SOUTH BEND — When there are too few to cut it loose for five-on-five in a summer workout, it’s not about the number of guys, but the looks in their eyes.
Can this year’s Notre Dame men’s basketball team be better than the one that staggered to a 14-19 finish and 3-15 and last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season? Can the Irish play older? Can they play smarter? Can they play as connected as so many of coach Mike Brey’s teams have played?
Will this year’s group just be better? Nobody knows, though the Irish offered a glimpse Tuesday at Rolfs Hall that they may be on the right track.
Maybe. It was hard to tell with maintenance guys walking along one side of the court and out the exit door with a ladder after installing a flat screen television. Like that couldn’t have been done in May? June? Will work on the stand-alone practice facility ever be complete?
Down to seven available players — stop if you’ve heard this before — because of injury, the Irish held an open practice, kind of sort of, for the media. It could have taken place in Brey’s driveway. That way, the Irish could’ve taken a post-practice dive in his pool. Fullcourt wasn’t necessary, though the Irish did do some down and back transition drills. Going three-on-three.
How did T.J. Gibbs look? Juwan Durham? Prentiss Hubb? John Mooney? Does it matter? Drawing definitive conclusions from a summer workout is silly. The last time the media was offered a peek at an Irish practice, swingman D.J. Harvey went up and down the floor three consecutive times and made three pro-like moves that had star potential written all over them.
Afterward, many figured it was a matter of when, not if, Harvey would be the next face of the program. He certainly looked on his way, and looked the part. Nine months and a wreck of a college season later, Harvey’s at Vanderbilt.
Brey admitted he won’t know what he has with this team until it’s on the court against another team, something that won’t occur until October.
Tuesday wasn’t about watching the players play as much as it was watching their eyes. Their determination to get on the floor for a loose balls. To take a charge. Heck, after last year, to make a shot.
The practice lasted all of 38 minutes. For some college programs, that’s a warmup. For the Irish, it’s a Tuesday in July. After exactly an hour of shooting and sweating and talking, they were off to the state of the art weight room for another session with strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski. Thanks to the limited numbers — Nik Djogo (shoulder), Chris Doherty (knee) and Rex Pflueger (knee) were unavailable because of injury — the bulk of the Irish offseason work will be done behind closed doors with Rolinski.
Brey’s flipped his usual offseason script, one that demands more weight training and less cardio. Running the floor and moving the ball remain key elements of this program. But so is getting bigger, getting stronger, getting tougher. Time to bulk up and go ball. That means the Irish are moving weights four times a week instead of the usual three.
On the court, there’s only so much that Notre Dame can do. A lot of its work Tuesday centered on defensive drills. Like having the trio of Robby Carmody, Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski get three consecutive stops — a kill in program verbiage. To do so, the three underclassmen would have to do something they never really did much of last year.
Talk. Say something. Say anything. Stay together. Stay connected.
“They don’t have a veteran with them; it’s a little bit of a talk drill,” Brey said. “If I would have done that a year ago or even in February, I couldn’t get them to say anything, so we’re getting there.
“That’s a big step right there.”
The looks in the eyes of those three, as well as the already-seasoned Hubb, are an indication that the Irish are getting there, and putting some distance from last season’s train wreck. Those guys, freshmen then, weren’t equipped to handle everything they had to handle — the losses, the injuries, the all-out scramble to just survive. Once March rolled around, their pilot lights had long flickered out.
Again, it’s July, but all were burning on a summer’s day. For this program, now more than two full years removed from the NCAA tournament, it’s a start. A good one. Go with it.
“We’ve got an edge about us,” Hubb said. “The young guys aren’t young guys any more. We talk about it every day, how we need to be better than last season.
“We’re not going to let something like that happen anymore.”
It’s been since 2017 since the Irish last played in the NCAA tournament. It feels like forever. The road back will be hard. It may mean having to fight and scratch and grind like they’ve never had to grind before just to get to the league’s new break-even point (10-10). It may happen; it may not happen.
But to a man, young or old, injured or healthy, the Irish seem better off having gone through what they had to go through last year to get to where they believe they can go in the months down the basketball road.
“When you finish in last place and you don’t have a good year, you have that chip on your shoulder,” Mooney said. “Everyone’s motivated right now.”