SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) The list of women's teams that have had the staying power to advance to five straight Final Fours is short: Connecticut, Stanford and LSU. Notre Dame hopes to join the club.
The second-ranked Fighting Irish (31-2) are considered a lock to receive a top seed for the fourth consecutive season when the NCAA Tournament field is announced Monday. Notre Dame heads into the postseason ranked No. 2 for a third straight season, a first at the school.
Coach Muffet McGraw points to Skylar Diggins as being a key ingredient to that remarkable run - even though she graduated two years ago.
''She was a catalyst,'' McGraw said. ''She definitely elevated our recruiting.''
Notre Dame has been a top 10 team regularly since the 1998-99 season and won the national title behind Ruth Riley in 2001. But the Irish rose to a new level after the arrival of Diggins, who was born in South Bend.
The first girls McDonald's All-American game was played in 2002 and Notre Dame had five of its players participate in the first eight games, including Diggins in 2009. In the six seasons since, 10 Notre Dame recruits have been selected for the showcase.
This season marks the first time all five Notre Dame starters are former McDonald's All-Americans, with another on the bench. All are expected to return next season, when the Irish add three more.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who has guided the Cardinal to 12 Final Four appearances, including five straight from 2008-12, said recruiting top players is a balancing act.
''When we were first trying to build Stanford, some kids would say, `Oh, well you don't have enough other good players.' Then we'd get good and they'd say, `Well you have too many good players.' So no matter what, it's hard,'' VanDerveer said.
Aside from having good players, McGraw and VanDerveer said having good assistants who stick around are key to sustained success. VanDerveer's top assistant has been with her at Stanford since 1985. At UConn, coach Geno Auriemma has had assistant Chris Dailey with him for all nine national titles over 30 years. McGraw's top assistant has spent 15 years at Notre Dame while her other two assistants are former players.
''You develop a system. You develop a culture of how you do things,'' VanDerveer said.
McGraw believes playing in strong conferences also helps because it means more exposure and more appearances on television. The Irish formerly were members of the Big East, which included UConn and Rutgers, and is now a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which includes Duke, North Carolina and Louisville.
McGraw said she has changed some of the years, saying she's willing to accept more input from players.
''I don't live and die with every possession like I used to - every turnover, every missed shot. I feel like it's more of a collaboration now than a dictatorship,'' she said. ''There's more from the players. What do you see? What do you think?''
This year's journey has been a little different for the Irish because they are so young. The only senior playing a significant role, Madison Cable, has a year of eligibility left, and two sophomores and a freshman are starting.
Jewell Loyd, the ACC's player of the year, said motivation is a big factor.
''It makes it easier when you have underclassmen that want to learn and step in and do their role. Early in the year we found out when our roles were and we embrace it and we want to just be productive and help the team have success,'' she said.
Freshman forward Kathryn Westbeld said the older players set the tone.
''I think, every day just learning from the upperclassmen, Jewell, watching her, just how motivated she is. That just kind of helps us as a team all together and us underclassmen a lot,'' she said.
Of the other teams that reached at least five straight Final Fours, only UConn won. The Huskies are in the midst of seven straight trips, winning four times. The Huskies won four times in five tries from 2000-04, with Notre Dame breaking up the string in 2001.
Stanford failed in five tries from 2008-12, losing in the title game twice. LSU went from 2004-08 and fell in the semifinals every year.
McGraw said while contending every year is a challenge, staying motivated isn't.
''Because we haven't won it. All those trips to the Final Four have been great. But we've come away each year with, `We didn't get it done this year, so we've got to do it next year,''' she said.
The Irish have had enough with next year.