Niele Ivey enters her fourth year as head coach of Notre Dame women’s basketball, and does so with the greatest expectations to date for her program. The returning headliners for the Irish are a second-team AP All-American, an honorable mention AP All-American and a 1,000-point scorer.
On top of that, Notre Dame returns 82.6% of its scoring, 82.8% of its rebounding and 82.8% of its minutes played, in addition to adding to the roster two five-star McDonald’s All-Americans, a nearly 2,000-point scorer from Fordham and a sixth-year graduate transfer forward.
Suffice to say the standard for Irish women’s hoops established by Muffet McGraw hasn’t seen much of a dip since her retirement. And after a heartbreaking Elite Eight loss two seasons ago and a postseason-altering injury to the star point guard last year, the Irish are poised to do what hasn’t been done since McGraw’s penultimate season at the helm: make yet another trip to the Final Four.
Will they get there? And what will the season look like along the way? Here are my thoughts.
Most Frequent Starting Lineup
G: Olivia Miles
G: Hannah Hidalgo
G: Sonia Citron
F: Maddy Westbeld
F: Kylee Watson
Assuming that Miles doesn’t miss more than half of the season while recovering from her knee injury suffered at the end of the 2022-23 campaign, this feels fairly settled. With four starters from last season returning, barring injury, the only position of any doubt in the starting lineup is the one I predict will be occupied by Hidalgo. The top-5 recruit in the 2023 class carries enormous hype into the season, and talent usually wins out.
The other option in my mind is Fordham transfer Anna DeWolfe, a prolific scorer for the Rams who fills the void left by recently graduated three-point sniper Dara Mabrey. DeWolfe certainly has the offensive chops to make her way into the starting lineup, but it’s still yet to be seen how she will acclimate to a situation where she isn’t the go-to scorer.
Leading Scorer: Sonia Citron
Citron and Miles were neck-and-neck for the team’s scoring title last season. Then Miles went down in the regular season finale against Louisville and Citron carried the Irish to a win almost single-handedly by posting 27 points, followed by a 28-point outburst in their first game of the conference tournament.
With Miles likely to ease her way back into peak form following her injury, and with the added offensive weapons on the roster, I’d wager that Miles’ per-game point total will drop this season. But that means that Hidalgo, Westbeld or DeWolfe could also easily lead the team in scoring rather than Citron.
Rebounding Leader: Maddy Westbeld
Guess who led the Irish in rebounds per game last season. Did you guess Olivia Miles? Because that’s the right answer.
Not to belabor the injury point, but Miles may be on a pitch count once she’s cleared to return to the court. And with Lauren Ebo moving on after averaging 7.0 rebounds per game off the bench last season, I don’t foresee Pepperdine transfer Becky Obinma providing the same amount of production this year. That leaves the ever-reliable Westbeld to shoulder more of the load on the glass.
Assist Leader: Olivia Miles
Knee injury be damned. Hidalgo or Citron may lead the team in dimes early on, but so long as Miles isn’t out for two months or more, it’s a safe bet that she will be the gas that makes the Irish engine go. Miles has already been named to the watch list for the Nancy Lieberman Award, given annually to the best point guard in women’s college basketball. She’s a bit behind the 8-ball since she doesn’t get the chance to show out against South Carolina, but another campaign leading the Irish in multiple statistical categories would have her squarely in the running for the honor.
Minutes Leader: Sonia Citron
The Irish are deeper in the backcourt this season with the additions of Hidalgo and fellow five-star freshman Emma Risch. Even so, Citron — who led the team in minutes per game last season — enters her third year in the program and will likely have to shoulder the offensive load early in the campaign. Not to mention that Citron was the team’s defensive player of the year, which means she needs to be on the court even more (assuming that Hidalgo isn’t a lockdown defender right out of the box).
Best Defender: Sonia Citron
I already mentioned Citron’s team honor as a defender. Her 1.7 steals per game last season were actually second on the team behind Miles’ 2.1, but Citron averaged more blocks per game (0.5 compared to 0.2) and has more versatility on the perimeter given that she’s three inches taller than Miles. It’s the safe pick to have Citron repeating this season.
Last year, the Irish went 24-4 in the regular season, and I predict a similar 24-5 outcome this time around. The opener against South Carolina feels like a loss without Miles available. Likewise, the road trips to Tennessee and UConn are worrisome for historical reasons. Then I’d expect Notre Dame to split the season series with Louisville and drop a game to Duke or NC State in-conference. But even with all of that said, the Irish are good enough to beat every team on the schedule, perhaps with the exception of the Gamecocks, even without Miles (albeit with much slimmer margins).
As for the team’s ceiling, it’s worth noting that the Irish lack a dominant interior presence like the one provided by Jessica Shepard and Brianna Turner on Notre Dame’s last Final Four team. But the backcourt is what makes teams go in March, so as long as they can stay healthy, the expectation is being in the ACC Championship Game in Greensboro. Beyond that, there’s no reason to think that the Irish aren’t a top-2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a real contender for the national championship.