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Men’s Basketball

Notre Dame looks to put last year behind them, takes on UNC

| Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The fall was quick and harsh for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

After the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, which both ended in Elite Eight berths for the Irish, Notre Dame reached just the second round of the NCAA Tournament in the following season and faced an ugly loss to West Virginia. In 2017-2018, an injury to star forward Bonzie Colson hit the Irish hard and a late-season surge was not enough to sneak into the NCAA Tournament, as head coach Mike Brey’s squad settled for an NIT bid.

Finally, last year, the Irish hit what they certainly hope is the proverbial rock bottom, going 3-15 in ACC play and failing to qualify for any postseason basketball. 

The 2019 Irish squad enters the season with minimal expectations, but they have the pieces to make some noise in the ACC. They’ll start their schedule off with a difficult test, a conference duel against No. 9 North Carolina in Chapel Hill. With the ACC expanding to 20 league games this year, the Irish will have two conference matchups before the start of 2020, and they can’t start with a much tougher game than a road matchup against the Tar Heels, whom the Irish have won just 7 of 31 games against. Since joining the ACC in 2013, the Irish are just 3-8 versus UNC.

In a press conference held after Monday’s practice, Brey spoke on the difficulties of the UNC matchup.

“When you play UNC, the first thing you start with is transition defense and defensive rebounding,” Brey said of UNC’s playing style. “They’re famous for 50 years of pounding the offensive boards and getting the ball in quick and playing up-tempo. We don’t want to play slow but we do want to change some tempo.” 

Indeed, Notre Dame has done best when limiting the Tar Heels’ up-tempo looks, and their games often get out of hand when North Carolina rips off a series of runs to put the game out of reach. Last year, even in a tough year for the Irish, Brey’s approach to the UNC game kept Notre Dame within reach before ultimately losing by six points. With a more experienced roster, Brey hopes results will swing Notre Dame’s way this year.

“I’m excited to see our guys,” Brey said. “Our 10 scholarship guys have all played, they’ve played in some tough road atmospheres, so I expect them to come out of the game excited and ready to play.” 

Last year was tough for the Irish as their young roster often struggled on the road, earning just one victory in true road games for the year. This year, however, Notre Dame returns much of their talent from last year. Redshirt senior forward Juwan Durham averaged 2.3 blocks per game last year, second in the ACC and 17th in the country. He occasionally showcased his ability to dominate with his 6’11 frame, putting up 15 points against Oklahoma and 12 points in both ACC tournament games. The Irish will lean on Durham to score inside and defend UNC’s big men.

“UNC has big bodies, they like playing two big guys,” Brey said. “We need to be guarding their bigs before they catch it. Juwan can’t get buried. Having him back there to erase some stuff is key.”

On defense, the Irish should be among the best in the conference, as their older roster has a year of experience in Brey’s system.

“I am pleased with how we guard,” Brey said. “When you do have a team of older guys, they learn how to play defense together. Stay in position and don’t take dumb fouls. We’re going to have to do that on Wednesday.”

Graduate student forward Rex Pflueger has been with the Irish since the second of their Elite Eight berths. After an ACL injury ended his season last year before ACC play, Pflueger will be a key defensive cog for the Irish, both on Wednesday and beyond, even if his minutes are limited. His return also benefits senior guard T.J. Gibbs, who Brey thinks is better when he gets to work with Pflueger.

“Rex is kind of a calming influence; he’s not going to get you 15 every night, but he’s always in great position,” Brey said. “I think T.J. is better with Rex there, I think he missed him last year. They’ve done a lot together, and they’ve played a lot together.”

On the offensive side of the ball, the Irish have a lot of questions by lacking a pure scorer on their roster. Senior forward John Mooney will likely be the go-to guy for the Irish, returning after a junior year that saw him average 14.1 points per game. Pflueger will try and chip in on the offensive side of things, but has never averaged more than 8.1 points per game in a season. Gibbs averaged 13.4 points per game last season and sophomore forward Nate Laszewski offered flashes of his potential, including a 23-point performance against Pitt in the regular season finale last year.

Emily Smierciak | The Observer

Irish senior and sophomore forwards John Mooney (left) and Nate Laszewski (right) go for a rebound during Notre Dame’s 64-62 senior night loss to Clemson on March 6.

Brey acknowledged Laszewski’s growth and praised the young forward for his critical 3-pointer in their exhibition win over Bellarmine on Friday. Sophomore guards Robby Carmody and Prentiss Hubb also figure to factor into the scoring for Notre Dame in the backcourt.

The Irish certainly have a bevy of players who can score, but the question is whether they can consistently play to their potential and string together some victories in ACC play. UNC will be a massive test for this Irish team, as Brey will likely get to see how his team shoots in clutch situations, especially in a hostile environment. He is not worried about his team’s talent, but he hopes they have the confidence to trust their stroke when the game starts.

“I’m banking on us getting on the road, being loose, and letting it fly,” Brey said. “I told the guys that if you have a good look, or an open look, on Wednesday, and you turn it down, I’m taking you out. Let it fly. Shoot it. That’s a growth area for us.” 

UNC will offer a plethora of challenges for Notre Dame; a major focus is stopping Cole Anthony, UNC’s freshman point guard and a one-time Notre Dame target who, according to Brey, “makes them go.” If the Irish can achieve that, and make UNC use secondary scorers to put up points on Notre Dame, they could be in a good position to pull off an upset to start the year. 

Not much is expected of the Irish this year, but if they storm into Chapel Hill and take down the Tar Heels for the first time since 2016?

“It’s an unbelievable way to get out of the gate,” Brey said. “It would be a great shot in the arm for this group to go get one down there.”

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