Muffet McGraw’s Fighting Irish demolish all competition in a highly efficient manner
To no one’s real surprise, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish made another Final Four this past season. They won the whole thing a year prior and brought back their best player; why wouldn’t they make it again? Believe it or not, this wasn’t always the case. Prior to making seven Final Fours in nine seasons and claiming their second national title in 2018, the Fighting Irish made two Elite Eights/Final Fours from 1977 to 2010. While their national championship in 2001 was, obviously, phenomenal, it was a blip on the historical radar.
Now, take a look around: it’s a program that hasn’t lost more than four games in a season in eight years. They’ve won their conference tournament seven years in a row. Other than Connecticut and Baylor (the 2019 champion), they’re probably the first program you think of when you think of wildly successful women’s basketball teams in the 2010s. It wasn’t always like this, but it is now, and that’s what matters. How do they do it? They’re a very good defensive team, which shouldn’t be lost in the story. However, it’s the offensive side of the ball where they’re truly devastating all competition:
Depending on your calculation, this was either the third-best or fifth-best (Synergy) offense across 1,400+ women’s basketball programs in 2018-19. It crushed everyone. Even the best defenses they played were helpless to slow it down. Baylor, the best defense in women’s basketball, gave up 1.125 PPP; UConn, their Final Four opponent and the second-best defense, also gave up 1.125 PPP. Even Stanford – a traditional top-ten defense – allowed 1.183 PPP. That’s a team averaging over 1.14 PPP in the Elite Eight, Final Four, and title game, never dipping below 1.125 PPP; even Virginia tossed out a 1.07 PPP effort against Auburn in the Final Four.
To do this with, essentially, two shooters on the entire roster is markedly insane and requires immense two-pointer success. Between Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey, Notre Dame had two excellent three-point shooters who combined to hit 151 of 394 attempts (38.3%). It was great when either stepped out to shoot:
Unfortunately for coaching legend Muffet McGraw, entering her 32nd season as the Fighting Irish head coach, that was the end of any long-term three-point threat. The rest of the team combined to hit 32 of 105 threes (30.5%) across 39 games, and even that includes Jackie Young’s 14 of 31 success rate (45.2%). Basically: this team likely wasn’t going to win a ton of games by hitting a ton of threes, and the data showing their abnormally low three-point attempt rate (19.2% of all field goal attempts; would have been the lowest for a D-1 men’s team by a full 3.4%) bears that out. Points had to come from inside the three-point line. Because this team is coached by a very smart person, they did:
Notre Dame shot 54.2% from two and thoroughly dominated the offensive boards. They produced one of the most insane OREB% stats you’ll ever see, recovering 42.6% of all possible offensive rebound attempts. It was impossible to keep this team off the boards. Better yet, it was impossible to keep them out of the paint, even when they weren’t running actions for their bigs:
And when they were running plays for their bigs…well, best of luck to the opponent:
In general, it’s fairly rare for any college basketball team to attempt more than about 44% of their overall shots around the basket. Teams simply attempt more non-rim shots than they used to, and the idea of a paint-first team that’s wildly successful is somewhat unusual these days. And yet, Notre Dame attempted 52% of their shots at the rim this past season, making 62.6% of their shots. Pressuring the paint this often and this consistently often drew more fouls, which merely led to four different players getting 138 or more free throw attempts this season:
McGraw, somewhat similar to our friends at Nebraska Wesleyan, runs a variant of the Princeton offense. There’s a lot of quality cuts, screens, and off-ball movement all attempting to get good looks like these in the paint:
Notre Dame’s offense, as with most Princeton variants, is unsurprisingly good at getting easy buckets off of smart passes (60.6% Assist Rate) and good at getting open shots where it needs them (49.2% of catch-and-shoot attempts unguarded). Even better, it’s not just one player – four players ended up with 126 assists or more this season. Simply put, players were naturally very good at leaking to open areas of the court, and there were a plethora of players to get the ball to them. Check out this one, where post player Jessica Shepard runs an action to draw the attention of two defenders, allowing Brianna Turner to leak into the middle of the paint for a layup:
In theory, pack-the-paint zone defenses should’ve made it more difficult for Notre Dame to get easy buckets. No worries, when your players are able to take advantage of open mid-range attempts:
Even when Stanford packed the paint, Notre Dame used their size and the vertical space above them to create quality opportunities. Look at all the actions here, with players cutting in and out of the paint and Brianna Turner just quietly slipping open right at the basket:
It should go with an asterisk here that Synergy’s cuts aren’t all at the basket; plenty of their Flash cuts go down as mid-range attempts, which Notre Dame took a lot of. However, it seems like we should note a pretty insane stat here: Notre Dame scored more points off of cuts than any other college basketball team, men’s or women’s, in 2018-19. In fact, they scored 165 more points than the second-highest cut scorers in America: Bellarmine. In the women’s game, the difference from #1 scorer Notre Dame to #2 scorer Idaho State (166 points) is the same as the difference from #2 to #54. The Irish completely dominated opponents off of cuts, and even their toughest competition could barely slow them down.
I’ve profiled Brianna Turner plenty in this, and for good reason; 40% of her 2018-19 points came from these cut plays alone. Right behind her was the even more efficient Jessica Shepard, who was a frightening paint presence. Shepard scored 16.7 points a game despite not making a three and only hitting 98 free throws. If you let her loose down low, it was not your night:
Even keeping her away from the rim wasn’t ideal, because she could still hit mid-range attempts pretty well:
Because Notre Dame wasn’t the most threatening team from deep, they faced quite the amount of zone defense. Nearly 29% of all possessions in 2018-19 were against a zone, per Synergy; the women’s game features considerably more zone than men’s, but this was still a full 6% above the national average. Even with this added challenge, Notre Dame was fearless: they hit the 98th-percentile in offensive efficiency against man and zone defenses and were a 99th-percentile transition team to boot. While this is a later GIF from their blowout win over Michigan State in the second round, it’s a typical example of just how well they’d dissect a zone like this:
What a devastating offense this was.
Being able to watch a genius like Muffet McGraw continue to craft, tweak, and innovate her Princeton deviant is a joy. We don’t really get legends of the game all that often; before we know it, their time will be up and we’ll have to find someone else that can somehow measure up to their achievements. (McGraw will be 64 this season, and while it’s nice to think someone like her can coach until her 80s, it would be very rare to see it happen. Even on the men’s side, there’s just six 70+ year old coaches left in Division 1.) Researching her ideas, finding inspiration from her offense, and appreciating her while she’s still coaching is as worthy a use of your time as I could imagine.