One holiday weekend that marks the unofficial end of summer often marks the unofficial start of college basketball.
Labor Day weekend has long been the time for Notre Dame coach Mike Brey to hold court with his first official team meeting. Some years, Brey would take at least 45 minutes to speak with his squad. About the season that lay ahead. About the way they should conduct themselves on and off the court. About life in general. The Irish would sit and listen and absorb it all as Brey held court every September. Kind of like his state of the union address.
The past few meetings have been over before they started. Now in his 20th season in South Bend, Brey has boiled down those conferences to two basic themes in one sentence. It goes like this — If you go to class and take care of the basketball, we’re going to get along just fine.
That’s it. It’s the program’s lone golden rule. Follow it. Always. Don’t break it. Ever.
The words are written on the locker room walls in Purcell Pavilion and Rolfs Hall. The Irish have gotten both ends of the message. Classwork seldom is a concern with these guys, who are as driven on the academic side as they are on the athletic side.
As for the back end of it, Notre Dame has posted some ridiculous numbers when it comes to taking care of the basketball. The Irish have historically been good in that department, but this season, they’ve been off-the-charts good. Crazy good. Borderline great. Historically so.
Notre Dame (10-4; 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) enters Wednesday’s game at North Carolina State (10-4; 1-2) leaders of all 351 Division I teams in assist/turnover ratio (1.96) and fewest turnovers per game (9.6). The Irish also are third in the country for assists per game (18.8). They’ve followed Brey’s instructions to the letter of the law. To date, that letter has been A+.
“It’s unbelievable,” Brey said. “We’ve been good with it.”
How about great with it? The Irish move it, share it, move it some more, share it some more and, unlike earlier in the season, have started making shots. Finally. Saturday’s 88-87 victory at Syracuse, where the Irish had 26 assists to nine turnovers, once was the norm not so long ago. Swing it. Share it. Value it.
It’s not playing safe with the ball as much as it’s playing smart with it. With one another.
“When we play like that, it’s a lot of fun,” said senior guard T.J. Gibbs.
It also nudges the optimism level north on this season. Not to an NCAA tournament level, but maybe to a break even in the ACC level. Hey, it’s a start.
Gibbs is part of a starting perimeter — along with sophomore Prentiss Hubb and graduate student Rex Pflueger — who have taken their assist/turnover ratio to a lofty level. The three own the league in the category. Gibbs is second in the ACC at 3.39. Pflueger’s third at 2.48; Hubb is fifth at 2.25. They’re finding guys in the right spots at the right time. It has become contagious.
“Those numbers really aren’t surprising to anyone,” said power forward John Mooney, who’s learned to be better with the ball. “We’re really good together. When guys get downhill and creating, that’s when we’re at our best.”
Notre Dame’s been near its best most of the season. Even last year, when it finished 14-19, it had way more assists (423) than turnovers (305), a ratio (1.38) that ranked 18th nationally. Trouble was then, and now, when the Irish shot and missed more than shot and made, the focus fell on the inability to make shots, not the ability to value the ball. The A/T numbers got lost in the shot-miss shuffle.
Now that the shots have fallen — Notre Dame has made at least 15 3-pointers in three of its last five games — the ability to value the basketball has become more apparent.
“We trust each other a lot,” Hubb said.
That trust will be tested Wednesday and again Saturday against No. 13 Louisville. Notre Dame’s shared it and taken care of it well against zone, but when teams get up and apply pressure, that’s been a problem. Both those teams can and will do that. How will Notre Dame respond? Can’t get safe/sloppy now.
If bench points are the most overrated number on a final stats sheet for Brey, the most important is the assist to turnover number. It’s often the first one he finds post-game. There were nights earlier in the year when the Irish so struggled to score that you wondered if he might trade a few more turnovers for a few more buckets.
Are you serious?
“If we can’t win playing the right way, I don’t know if I want to win,” Brey said. “I say that kiddingly (but) I want to win playing the right way. Maybe I’m a purist that way.”
That right way remains moving it and sharing it and making shots. Operating as one, not worried about turning it over. Just flowing. Gibbs has often said over the last season-plus of struggles that the Irish are close to figuring it all out. Close to what? Close to getting back to the culture that made this program what it was during its NCAA tournament runs.
Talking Monday about the ridiculous assist/turnover run, Gibbs pointed to one possession during the 2015 ACC tournament — when he was in high school. It was against North Carolina in the tournament championship. The ball moved from Jerian Grant to Pat Connaughton to Demetrius Jackson. It never touched the floor before Jackson found Steve Vasturia who stroked a 3 in front of the Irish bench to tie it at 64.
It was beautiful basketball. That’s long been the Irish way.
“That’s something we strive for,” Gibbs said. “We’re starting to get there. It’s starting to manifest itself through the way we’re playing.”
And like that mantra, they’re getting along with the old coach just fine.