Oregon (3.8 points and 2.4 rebounds in 16 minutes per game last season), she’ll have someone to help overcome the loss of graduating Maya Dodson, an All-ACC forward last season.
But Dodson didn’t have the help inside this crew could provide.
“I mean, with me and Ebo and everyone else that came in, we’re each gonna bring our own style of game,’’ Watson said. “So we’re just gonna come in and do the little things, grab rebounds, be a presence and just play really hard. Obviously, our guard situation is pretty good. So, we want to be able to fit in and help elevate our game there.”
“PT (playing time) doesn’t concern me. As long as we’re winning and having fun. We’re really close, considering how short that we’ve known each other, so it’s like if one person succeeds, we all succeed.”
That interior depth is what gives the Irish a little different look at the moment from an otherwise very familiar-looking and gifted lineup.
Four starters return, led by two terrific sophomore guards in All-ACC point guard Olivia Miles and ACC Rookie of the Year Sonia Citron. Ivey is pretty sure there’s more to get offensively from Citron, who scored almost 12 points a game on 44.9% shooting, including 34.1% on 3s.
“I’d like to see her be a little more aggressive with the ball,” Ivey said of the 6-1 Citron.
Returning starting guard Dara Mabrey is ND’s best 3-point shooting threat — she dropped 13 over three NCAA games — and steady 6-3 junior Maddy Westbeld, who averaged 11.8 points on nearly 50 percent shooting, will anchor a forward spot after getting some international experience in August on the USA 3X3 U23 squad.
“Yeah, we’re super close,” Westbeld said. “Even in the offseason, we spent a lot of time together, and now we’re a really, really close group with a lot of big personalities. You can see how much fun we have together. And, hopefully, fans can see that love of the game and the love we have for each other.”
Good chemistry is always a good thing, but it won’t matter as much as shoring up a few issues.
Notre Dame ranked 250th nationally in 3-point defense and 169th in scoring defense a year ago. Its turnover margin wasn’t particularly impressive, either.
“Yeah, I mean, I did kind of a deep dive (on stats during the offseason),” Ivey said. “I think defensively our transition defense is something that I’ve been focusing on. It’s something that I think we need to get a lot better at. And, you know, taking care of the ball.
“I’m really focusing on our passing on all aspects, because I think Liv (Miles) is the best passer in the country, but sometimes within our offense, it’s a very free-flowing offense. There’s a lot of other players that are making decisions. So, that’s something I really focus on.
“But I think defense is a mindset, and that’s something that I’m trying to grow with this group, knowing that it’s going to take stops to win but also taking care of the ball as well.
“It’s something that I’m trying to grow every day so they know that – I actually think my first day I showed them film on transition defense. … So, they know that this is where we’re gonna get better this year and then again, grow other areas like 3-point shooting efficiency and inside passing as well.”
There’s more talented depth in the backcourt with freshman KK Bransford, a McDonald’s All-American, who was ranked as a top 30 recruit and No. 7 point guard, and was compared by Ivey Monday to former Irish and current WNBA star Jackie Young.
Also in that talented backcourt mix is Jenna Brown, a grad transfer from Stanford and former five-star recruit. She never averaged more than a couple points a game at Stanford, but has dealt with injuries.
Ivey likes Brown’s experience with a top-flight program, her skill set and her high basketball IQ. There never seems to be too much depth in any program with the long grind of a season.
Notre Dame figures to be in or near the top 10 when the preseason polls are released, but so will several ACC teams. And improving on a 12-5 league mark will be its own big challenge.
The first look at what to expect from the group comes in an exhibition game against Truman State on Oct. 31.