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Men’s Basketball

Adams: A born-again faith in Mike Brey’s program

| Friday, August 14, 2020

What is there to say that hasn’t already been said about the Notre Dame men’s basketball team over the last three years? After back-to-back runs to the Elite Eight, a second-round NCAA tournament exit against West Virginia and a Maui Invitational victory that catapulted the Irish to No. 5 in the AP Poll, it was just about all downhill for two straight years.

Senior captain Bonzie Colson went down with a broken foot, followed by fellow senior captain Matt Farrell’s ankle injury, followed by freshman guard D.J. Harvey’s season-ending knee injury, and the Irish still nearly managed to earn a berth in the 2018 Big Dance.

It took Colson coming back — and playing like the ACC player of the year he was voted to be in the preseason — and the single largest comeback in program history in the second round of the ACC Tournament against Virginia Tech, but the Irish nearly pulled off the improbable. And even though the No. 1 overall seed in the NIT didn’t make for a great consolation prize, it was something. And Colson rebreaking his foot was an understandable excuse for an early postseason exit in the second round.

But excuses, even unpredictable and unavoidable ones like injury, get old real quick.

The following year the Irish learned the meaning of growing pains. Five new freshmen, even though four were top-100 players, just weren’t ready for high-level ACC basketball. Throw in a torn Achilles to another senior captain, a torn labrum to one of those promising freshmen, ankle issues to a newly eligible transfer big man and the flu to the team’s second-leading scorer, and what do you get?

Zachary Llorens | The Observer
Sophomore guard Prentiss Hubb looks to cross up his defender in a game against Pitt on Feb. 5 at Purcell Pavilion.

A hot mess that managed three wins in conference play and wound up 14-19 overall, with the only bright spot being the play of a former three-star forward who turned out to be the second coming of Luke Harangody. But it didn’t stop there.

The same promising player who tore his labrum a year prior blew out his ACL the following season in garbage time of an embarrassing loss at No. 3 Maryland. That was followed promptly by the program’s first loss since 2005 to ACC bottom feeder Boston College, and the first loss at home to the Eagles since 1997. It was a new low, even for a team that had already hit rock bottom in the ACC the year before.

They couldn’t even beat “Backup College.”

But something flipped. They went on a roll, and despite some tough losses, they were picking up the pieces of the shambles the program had fallen into. The team that kept losing heart-breakers was still losing them — with a one-point loss at No. 5 Florida State being particularly crushing, and pricey for head coach Mike Brey after his post-game outburst — but they were losing fewer. And, they were beating the teams they legitimately should have.

Even if it wasn’t pretty — four points at Clemson, one point vs. North Carolina on a go-ahead three, one point vs. BC on a go-ahead floater with 0.1 seconds left — a win was a win (the second one being a weight off their shoulders, and that last one tasting particularly sweet as it counteracted a potential game-winning floater the possession prior).

But it was all for naught. Or, maybe it wasn’t.

There was little chance that the Irish, who went 10-10 in conference, were going to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament with no marquee wins on their resume and in an unusually weak ACC (because that preseason top-10 UNC team actually went 14-19 like the Irish did the previous season). It was an ACC Championship or bust if Brey wanted to break his Big Dance drought.

They didn’t get that championship and accompanying automatic bid, but not because they lost. In fact, they looked really good in their third game of the season with Boston College, drubbing the Eagles 80-58 in the second round of the conference tournament. They were set for a rematch with Virginia, who scraped out a 50-49 overtime win at home over the Irish in the regular season, when COVID-19 struck in full force.

The ACC Tournament and, subsequently, the NCAA Tournament were cancelled. The Irish — who at the very least would likely have gotten another NIT bid — missed out on a postseason for the second straight year, albeit because of circumstances outside of their control.

And yet, despite it all, I have hope. I’ll go even further and say that I have faith in this team, this program and — more than anything — this coach.

Sure, they may have just lost two 1000-point scorers in John Mooney and T.J. Gibbs, the former of whom is the aforementioned second coming of Luke Harangody (and, from a statistical standpoint, the collegiate reincarnation of both Blake Griffin and Tim Duncan as well). Even so, I like what this team has got, because it checks all the boxes to some degree.

Prentiss Hubb is your floor general and has started taking on a leadership role with the team. He’s streaky, but when he gets going, it’s tough to cool him down.

