Irish to open unprecedented season against tough Spartans team
Nate Moller | Thursday, November 26, 2020
Notre Dame men’s basketball will begin their season Saturday night in East Lansing against the 13th ranked Michigan State Spartans. Head coach Mike Brey talked about the many uncertainties that his team faces on a daily basis this season because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the testing that is necessary because of it.
“Our group will test Wednesday. Then we’ll test Friday evening in East Lansing and Saturday morning in East Lansing,” Brey explained. “But that’s just our test. Michigan State’s doing their thing, and they play a game Wednesday night. And so when you really try and wrap your arms around that, you can find a lot to worry about. As a coach, I have tried to just deal with our guys on a day-to-day basis.”
Despite these uncertainties, Brey said he understands the importance of trying to play Saturday’s game against the Spartans and the rest of the college basketball season.
“I know there’s a little bit of a movement out there to shut the season down. We need to try and do this, though. Football has soldiered through this thing with casualties — casualties being games canceled or postponed,” Brey said. “We need to really keep moving and try this thing. I’m hopeful that we can play one game Saturday night against a really good team. And then we’ll see where we are on Sunday and hopefully can move forward.”
Brey is very confident in the maturity of his team. Earlier this week, junior guards Prentiss Hubb and Cormac Ryan and graduate student forwards Juwan Durham and Nik Djogo were named captains of the team. In addition to the strong captain leadership on the team, Brey mentioned junior forward Nate Laszewski and junior guard Dane Goodwin have become more vocal this year as well.
“They’re more naturally quiet guys, but they are a little more vocal now,” Brey explained. “We could never get them to talk enough on defense and communicate, but they have stepped up now with their voices in that sense.”
At the moment, the starting lineup for the Irish appears to have Hubb at point guard, Ryan and Goodwin on the wings and Laszewski and Durham manning the frontcourt.
Brey understands that with COVID-19 protocols potentially sidelining players at times this season, it is very important to have a deep roster this year, more so than ever before.
“I think our sixth and seventh men are pretty set in Nik [Djogo] and [freshman forward Matt] Zona, and then it’s [freshman guard] Tony [Sanders] and [sophomore guard] Elijah [Morgan],” Brey said. “Because of the pandemic, maybe we’ll get to them, and maybe I’ll use Elijah Morgan.”
Morgan is a walk-on, but Brey said that an observer wouldn’t be able to tell based on the way he challenges Hubb in practices.
“He’s got to play, and he’s got to be ready to play because he’s gonna play,” Brey said of Morgan. “… He’s a good player. It’s not just throwing a stopgap measure in there.”
Brey is also hopeful that junior guard Trey Wertz, who transferred this year from Santa Clara, will have his eligibility approved by the NCAA in the coming weeks because of the potential need for more players because of the pandemic.
“I am just thinking that at the end of the day, these young men that are still not eligible are going to be cleared to make sure games aren’t canceled,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be by Saturday, but we’re going to keep working on him and then that gives us 10 guys that could play in a game, and would play in a game.”
Brey is a little nervous about heading into East Lansing because the pandemic has prevented exhibitions and traditional team scrimmages that usually take place before the first game of the season.
“I am a little nervous. There have been no exhibitions, and we have not had any reps to have a referee for even an intra-squad scrimmage because it has just not felt safe. Our first time we put the uniforms on and have real reps is going to be in East Lansing on Saturday night against one heck of a team.”
Brey believes that the maturity of his team will allow the Irish to be successful Saturday night in East Lansing.
“I’m banking on our maturity. I’m banking on this nucleus of those five starters, and I’d add Djogo coming off the bench. These guys have played a lot of college basketball,” Brey said. “I know it’s been awhile, but they have the poise, and they know how to handle tough stretches. Those are the areas we’re going to talk about starting Wednesday where we have to be calm and understand that there are going to be really tough stretches that our leadership and poise must get us through.”
Brey said he knows that Saturday’s matchup against the Spartans will be tough, as it always is against a team coached by Tom Izzo. The key to winning Saturday’s game will be controlling the Spartans in transition and keeping the Spartans off of the boards on offense.
“Their transition game… you got to try and get that under control. We couldn’t control it last time we were there. We never got it under control,” Brey said of an 81-63 loss in East Lansing on Nov. 30, 2017, a game in which the Irish were ranked No. 5 nationally after winning the Maui Invitational. “They were bearing down on us. And then when you’re playing man-to-man defense, they screen the heck out of you. They really work to get their shooters stuff. And then they’ve always been a great rebounding team.”
Brey said the Irish need to be successful on offense as well if they are going to beat a solid Spartans team.
“We’re gonna have to get into our flow offensively. We’re really good when we run,” Brey said. “We’re trying to play faster. We played quicker starting last year, and that’s how Hubb and Ryan get down the floor. We will look to get some rebounds and get out and get some buckets and not have to play against their half court defense.”
Assuming everything goes as planned, the Irish will tip off against the Spartans at 8 p.m. EST. The game can be viewed on the Big Ten Network.