Definitive declarations about the Notre Dame men’s basketball team as another season gets going are just dumb.
There are so many moving parts and new pieces in the program, so many unproven guys and potential storylines to be played out over the next five months that anybody who says they know how it’ll unfold doesn’t. Everything today and tomorrow and next week and maybe next month is just a dart thrown at a board.
But mere minutes after the Irish closed out their lone home exhibition game last week, head coach Mike Brey sat down for his post-game press conference, put on his reading glasses to study the final stat sheet and offered a strong statement five days before everything got real with Tuesday’s home opener against UIC.
“T.J. Gibbs has to have the ball,” Brey said of his junior guard. “He’s gotta have the ball to start the game and be the guy. He’s got to start with it in his hands running stuff.”
Brey said that he and his staff had “messed around” during preseason pairing Gibbs with fellow guards Prentiss Hubb and Rex Pflueger. The three-guard look allowed those two to initiate the offense, which would slide Gibbs into a shooting guard role in certain situations. But something was missing. The less Gibbs had it in his hands, the more it was a struggle for the Irish to do what they’ve long done under Brey — score. Be efficient on that end. Get good looks. Get buckets. Flow.
Brey scrapped that script during Thursday’s exhibition. He gave it to Gibbs and Notre Dame finally looked like Notre Dame on offense.
It wasn’t a coincidence.
“He’s got to spearhead us,” Brey said. “T.J. Gibbs has to have that thing to start the game and he may have to have it a lot.”
Reaching that conclusion took Brey back to the start of 2010-11 season when Eric Atkins, the team’s video coordinator, was that season’s Hubb — a freshman point guard. Brey tinkered with Atkins working as the main handler on a team saturated with seniors. But the more the Irish moved through September and early October, the more Brey realized that for the Irish to do what they might do that season — finish 27-7 and 14-4 in the Big East — the ball was best in the hands of someone else.
That someone was Ben Hansbrough. Brey handed Hansbrough the ball and the guard delivered a Big East player of the year and second team All-American senior season. Brey sees a lot of Hansbrough in the 6-foot-3, 194-pound Gibbs. Especially with the ball. Especially to start.
“He’s got a forceful presence and he leads and he talks,” Brey said. “Everybody else, you other guards, react off him.”
This may not be another 27-7, 14-4 season (no declarations, remember?), but Gibbs has to have it for the Irish to do anything. That also rotates him to the top of the other team’s scout. How do you deter Notre Dame and what it wants to do? Game plan for No. 10. Sidetrack him and let someone else try to beat you.
Last year, while working as a sidekick to starter Matt Farrell, Gibbs could find his rhythm off the ball. This year, he’s got to find a flow making plays for himself and for his teammates.
“It means a lot to me,” Gibbs said. “It’s a lot of responsibility. It’s going to be a different feel, but I think I’m ready for it.
“It’s going to be fun.”
Yet, at times, frustrating. Gibbs is Notre Dame’s only one proven scorer. He averaged a career-best 15.3 points and 2.9 assists last season. He also played a career-high 1,348 minutes, third most in program history and under 100 from the single-season record of 1,408 held by Jerian Grant in 2014-15.
Gibbs will have to score even more and play even more than he did last season. At times, it’s going to be good. At others, maybe many others, it will be a grind. A lot of the others guys simply haven’t done it or are seriously challenged on the offensive end.
Having so much on his shoulders cannot keep Gibbs from a leadership role he didn’t have to handle his first two years.
A year ago, he watched how former Irish Bonzie Colson and Farrell worked and talked and led. Both were lost for extended time with injuries, which gave Gibbs his first leadership taste. Now he’s a captain, and has to be one through the good and bad and ups and downs of his game.
He can’t just worry about getting his. He’s got to be there for the guys who haven’t. Just as Colson and Farrell were there for him when he was trying to figure it all out.
“Learning from those two guys, I learned from the best,” Gibbs said. “When I started to get outside of myself, they definitely let me know. It’s funny to see that’s kind of my role — keep guys calm and get guys to figure out where they need to be.”
For the Irish to figure it out this season, it starts and continues and likely ends with Gibbs. He could flourish; he could force stuff. He can be one of the elite guards in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He owns all-league potential. But he can’t play with that added pressure. It will demoralize him. It will doom the Irish.
“It’s not something I’m really worried about,” Gibbs said. “I don’t have to do anything crazy. I just have to be me.”