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Men’s Basketball

Irish miss NCAA tourney again as injuries continue to plague roster

| Friday, May 17, 2019

In what was supposed to be a significant rebuild from last season, Notre Dame struggled to find its groove in the ACC, ultimately ending their season in the second round of the conference tournament. Head coach Mike Brey’s squad fell to Louisville and tied for last place in the ACC to record the worst conference winning percentage (.167) in program history.  Furthermore, the team shot just 31.5% from 3-point range this past season, which is just the second time in Brey’s 18-year tenure with Notre Dame that one of his teams has shot below 35% from beyond the arc.

Notre Dame’s (14-19, 3-15 ACC) season was marred with injuries, which didn’t help a team that was already young and inexperienced being that five out of the Irish’s eleven players were freshmen. The team lost early on to the Radford in a non-conference matchup, and then struggled to close out Coppin State Eagles, who finished 8-25 overall on the season. The Irish also struggled to beat the teams on the bottom of the ACC standings, such as Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Miami, who finished the ACC season a combined 12-42.

After suffering major injuries to two senior leaders last season, Irish fans were faced with more of the same this season. This year, while senior captain Rex Pflueger was putting up career-best numbers in points, assists, rebounds and blocks, the senior went down in a game against Purdue with a torn ACL. Pflueger is set to return to finish his eligibility next season, but this year his absence was noticeable on a team that had six guys who were making their collegiate debut.

Annie Smierciak | The Observer

Irish junior forward John Mooney corrals a rebound during Notre Dame‘s 64-62 loss to Clemson on March 6 at Purcell Pavilion.

Freshman Robby Carmody found himself on the bench early on after tearing his labrum. Carmody’s injury came at an unfortunate time as he was entering the rotation and earning solid minutes before going down. Rising senior Juwan Durham, who missed the entire 2017-2018 season after transferring from UConn, also missed significant time after suffering an ankle injury. As the Irish’s best rim protector and an elite defender, the loss of Durham definitely hurt the Irish, who went 1-7 as a team in the month of January. Additionally, senior captain Elijah Burns elected to transfer in November, which meant that freshman Chris Doherty had to suit up for games despite most likely planning on redshirting this season.

Newcomers contributed 36% of minutes on this year’s team, and the percentage of total minutes played by seniors and grad-students this year was 13%, which is the lowest of any team under Brey’s leadership.

Towards the tail end of the season, the Irish had a home matchup against Zion Williamson and the Duke. While the team did lose, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was impressed by the effort that Notre Dame showed against his team despite being noticeably undermanned and out-matched. Brey, a former Blue Devils assistant, is the only one of Krzyzewski’s former assistants or players to have ever beaten Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils, having done so five times.

After an embarrassing 27-point loss at the hands of then-No. 4 and eventual national champion Virginia inside Purcell Pavilion in late January, Notre Dame traveled to John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Feb. 16 and showed a much better effort on the court the second time around, losing 60-54.

Unfortunately, this second loss to Virginia began a late-season, seven-game losing streak for Notre Dame which the Irish ended by picking up a victory against Georgia Tech in the first-round of the ACC Tournament.

In total, Brey continually referred to the offense as the area most in need of improvement, specifically in terms of scoring and rebounding. In a 75-61 loss to Louisville on March 3, the Irish were outrebounded 49-30 and shot only 4-of-14 from the free throw line. Overall, it was the physicality and maturity of Louisville that ended up being too much for Notre Dame in this game specifically, but this was in fact the story line of nearly every Irish loss this past season.

The one major and consistent bright spot for Notre Dame this season came behind the stellar play of rising senior captain John Mooney. Mooney, a 6-foot-9 native of Orlando, Florida, was runner-up for the ACC most improved player award this past season, and was a force on both ends of the floor for the Irish.

In the 2017-2018 season, Mooney averaged 5.6 points per game, and 3.9 rebounds per game while shooting 48% from the field. This past season, Mooney’s development skyrocketed, and the Irish big man finished the year leading the ACC in rebounds at 11.2 per game to go along with a 14.1 points per game average, all while shooting 37% from 3-point and 46% overall. Additionally, his 8.3 defensive rebounds per game ranked fourth in the entire country, and he finished as one of just seven major conference players to finish the year averaging a double-double.

