SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In the last two seasons, the Notre Dame women's basketball team twice came within one victory of the national title.
The first, against Texas A&M two years ago, it could have and probably should have won. The second, against Baylor last season, was no contest.
Three of the starters who got the Irish that close are gone now, taking with them 42 percent of last season's scoring, 40 percent of their rebounding and 36 percent of their assists. Even with the return of all-everything guard Skylar Diggins, the leader in points, assists and steals, the Irish have some big numbers to replace, including minutes played.
And coach Muffet McGraw does not hesitate to say she is counting on a freshman, Jewell Loyd, to fill big chunks of all those holes for a team still among the top 10 in preseason rankings.
"I expect her to contribute in a big way immediately," McGraw said. "I think she will be a candidate for rookie of the year in the Big East."
That was just the beginning of the praise McGraw heaped on Loyd, a 5-foot-10 guard from Niles West.
"As a freshman, I think she will defer to Skylar and K-Mac (the other returning starter, Kayla McBride), and I'm not sure I want her feeling like she has to play in the shadow of two really good players because she is equally good."
Yes, Loyd was the No. 4 recruit in the nation (No. 1 at her position, shooting guard), scored more than 3,000 points in high school, averaged 26.9 points (3.2 3-pointers) and 12 rebounds per game as a senior, earned MVP in the coaches' high school All-American game during Final Four weekend and had an outstanding tournament for the gold-medal winning U.S. team at the Under-17 World Championships in 2011.
But as good as McBride? And Diggins?
"I'm excited to be in the same sentence as them," Loyd said. "It gives me more motivation to do well and be more of a threat.
"I don't think that puts on more pressure. I am not as nervous because everyone is constantly telling me, 'Shoot, we need you.' It helps a lot that they believe in me."
McGraw hopes the versatile Loyd also can contribute rebounding and defense, "what we really need right now." Diggins sees her replacing some of the scoring lost to graduation.
"Jewell is a great player," Diggins said. "She can score, she is aggressive, competitive and excited about contributing."
On a guard-centric team, Loyd will have plenty of opportunities. She acknowledges there are times when she needs to stop trusting the veterans so much and use the ball when she has it.
"That will come," McBride said. "It may not be the first game or the second, but she will get it. We have complete confidence in her and what she is capable of doing."
The sixth game of the season is against Baylor. McGraw admits she is not over the sting of last season's defeat in the title game — and not because an "unbeatable" Baylor team won by 19.
"What came out after made it harder to swallow," McGraw said, referring to the NCAA penalties against Baylor for major infractions of recruiting rules over four years.
Baylor lost two scholarships and was hit with some recruiting restrictions. It lost some respect but kept the NCAA title.