It’s been a run of firsts the last few weeks for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.
The returning Irish were on campus in early August for the first time since scattering for their homes in mid-March amid the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. The three-player freshman class also arrived for their first taste of college. That included swingman Tony Sanders, a Miami resident who had never been to Notre Dame — or met his head coach in person — before moving in last week.
Monday delivered the first day of in-person classes and, maybe the best basketball news of all — the first practice/skill session/weight room work for the Irish, albeit in limited numbers.
It was small, but at least it was something.
Nobody knows what the coming months hold for college basketball. There’s a good chance all remains dark for November and December. And that the 2020-21 season will include only conference contests. All that is for down the road.
For now, the Irish are back in Rolfs Hall in somewhat of a routine doing some basketball stuff, which is good for head coach Mike Brey and his staff and his players. Zoom meetings to keep the spirits of his guys high are, for now, in the past for Brey. That’s good too. Everyone was Zoomed out. Brey could preach the positivity only so long. He maxed out around July. At that point, his players needed to hear something different. Point to it too.
Following are five to-do items on the Irish agenda as they play the long game before getting back to playing basketball games.
• Lock that starting five in Rolfs
Late last season while waiting for post-practice interview access, the media stole a peek at this season’s team through a slice of the blue curtain pulled across a Purcell Pavilion tunnel and intended to keep away any curious eyes.
Guards Prentiss Hubb, Dane Goodwin and Cormac Ryan and power forwards Juwan Durham and Nate Laszewski all were in white (starter) jerseys. Even with five regular-season games remaining, Brey was looking ahead to this season. Eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer from Stanford, Ryan slides into a main-guy role vacated by T.J. Gibbs. It might be an instant upgrade. Ryan’s game can go places that Gibbs’ couldn’t reach.
Laszewski won’t be asked to mimic John Mooney, but he also becomes a full-time starter, as does Goodwin, who was the sixth man last season (and should’ve won Atlantic Coast Conference honors for that role).
This group needs reps. Lots of them. Like, put them on the practice floor and let them run dummy halfcourt offense for a few hours. Then let them go 5-on-0 fullcourt. Get used to hearing new voices like Hubb’s, who has to be the main one. Like Ryan’s, who also becomes a key leadership piece. Let them get a feel for how they all move together, talk together, work together. So much so that they can do it with their eyes closed.
Let those five become one. The better Brey teams have had starting groups that operate that way. They know where another guy’s going to be before he gets there. They’re connected. They’re invested. They trust. They don’t need set plays; they just flow. For the Irish to do anything this season, these guys will have to do that and more. There’s a lot to work with after this core led the Irish to nine wins over the last 13 games last season. There’s also a lot of work to do to get these guys at the ACC level they need to be to consistently compete. And win.
• Fast track the freshmen
No group needed the two in-person summer school sessions more than power forwards Elijah Taylor and Matt Zona and Sanders. June and July and early August are crucial for the first-year guys to just understand the college game. To see how much quicker everything moves than in high school. And how much bigger and stronger everyone else is. How much work you have to put in to be good. The three missed out on all that. Now they hit the practice floor and the weight room running — OK, maybe a brisk jog — to get up to college speed.
With only 10 on scholarship, at least two of the three may have to play roles this season (if there is one). The third may go the five-year route. What exactly do the Irish have in Taylor, who can be the dirty-work guy, in Zona (a stretch four with good size) and Sanders (a complete unknown)? That’s for the next few weeks for them to show, and the staff to determine.
Shoving the start of the season into January might benefit all three. Without it, the game’s going to come at them in a hurry. They might not be ready. They might need to be.
• Keep repeating one phrase to power forward Juwan Durham
One of four Irish last year to play in every game, Durham often got lost in the Mooney mania. While his former roommate was scoring points and grabbing rebounds and leading the nation for double doubles (25) Durham slid to the shadows. He’d block some shots (a team-high 66), maybe flush the occasional lob dunk and that was about it.
With Mooney gone, the staff has hammered home to Durham this:
You’re the guy. Go do it.
You’re the guy. Go do it.
It’s bad news that the Irish can’t count on Mooney’s double doubles any more, but that’s good news for Durham. There are more minutes to be played, more points to score, more rebounds to grab, more differences to make. This is Durham’s time to do it. All of it. His minutes per game will jump from 17.5 last season to maybe around 28 this year, but he also can inflate other numbers across the board. He’s first got to believe he can be ACC elite good.
Brey’s spent the last two-plus seasons pumping Durham full of praise in hopes that it cements his confidence. It’s time for Durham to repay all of that and go play. Be a legitimate ACC big with big dreams, and bigger games.
You’re the guy. Go do it.
• Get Nik Djogo going
The graduate student from Canada always has been a fringe rotation piece. He’s been good enough to at least merit some minutes, but never consistent enough to cement a real role. That he hasn’t made shots at a better clip (career .238 from 3) has hurt, and time’s about run out for him.
He still can be a main guy this year. He still can be a needed guy. He can be a great story. Remember that sixth-man role Goodwin filled last season? There’s no reason why Djogo can’t step into that spot and be the first one off the bench for bursts. Get a steal here. Make a shot there. Use his voice and leadership to steady everything in the way that former Irish guard Rex Pflueger did. Finally show what we’ve seen in practices, in pickup games, in pre-game routines. He can make shots. He can play. Something doesn’t translate when the bright lights click on.
It would be disappointing on several levels if by January, somebody else (Robby Carmody, a freshman) is in that role. Djogo’s played too much basketball and persevered through too many dark days to not be someone that the Irish can count on.
•Stay patient with the pandemic plan
The scheduled 2020-21 opener at home against Army on Veterans Day might not happen. Same goes for the Thanksgiving week trip to New York and the Legends Classic at Barclays Center. And the Dec. 12 game against Kentucky at Rupp Arena. As for the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge game, or the Crossroads Classic contest against Purdue at Bankers Life Fieldhouse? Don’t hold out hope.
Too much remains unknown of what the regular season will look like, but the Irish know well of unknowns. They’ve dealt with them since sports first stopped March 13. Since then, Brey’s counseled his players to stay steady through so much uncertainty.
The Irish did play 32 games last year. Their spring sports colleagues got nowhere near that before the pandemic wiped out their seasons. Their fall sports colleagues may not have any seasons. Brey’s often counseled his guys about how college sports might come all the way back around to a point where basketball could have some semblance of a season. It might culminate with the NCAA tournament in May, but Brey believes it can happen.
He’s got to keep his players believing. To keep getting better with whatever practice time they can carve out. Keep pointing toward a successful season. That the games will go on.