Mooney logged eight consecutive double-doubles during a stretch from January into February, and his 13 regular season double-doubles in ACC play were the most by any player since Tim Duncan recorded 15 in the 1996-1997 season. Overall, Mooney’s impressive numbers enabled him to be awarded Third Team All-ACC, and he finished the year with 20 double-doubles in 33 games.

Mooney attributes much of his personal growth and development on the basketball court to a combination of coaching and family.

”Here at [Notre Dame], one of our assistant coaches, coach [Ryan] Humphrey, is the bigs’ main coach and he’s been phenomenal and very instrumental in helping me grow as a player. He’s great with the little stuff; the little techniques offensively and defensively. … He played here at Notre Dame, he played in the NBA for a little while, he played overseas, so he knows the game and he sees it differently. He’s been able to help me with little grown-man type stuff in the post, and he’s been awesome with that. I think my dad and my brother are both very instrumental, they watch all of my games and critique me and give me pointers and stuff like that so they have been and will continue to be great for me in terms of growing,“ Mooney said.

Mooney also commented on the fact that his dad and brother were the ones who inspired his love for basketball in the first place.

”I got into [basketball] at a very young age, my dad and brother got me into it,“ Mooney said. ”… My senior year I took a visit here and right when I stepped foot on campus I knew it was the place for me in terms of faith, and school and basketball it was just an awesome mix of all of those.“

While Mooney attests that he and his teammates weren‘t pleased with the outcome of the season, the blossoming big man is hopeful for the future, and is happy with the fact that some of the younger guys were able to get some much needed experience.

”I think as a whole [this season] was kind of disappointing,“ Mooney said. ”Just talking about the season as a whole, we had a lot of guys hurt … I think it was good to get experience especially for the younger guys; five new freshmen coming in, five guys played a lot of minutes and they got good experience so I think we can really use that going forward. I think personally it was just a good year to kind of develop my leadership, coach Brey challenged T.J. [Gibbs] and I who were kind of the leaders … in terms of how we could lead during crisis situations. I think it was good to get that leadership experience heading into next year.“

Moving forward, Mooney believes that the squad is motivated now more than ever, and they are eager to get back to their winning ways.

”I think as a whole the morale in the locker room is very high, just the fact that we had a disappointing season is very motivating for guys going into the offseason. We’re working very hard right now, and I think the other part of it is that we have everyone coming back. Literally 10 guys that have played major minutes are coming back to play and that’s definitely something that not a lot of other teams have, especially in the conference. … Our expectations are high, the number one goal is to get back to the NCAA tournament, and then from there make a run.” Mooney said.

One player in particular who struggled at points throughout his junior season was Gibbs. The junior had his scoring average drop by nearly two points, his overall shooting percentage dropped by nearly seven percentage points, and his accuracy from beyond the arc was down by eight percentage points. Just a season after averaging 15.3 points per game on 41% shooting, Gibbs struggled to build on his sophomore campaign, and the Irish are going to need him to get back to his old ways if they want to improve going forward.

Despite their youth, Mooney said he believes that the freshman exceeded expectations.

”Coming in, they were way ahead of me when I was a freshman and I think the way that they came in and played right away is certainly something that doesn’t really happen here at Notre Dame a lot,” Mooney said. “Given just the situation and given their talent they had to do that, and I think all of them handled it very well.“

Mooney also added that being a captain and senior leader next year is a privilege that he will not be taking for granted.

”In general, in Notre Dame’s program, the leadership is always there and that’s something that I take pride in, so being able to come in everyday and lead is something that is very valuable to me and something that I always try to do. … Upperclassmen included are extremely motivated because we have just one more go-around so continued leadership is something that I expect from myself and something that I challenge myself to do,” Mooney said.

Heading into next season, Brey and the Irish are more determined than ever to prove themselves. With the exception of sophomore D. J. Harvey, who just announced his transfer to Vanderbilt, the Irish will be returning nearly their entire lineup. Behind the leadership of Mooney, the team will look to reassert itself as a contender in the ACC.

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