Irish shift focus to Big East play

Melissa Lechlitner and Notre Dame (13-0) are one of five Top 25 teams that are still undefeated. Matt Cashore/US Presswire

It's understandable if people, looking at Notre Dame's history, want to compare how good the 2009-10 team -- ranked No. 3 and unbeaten thus far -- is with the national championship squad of 2000-01.

That is, of course, the benchmark all Irish teams have to measure themselves against. But in terms of personnel, it's not really much of a comparison.

No championship team has had a starting five who fit the exact "definition" of their spot on the floor more precisely than Notre Dame did in 2001 with center Ruth Riley, power forward Kelley Siemon, small forward Ericka Haney, shooting guard Alicia Ratay and point guard Niele Ivey.

Furthermore, that was the "Ironwomen" team; Notre Dame relied very, very heavily on those five, with the top player being the senior Riley.

Contrast that with 2010, when the Irish's most dynamic player and leading scorer is a freshman, Skylar Diggins. And they spread their minutes out more, especially with the recent return of forward Devereaux Peters. There isn't any one player as dominant a star as Riley was, but there are more combinations for coach Muffet McGraw to work with.

"That's been fun, because every game somebody different is stepping up to lead us," McGraw said of the Irish's depth. "There are so many weapons, and I think it makes us hard to guard.

"We were really excited to finish the nonconference season undefeated; that was one of our goals. Now I think the real season begins. All of that was preparation for the Big East. We've learned a lot about our team."

Notre Dame (13-0) had its closest call on Nov. 19 at Michigan State, where the Irish prevailed 68-67. They had five-point victories over both San Diego State (Nov. 26) and Vanderbilt (Dec. 31).

They closed the nonconference season at Purdue. And although the host Boilermakers entered that game 7-6, it was a barn burner. Which was not totally unexpected: Purdue had previously shown flashes of getting things together, plus it's a big in-state rivalry game.

The Irish held on to win 79-75, and McGraw thought that was a perfect example of how Notre Dame doesn't seem to panic, thanks in large part to seniors Ashley Barlow, Melissa Lechlitner and Lindsay Schrader.

"I was thrilled with the way we handled things down the stretch," McGraw said. "You look at this team and have Lindsay in the huddle telling everybody, 'We're going to be fine.'

"Lech never loses her poise. Our seniors just have such experience. They've been in so many games like that, on the road, and they know how to handle themselves. That transfers down to the rest of the team. We were able to get out of a little hole we dug ourselves in the first half. We made the free throws at the end when we had to."

It's especially nice to see Peters, one of the more talented post players in the Big East, back in the lineup for Notre Dame. She was having a strong freshman season before suffering an ACL injury in February 2008. She came back last season and played in three games, but again hurt her ACL and redshirted.

Peters returned to action Dec. 29 against Central Florida and also has played in the subsequent games against Vandy and Purdue.

"I think when she gets the rust off, she's going to be very good," McGraw said. "She's still limited with her minutes by the doctor. That's growing every game. She looks great; she's moving well and not playing tentatively. I don't think she's lost a step. She's learned pretty much everything we have in; she's really up to speed on the offense.

"There's still that game slippage -- you get into a game, and it's very physical and there's a lot going on. So it's probably going to take her until February to get back her stride full speed. She gives us a great lift off the bench."

Meanwhile, Diggins -- the South Bend native and lifelong Notre Dame fan -- entered her rookie season with very high expectations and is meeting them. It's not often a freshman comes in and makes a team better defensively, but with her on-the-ball skills Diggins has done that.

And at 13.1 points per game, she leads five Irish players averaging double figures in scoring. The others are Barlow (12.1), Schrader (11.5), Becca Bruszewski (10.1) and Brittany Mallory (10.1).

"As far as Skylar, she's playing great basketball; she really does so many things," McGraw said. "She's really improved our defense as a team. She can find people; she can get you the ball when you're open. She's filling up the stat sheet in every way.

"She's had a pretty good transition to the college game because she's just so smart; she has a great basketball IQ. She picks things up quickly. She's watching a lot of film and wants us to challenge her all the time."

There will be plenty coming up to challenge the Irish. They begin Big East play Saturday against Villanova, then face South Florida on Tuesday. Both those games are at home. Notre Dame's first league road trip is the biggie: a sold-out meeting Jan. 16 at UConn. ESPN's "GameDay" coverage will come from Storrs, Conn., that day, the first time it has been centered on the site of a women's game.

"'GameDay' is obviously a historic event; it's exciting to be a part of it," McGraw said. "It speaks well to the strength of our league. I know it's going to be a first-class event with the UConn fans coming out to support it. And it's going to look great on TV."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.