SOUTH BEND, Indiana — Notre Dame basketball coach Muffet McGraw knows the destination she wants for the Fighting Irish, she's just not sure the road they will take to get there.
Tough early season games against Michigan State, Maryland and Connecticut will help provide the map of where the Irish need to improve as they seek to return to the Final Four for a fifth straight season after losing first-team All-America Kayla McBride and third-teamer Natalie Achonwa.
"The non-conference schedule is going to tell us a lot about where we need to get to for the conference," McGraw said Wednesday during media day. "We're young. We're just so young and inexperienced. So that's where we're going to struggle."
Struggle is a relative term when it comes to the Irish, who were 37-1 last season and have lost a total of seven games the past three seasons. They haven't lost more than nine games since the 2007-08 season.
The Irish return leading scorer Jewell Loyd (18.6 points a game), point guard Lindsay Allen, forward Taya Reimer (7.4 points, 4.6 rebounds a game), and guards Michaela Mabrey and Madison Cable. They add 6-3 forward Brianna Turner, who was named the national high school athlete of the year, 6-2 forward Kathryn Westbeld and guard Mychal Johnson.
"We have some really good freshmen, so it's going to be all about me being patient," McGraw said.
McGraw wants Turner to lead the team in rebounding and blocked shots. Turner also is athletic enough that the Irish will be able to return to the full court press they've gotten away from the past two seasons.
McGraw said the Irish need to continue to be team-oriented and can't depend too much on Loyd.
"If she has to average more than 20 points a game, we're not going to be very good," McGraw said. "There's going to be games where she's going to need her to score a lot. But generally I hope we can have four people in double figures."
Loyd said she's looking forward to being the player opponents seek to shut down.
"It makes it fun for the game," she said. "That's what you look for. You look for one-on-one competition. That's something I look forward to."
McGraw said she hasn't talked about the goals for the team this season, but she already knows one of them.
"We're competing for a national championship. That's our main goal," she said.
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