To survive in a basketball league as challenging as the Atlantic Coast Conference, it matters almost as much as scoring and rebounding and believing. And not just age old. Basketball old. Carry an understanding of the game and how to play it, how to work as one, how to take the good with the bad, because there will be bad in a league that grinds you up, then down.
On a Wednesday afternoon that felt a whole lot like basketball season — cold and gray and ugly outside, warm and inviting and the bounce of the Wilson leather basketballs inside — members of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team gathered for what now works as media day. No more sit-down pressers that stagger along for 30, 40, 50 minutes with head coach Mike Brey, who enters his 20th season on the Irish sideline. No more killing time waiting for players to tuck in their shirts and tie their shoes and sit up straight and smile for the team picture.
Now it’s just about as informal and unassuming as the head coach inside Rolfs Hall. Form a media semi-circle (some would say a gaggle) around Brey as he fields queries for 20 minutes, watch a spirited hour-plus practice complete with five-on-five and officials and game situations, then spend some time with anyone on the Irish roster. What an interview concept!
Quick. Efficient. Easy.
Another word kept surfacing from everyone inside a Notre Dame program just over seven months removed from last season’s last-place disaster and less than three weeks away from the season opener at North Carolina.
Older. As in age, basketball age.
Last year, the Irish didn’t age well. This year?
“We’re older; we’re more mature,” said senior guard T.J. Gibbs. “Last year, was an eye-opener for us. We had some guys who were not necessarily weak-minded, but immature.”
Gibbs now is mature enough to include himself on that list. Everything that happened to the Irish last season — from losing a whopper eight games at Purcell Pavilion to league losing streaks of five and seven in a row — wasn’t handled well. By anybody. Not the older guys, like Gibbs. Not the younger guys, like the five new faces in a then-freshman class touted as Brey’s best recruiting haul. Not the coaching staff. Maybe even not the media. Why? A program that had long been so steady was so shaky that nobody really knew how to handle it. Any of it. All of it.
Even the head coach agreed when asked the biggest difference from this year to last.
“We’re older,” Brey said. “We’re healthier. We’re better. Now, what’s that mean in the league we signed up for?”
Nobody knows. Should it beat more teams than just Boston College (twice) and Georgia Tech (once) than last year? Will the rotation be cleaner? Will the roles be better defined? Should the Irish better protect home court? Can they make a push toward the middle of the league standings? Beyond?
Can Notre Dame matter this season?
Yes, yes, yes, all around. Why? Maturity. On both ends of the floor. Guys now are mature enough and secure enough to share it even more on the offensive end. To trust their games. To trust their teammates. On defense, they’re mature enough to be better help defenders. To take a charge. To box out. To compete.
“We’re just playing better together,” said senior power forward/captain John Mooney, already penciled in as an automatic double-double dude. “We kind of know each other’s games more. It’s cool to see us come together.”
The Irish carry themselves differently than they did last year. Heck, since the summer. When last seen inside Rolfs during a summer workout, the Irish had so few available players that they were limited to halfcourt drills. They still carried the shell-shock remnants of 3-15. All that was gone Wednesday, which even featured an on-court cameo from former All-American guard Jerian Grant, a reminder of way better days.
There’s a different vibe to this group. They move together. They work together. They flow together.
Mooney’s still Mooney, a first team All-ACC preseason pick and worthy of it. Gibbs knows what fellow starting guard Prentiss Hubb is going to do before he does it. That seldom happened last season. Juwan Durham seems ready to help Mooney with the low-post heavy lifting. Sophomores Nate Laszewski and Dane Goodwin aren’t afraid to take a shot. Or when they miss one, take another. Fellow sophomore Chris Doherty can still carve out some serious space near the rim, but this time, finish. Classmate Robby Carmody (classified as a freshman after shoulder surgery shelved him last December) looks more like the recruit Brey fell so hard for. He attacks the basket. He operates with an edge. He plays the way too few Irish did last season.
“We went through everything you could possibly go through as freshmen,” Carmody said. “It’s brought us a lot of confidence. We’re not afraid to go out there and do it.”
All that’s on the court. Off of it, it’s a different group. It was noticeable by watching Rex Pflueger (still at least two weeks from full-go after ACL surgery) and Stanford transfer Cormac Ryan (not medically cleared after summer sports hernia surgery) on the bench during five-on-five. They weren’t sitting like statues, or checking their phones. They were up talking, yelling, encouraging. They called out sets and the time left on the shot clock. They demanded stops, rebounds and effort. They celebrated everything.
There wasn’t much of that last year. No strong voices. No collective emotion. No energy from the bench. Guys often were so wrapped up in their games, they forgot about the one unfolding in front of them. It was every Irish for themselves.
Not now. That will be challenged come the regular season, but for Notre Dame to get to where it wants to go, where it needs to go (to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017), it needs more of what was seen Wednesday.
It all looked new and shiny and different. Maybe even potentially pretty good. What’s it going to look like next month in Chapel Hill? The next in College Park, Md., and Indianapolis? The next calendar year in the ACC? We’ll see.