Irish enter unfamiliar ACC with familiar goals

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Despite losing the heart of the team with the graduation of hometown star Skylar Diggins, Notre Dame isn't changing its goals for the season with its move to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

''They're the same: a national championship, ACC championship. They're all the same as they have been in previous years,'' guard Kayla McBride said during media day Tuesday.

''For me and the rest of my senior class, we've never seen anything less than the Final Four and that's the mentality we have.''

The Fighting Irish, coming off the best regular season in school history and finishing the season 35-2 with an 83-65 loss to Connecticut in the NCAA semifinal, start the 2013-14 season with four returning starters and six of the seven leading scorers back.

But the Irish are expected to have a different look. After depending heavily on a four-guard offense in recent years, the Irish finally have depth up front and will put two and three forwards on the floor at a time.

''I'm really excited about this year trying to put the pieces together, starting over in some ways and yet with four returning starters and a veteran group,'' coach Muffet McGraw said.

''It's going to be an interesting team. I feel like we are a young veteran team. We certainly have some experience, but we also have some question marks still.''

The biggest question is how the Irish will play without Diggins. Freshman Lindsay Allen, one of two McDonald's All-Americans the Irish add to the squad, is expected to start at point guard.

McGraw isn't known for letting freshmen play point guard.

As talented as Diggins was, making her first start in her fifth game as a freshman, she didn't play the majority of time as point guard until her sophomore season.

But McGraw said Tuesday the 5-foot-8 freshman from Mitchellville, Md., is expected to be the starting point guard.

''Lindsay is a phenomenal defensive player. She's got great speed. She's incredibly smart. Really high basketball IQ. She's picking things up really quickly,'' McGraw said.

McGraw said having four veterans around Allen will help her adjust. She said Allen won the spot during Notre Dame's Europe tour over the summer.

The returning players are led by McBride, who was among six college players who attended the U.S. national women's basketball camp in Las Vegas last week, and senior forward Natalie Achonwa.

McBride was second on the team last season in scoring at 15.9 points and has had some of best games against top competition, scoring 20 or more points against Connecticut three times last season. McGraw said she expects McBride to be a national player of the year candidate.

''She is head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the team, just playing great basketball,'' McGraw said. ''She has a lot of confidence. She can score in a lot of different ways. She's looking to really attack the rim this year, which is really good for us if she can get to the foul line. And she's comfortable playing the point. I think she's going to be the one for us that we are going to count on to do everything.''

Achonwa was third in the team in scoring at 13.8 points and led the Irish in rebounding at 9.5 a game, also is expected to be a leader. Jewell Loyd and Ariel Braker are the other returning starters.

The other freshman who could contribute right away is Taya Reimer, a 6-foot-3 forward from Hamilton Southeastern High School outside Indianapolis. Reimer played on a gold-medal U.S. under-17 world championship team.

Achonwa said she's looking forward to having the help inside.

''It's great because we'll have that post presence that since I've been here Notre Dame has never had. To have that size as well as that rebounding ability will change our game tremendously,'' Achonwa said.

McGraw said she still has a lot to learn about the team and its identity.

''I really don't know how we're going to score. I know we can score in a lot of different ways. But what is going to be most effective for us,'' she said. ''They're the things we're working on right now. You forge a new identity each year.''

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