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Three takeaways from Irish men’s basketball opening exhibition game

Notre Dame men’s basketball made their final regular season preparations on Wednesday night in an exhibition matchup against NAIA opponent Xavier University of Louisiana. The game’s outcome remained in question for longer than expected, but the Irish pulled away late to earn a 67-52 win. With the preseason now in the rearview mirror, here are three takeaways from the victory as the Irish turn their attention to next Thursday’s season opener against Radford.

Goodwin, Laszewski ready to lead the way

Just as was so often the case last season, graduate students Nate Laszewski and Dane Goodwin were at the forefront of Notre Dame’s offensive attack. Laszewski did most of his work early, scoring 9 of Notre Dame’s first 18 points on his way to 12 in the game. He then handed the reigns to Goodwin, who recorded a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds, six of them offensive.

Laszewski seemed focused on attacking the rim, using his reputation as a sharpshooter to attract overaggressive closeouts that allowed him to consistently get past his defender. In the paint, he showed improved patience, frequently using shot fakes to get Xavier defenders off balance and draw fouls, which led to an 8-9 performance from the free throw line. Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey discussed Laszewski’s expanded offensive arsenal after the game.

“I thought Nate kind of got us started by drawing fouls and driving,” Brey said. “He’s become a little better off the dribble and making plays, passing and finding people when [Xavier was] doubling and he made his free throws.”

Goodwin spent the game hunting mismatches that allowed him to back down smaller defenders and either finish at the rim or shoot his patented turnaround jumper. As with Laszewski, good things happen for the Irish when he plays aggressively, and Goodwin made all eight of his free throw attempts. Notre Dame struggled to shoot from distance (the Irish finished 7-26 from three-point range) but having two of their best shooters looking to get to the rim and draw fouls gives them a reliable safety valve when their shots are not falling.

Rebounding effort leaves room for improvement

While the Irish outplayed Xavier in most facets, struggles on the defensive glass allowed the Gold Rush to hang around for most of the game. In total, Xavier outrebounded Notre Dame 46-33 and had a 22-11 advantage in terms of offensive rebounding. Entering the season, rebounding was widely expected to be a point of weakness for the Irish, who have only two big men likely to play on a consistent basis, but it was a surprise to see a decisive loss in the rebounding battle against an opponent with considerably less size at their disposal.

After the game, Brey noted that the Irish “have to [rebound] as a group,” but praised several players’ individual performances on the boards, including graduate student guard Marcus Hammond and Goodwin. Hammond finished with seven rebounds, which Brey called “encouraging” but not surprising, given that he has rebounded well during practice. The team’s standout performance on the glass, though, came from Goodwin. He was notably aggressive on the boards defensively and even more so on offense, where his effort plays created several second-chance point opportunities. Goodwin spoke about the emphasis that he put on rebounding in preparation for the season.

“I realize that [rebounding] has to be a big priority for me this year. We’re playing a little smaller, so I have to get in there and grab some boards,” Goodwin said. “There’s definitely a mindset about it. You just have to be aggressive. Just like scoring, you’ve got to be aggressive going to the boards, hitting guys, whatever it is to go and get that ball.”

The Irish will frequently be undersized during ACC play and will rely on the entire team to attack the glass with the same effort that Goodwin gave on Wednesday.

Newcomers fill key roles in tight rotation

Last year, Notre Dame rarely went beyond seven-deep with its rotation. If the exhibition was any indication, this season will be similar, as only seven Irish players saw the floor for significant minutes. Out went Prentiss Hubb, Paul Atkinson Jr. and Blake Wesley and in came Hammond (a Niagara transfer), freshmen JJ Starling and Ven-Allen Lubin to replace them.

Marcus Hammond facilitates offense

In their first appearance for the Irish, the trio showed glimpses of what they will bring to the table for Notre Dame. Hammond, who scored over 18 points per game last season, took on point guard responsibilities and initiated the Irish offense nearly every possession when on the floor. After scoring nine points on three three-pointers and adding two assists, Hammond spoke about how a productive preseason of practices paid dividends in game situations.

“I was very comfortable,” Hammond said. “In practice, we get a lot of reps in, five on five. We get a lot of chances to play with each other. I’m real comfortable just moving the ball, knocking down the open shot when I get it and competing on the defensive end.”

JJ looks inconsistent in anticipated debut

Starling delivered an up-and-down effort in an anticipated effort, given his status as a consensus five-star recruit. While he did not shoot particularly well, finishing just 1-7 and 0-5 from three, Starling’s performance in other areas pleased Brey.

“JJ made some good decisions. When he was double teamed, I thought he was really good,” Brey said. “He had open looks, I thought he took really good shots. He does pass it and find people, and he’s able to get in [the paint] with strength like nobody else we have.”

The primary way in which Brey looks for Starling, as well as any young player, to grow, is by not letting shooting struggles prevent him from impacting the game in its less glamorous aspects.

“When you’re not making shots, and maybe your offense isn’t as smooth, there’s the great maturity and growth [process] of, ‘can I go back and defend and rebound and work my way into it,’” Brey said. He noted that this is especially important for a player with as much athleticism and defensive potential as Starling has.

Lubin earns three blocks in gritty effort

A face mask hampered Lubin after he suffered a nose injury during practice earlier in the week, but that did not stop him from tallying four points and three blocks while putting his athleticism on constant display. In the first half, he used impressive focus to score in the paint while being fouled. Later, he maneuvered past his defender off the catch and converted at the rim, showing a unique combination of agility and strength for a 6’8” player. Defensively, Lubin’s length and defensive instincts allowed him to disrupt several shots at the basket without fouling. Brey spoke highly of Lubin’s defense. He said that the coaching staff has to “keep making him feel comfortable” as he gets accustomed to Notre Dame’s offensive scheme and recovers from injury.

Notre Dame’s new players make up nearly half of the seven that are likely to soak up most of the team’s minutes, and they will have many opportunities to improve over the course of the season and prepare for big games in January, February and (the Irish hope) March. At this early stage in the season, all three appear ready to step into key roles and make an immediate impact.

“It’s a learning process,” Goodwin said about the development of Notre Dame’s young players. “They’re going to have their ups and downs, but I think they all contributed today and had bright spots. So that’s definitely something to build off of.”

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