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Men’s Basketball

Adams: Brey and Irish are at a turning point

| Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The ball is up in the air, and as it reaches the apex of its trajectory and comes down toward the rim, there’s a small glimmer of hope that it may actually go through the net. Watching on TV, the broadcast view makes the ball look right on target, until it passes in front of the rim from the viewer’s perspective; enough power, not enough accuracy.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Irish graduate student guard Rex Pflueger pulls up for a shot during Notre Dame’s 64-62 overtime win over Toledo at Purcell Pavilion on Nov. 21.

The comeback bid comes up short for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team as sophomore guard Dane Goodwin misses a half-court heave as time expires and the Irish fall to Boston College 73-72. It was the end of a 13-game winning streak against the Eagles. It was the first loss to Boston College since 2005 and the first win for BC in Purcell Pavilion since 1997. It ended a six-game home winning streak for the Irish (6-3) to open the season. It also represents an inflection point for the Notre Dame men’s basketball program.

Head coach Mike Brey has had his fair share of ups and downs with the Notre Dame basketball program, but it was OK for a while. He wasn’t taking over for Digger Phelps, who led the Irish to their only Final Four appearance in program history in 1978 (and ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak, no big deal). He took over for Matt Doherty, who went 22-15 in his lone season at the helm of the Irish.

Beginning his tenure with the Irish while they were still in the Big East, Brey led his team to either the NCAA or NIT tournament every season from 2000-01 to 2012-13. Then upon joining the ACC in the 2013-14 season, the team hit a new low, going only 15-17 and 6-10 in the conference.

But lo and behold what happened the next year. The Irish went 32-6 behind the play of senior guard Jerian Grant and senior and sophomore guards Pat Connaughton and Demetrius Jackson as the team racked up 30 wins for the first time since 1908-09. That team lost to a then-undefeated Kentucky team that went 38-1 on the season by only two points in the elite eight.

The next year, despite its losses, Notre Dame still managed to defeat the No. 1 ranked (depending on which poll you looked at) North Carolina at Purcell Pavilion and make it back to the Sweet Sixteen, thanks to a huge game-winning tip-in from then sophomore forward Rex Pflueger against Stephen F. Austin.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Irish senior guard T.J. Gibbs brings the ball up the court during Notre Dame’s 64-62 overtime win over Toledo at Purcell Pavilion on Nov. 21.

2017 held a lot of promise for the Irish, with point guard Matt Farrell and forwards Bonzie Colson and Martinas Geben all seniors. Guard T.J. Gibbs was also a junior on that team and Pflueger needn’t do anything more but focus on his defense. That team had an amazing comeback victory against then-No. 6 Wichita State in the Maui Invitational Championship, with Farrell getting an improbable clutch steal, Geben sinking the game-winning free throws and Pflueger clinching it with a steal on the Shockers’ final possession.

Then it all went downhill. The Irish rose to No. 5 in the polls but lost to Michigan State in East Lansing by 20, a score that was lopsided thanks to some garbage time threes, but disappointing nonetheless. Then they lost at home to Ball State and in the Crossroads classic after blowing their own huge lead against Indiana. But it would get worse.

Colson broke his foot and Farrell soon sprained his ankle, knocking Notre Dame’s best players out of the rotation for a five-game stretch. Gibbs would play admirably in their absence, essentially never sitting, but then-sophomore forward John Mooney had yet to develop into the All-ACC caliber player he is now, and the team suffered for it. Farrell’s return helped, but the Irish would then lose freshman guard D.J. Harvey to a leg injury.

From that point, it was clear Notre Dame wasn’t equipped to delve deeply into their bench, despite the potential offered by Mooney and fellow sophomore forwards Elijah Burns and Nik Djogo. The game of the season for Djogo came against North Carolina in Purcell where the unranked Irish nearly upset them, but a potential game-winning layup by Gibbs cruelly rolled out of the rim at the buzzer.

There were so many close calls it hurt, but Colson had a fitting return for senior night against Pittsburgh to prepare himself for when the Irish took on No. 1 Virginia in Charlottesville, where they came up just short. Then the ACC tournament came around, and the Irish showed the magic they had in Maui as they overcame the biggest deficit in school history to defeat Virginia Tech in the second round of the ACC Tournament and keep their NCAA tourney hopes alive.

But it was for naught as the exhausted Irish fell to Duke the following night and lost their spot in the tournament to Davidson, who won their conference championship in upset fashion. Despite the disappointing 2017-18 season, it was understandable to a degree. There were so many injuries that it just couldn’t be helped, especially considering how close Notre Dame was to making the tournament.

The following season was expected to be somewhat of a lull, but there was promise as Brey brought in his most highly-touted recruiting class yet with four top-100 players. Then reality, and injuries, struck again. Then-freshman guard Robby Carmody was lost for the season after suffering a torn labrum, Pflueger was gone after tearing his ACL, UConn transfer forward Juwan Durham was in and out with ankle issues and Gibbs was sidelined briefly with illness, causing Brey to burn the redshirt he planned to use on then-freshman forward Chris Doherty.

The 2018-19 season turned out to be a rebuilding year, with the Irish finishing dead last in the ACC at 3-15 in the conference and with a 14-19 overall record. They only managed to scrounge their three conference wins and one ACC tournament win over the other bottom feeders of the conference: Boston College and Georgia Tech.

Now comes the 2019-20 season, full of promise that the Irish can reassert themselves as a steady basketball team in a relatively easy ACC with their entire roster back from last season. But now it’s becoming clear that something is amiss.

After losing the season opener to North Carolina, a mostly competitive game before freshman guard Cole Anthony went off for the Tar Heels, the Irish managed to win six straight at home, which would be impressive if it weren’t against such inferior competition. The only top-100 opponent the Irish played was Toledo, and they narrowly edged them out. Now they’ve gotten blown out by No. 4 Maryland and lost at home to Boston College, the one team whose number they truly had.

I don’t know what it is, but something’s wrong. Carmody went down again for the season after tearing his ACL against the Terrapins, and Brey said that before and after that game he was disconnected from his team, calling it one of his worst weeks of coaching. That’s a cause for concern.

Considering this team is made to play Brey’s style of basketball — which calls for relaxation, confidence and shooting ability — it’s very worrisome that this team, which lacks athleticism and a go-to scorer, struggles to shoot the ball so mightily (around 30%) and seems incredibly tight and doubtful when playing.

Though it’s nice that the team returned almost everyone from last year’s roster, it certainly doesn’t help the Irish failed to get any recruits for this year, and the one’s they’ve signed for next season are fine, but not the type of elite players like Harvey (who transferred after last season) was and others in previous seasons. Of course there are limitations when it comes to Notre Dame’s ability to recruit at the highest level, but at least they’ve been able to hang their hat on player development, something they are also coming up very short on.

It’s time for Brey to prove why he’s been heralded as one of the top coaches in the nation and labelled as “the loosest coach in America.” He needs to reimplement the brand of basketball that so much fun to watch and led to so much success. At a certain point, you start running out of excuses, and while injuries are certainly acceptable ones, the continual lack of quality players to step in is not as defensible.

I believe in Brey, but he’s running out of time.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

Contact Hayden