Juwan Durham struggled to get playing time behind Mooney, and he absolutely needs to get more aggressive. But when he’s on the court, he makes things happen around the rim on both the offensive and defensive end. Big men have taken leaps in their third year under Brey (uh, John Mooney, anyone?) and this is Durham’s third year in South Bend. And speaking of third years…

Nate Laszewski has struggled to find his stroke in his first couple of years, but he’s knocked down some big-time shots. You gotta think that another season means a greater sense of comfort in who he is and what he can bring to this team.

Dane Goodwin is your spark plug off the bench. If he can just figure out how to produce on the road like he does at home, he can be the ACC Sixth Man of the Year, and he’s not a bad starter in an injury pinch.

Cormac Ryan showed the kind of energy and leadership he can bring to this team last season, and the entire time he was on the bench in street clothes. Looking at some of his highlights from his freshman season at Stanford, he can bring a lot to the table as a combo guard, and I am excited to see how he and Hubb feed off one another in the backcourt.

Robby Carmody, brings defensive intensity. He’s a lot like Rex Pflueger, both in terms of the little things he can do and his injury issues, but he has the potential to provide offensive production that Pflueger never could. He might be the X-factor for this team. It’s not a stretch to think this team was a healthy Robby Carmody away from getting over the hump in a few of those tight losses last season.

Nikola Djogo could actually be a contributing player in his fifth year. There doesn’t seem to be anything fundamentally wrong with his stroke (and it looks good as a lefty), so you have to think it’s all mental. If he could just get a little mean on the court, maybe develop a bit of a chip on his shoulder and figure out his jumper, then he could legitimately emulate former Irish forward Scott Martin. Do that for one season, which, again, is realistic in my mind given he’s got four years of experience, and that would provide a whole new dimension to the Irish offense. He’s an enigma, but the kind of enigma that would be so sweet to see blossom.

And as for the new crop of players — freshmen forwards Matt Zona, Elijah Taylor and Tony Sanders and Santa Clara transfer guard Trey Wertz — people aren’t going to be wowed by their ranking, but they all bring something to the table. Zona’s gotta a smooth stroke, Taylor’s physically ready to take on ACC big men, Sanders is a fluid athlete that the Irish rarely get (a la Jerian Grant) and Wertz can do a lot of good things with the ball in his hands (once he gets eligible after this season).

Now, I have to temper my expectations a little bit. We’re dealing with the coronavirus (it hurts just to say its name), and it’s unclear just what effect it will have on the college basketball season. That said, even it can’t put too much of a damper on my hopes for this team, and I think a lot of that has to do with the man running the show.

That’s right, Mike Brey, “The Loosest Coach in America.” The man who partied with his shirt off and a lei around his neck after winning the Maui Invitational nearly three years ago. The winningest coach in Notre Dame history. The man who, with his rant after Florida State, seemed to validate the opinion that ACC refs want to stick it to ND for its football independence, and also confirmed our suspicions about just how much the pressure of the last few seasons was getting to him.

Mike Brey. The coach who I watched on a Zoom call for the media at the start of this summer, and who looked a hell of a lot better than he had the previous two seasons. You heard that right:

Mike Brey has his swagger back.

That’s a sentence that strikes fear into the hearts of coaches around the country. He’s rested and he’s antsy to get back to work. He’s ready to start lifting this program out of the rut it’s been in.

Maybe I’m crazy to say this, but I think losing Mooney, Gibbs and Pflueger can be a positive in a way. Those guys were crucial to the team, but they were also so closely intertwined with the struggles of these last three seasons. Sometimes it’s good to hit refresh, to start anew with a relatively clean slate.

It’s no longer the Gibbs-Mooney-Pflueger show. Now is the time for Brey’s most highly touted recruiting class of his time in South Bend. It’s time for Hubb, Goodwin, Laszewski and (health willing) Carmody to take command of this program and live up to their hype.

They’ve been through the growing pains, the gut-wrenching losses and tear-jerking injuries. They know what it means to compete and win in the ACC. They know what it takes to be a successful program. But most importantly, they’ve got a coach unlike any other orchestrating them.

Last season I wrote a column on how Mike Brey’s program was at a pivot point, and it concluded with the words “your move, Mike.” Now, as I say that again, I’m filled with a new sense of faith in what he can do in (hopefully) a few months once we actually get college basketball back from its prolonged hiatus.

The Irish have had rotten luck, but the pendulum has to swing back at some point. The other shoe has to drop. And, hopefully, Brey’s shirt has to come off in the locker room after remaining on his body uninterrupted for far too long.

Your move, Mike. Now go make me a prophet.

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