- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- When Jewell Loyd was in junior high, she worked out with her older brother on the basketball court. He wasn't trying to get her ready for the eighth grade team, he told her. He was preparing her for varsity.
The instruction continued when she made it to Niles West High School in the Chicago area, by which time Jarryd Loyd had already played four seaons for Valparaiso University and embarked on a career in professional basketball that eventually took him to Poland, New Zealand and more than a few map points between them.
Now the older brother was readying her for college.
"He was preparing me for this," Loyd said after she played her part in a recent Notre Dame rout against in-state rival Purdue. "As a family, that's how we think. We think for the future."
And so a program stays ahead of the curve. Loyd didn't know for sure that she wanted to go to Notre Dame until her junior year in high school, but it turns out she and Jarryd were safeguarding the team's standing well before then.
No. 5 Notre Dame renews acquaintances with top-ranked Connecticut this weekend, perhaps the final regular-season meeting in the state of Connecticut for the two schools as Big East rivals, and certainly the last such game for Irish senior Skylar Diggins. That it remains a game between top-five teams after the Fighting Irish lost three starters from teams that reached back-to-back national championship games has a lot to do with Diggins and a lot to do with Natalie Achonwa and Kayla McBride, juniors who appear poised to pursue All-America honors of their own when their senior teammate leaves, if not sooner.
It also has a lot do with a player who is so far ahead of schedule that her future is spilling over into the present.
Michael Jordan. That's the name someone with a close connection to Notre Dame dropped after the Purdue game in reference to what might await Loyd. As in, the rather competitive gent who moved on from an apprenticeship as the third-leading scorer at the University of North Carolina as a freshman to earn a few more accolades in Chapel Hill and the NBA. Talk about setting the bar high for a kid from the Chicago area.
Then you see her otherwise normal frame fly through the air for a rebound, see her handle her public business like a diplomat and see her come alive in the biggest games, and, well, maybe it's best to let Jewell be like Jewell for now.
But you file away the point.
For her part, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw doesn't sound quite ready to put Springfield, Mass., on notice, but she does sound like someone who isn't exactly fretting about a freshman playing more minutes than anyone on the roster other than the All-American senior point guard.
"I think she's playing with confidence," McGraw said of Loyd. "I think she's done that most of the year, and I think that's because of who she's playing with. I think it's easier for her when she has a veteran team around her. And certainly with [McBride and Achonwa] and Skylar, it's a lot easier for her to just do what she can do. There's no pressure on her to try and do too much. I think she's blended in extremely well. …
"I think she's been a big reason why we're playing so well this year. I think she's a tough matchup. And when you have three great guards, with Skylar, K-Mac and Jewells, it's hard defensively to figure out who is the best defender going to guard?"
Loyd is averaging 12.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game through 12 games. It's difficult to steer clear of the fact that such production is close to what Diggins contributed as a freshman, an effort that ranked among the top five freshman seasons in program history in most major statistical categories. And Loyd is doing it while shooting 50 percent from the field, 46 percent from the 3-point line and 80 percent from the free throw line. The only other player, freshman or otherwise, at the 50/45/80 threshold in the Big East is Connecticut's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
Just as impressive is how someone presumably used to being the focal point of just about every offense she has ever been in is getting her numbers, blending in seamlessly with more established standouts until she needs to do more.
When Notre Dame ground out a win against UCLA on the road the day after Thanksgiving, Loyd scored a team-high 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting and finished with five assists in 36 minutes. Not long after, on a night when shots just wouldn't fall for Diggins and McBride, she scored 24 points at Baylor, including 15 points in the first half to keep the game within reach.
Loyd played her first college game on an aircraft carrier. She played her first true road game at Pauley Pavilion. She played her first game in the national spotlight on the road against Odyssey Sims and Brittney Griner. And the next time you see her look nervous will be the first. She might yet struggle this season. She might hit a shooting slump. She might find the going tough in Storrs this Saturday, for that matter. But it won't be because she isn't ready for the stage.
"You can't get distracted with your surroundings; you've got to stay grounded," Loyd said. "When I go into games, I'm just really calm and relaxed. A lot of times our team jokes around about it because I'm just always relaxed and chill, but you can psych yourself out. If you know you have the confidence to ball, then you can ball. If you start second guessing yourself, that's when things go wrong."
And while she still picks up basketball pointers whenever she is around her brother, it appears she also has a new elder to heed. Presumably, not to prepare her for her freshman season. To make sure she's ready for what comes next.
"She's really like my mentor," Loyd said of Diggins. "She takes me under her wing and teaches me her trade, basically, and what she knows. It helps a lot when she's encouraging you and also teaching you the game."