Noie: Summer no time for Notre Dame men's basketball to coast on the court

Tom Noie
ND Insider

Seated in an area that doubled as a Zoom interview room at Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum, Notre Dame guard Prentiss Hubb stared into the camera in March and offered his opinion on what was coming next.

Running on fumes, the Irish had just lost a second round Atlantic Coast Conference tournament game by 42 points to North Carolina. After carrying possible NCAA tournament hopes into February, the Irish dropped five of their last seven, each in a frustrating fashion, and looked nothing like a tournament team in finishing 11-15.

Hubb was asked what would/will the Irish have to do in 2021-22 to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016-17?

Notre Dame men's basketball coach Mike Brey has seemingly reinvented himself yet again during the offseason.

“This offseason, we’ve got to work as hard as we ever did if we want to make the tournament and have respect in the league and the NCAA,” Hubb said. “We all as a whole each (need to) sit down and look at our game and how we can fit in with this team and just work. It’s the only thing we really can do.”

That’s what happens when you lose to a league colleague in a game that you once trailed by 50. That’s what happens when you go a collective 20-36 in the ACC over the last three seasons. That’s what happens when any momentum generated by consecutive Elite Eights in 2015 and 2016 has forever faded.

For Hubb and the returning/incoming Irish, it’s one week down, five to go in their all-important summer school session. There are new faces on the roster and on the coaching staff. But is there a new resolve? Is there something/anything that will indicate what’s happened over the last four college basketball seasons won't happen for a fifth?

We heard a lot last season about the compete level of this group. Now they’ve got to match it with their care level. Does success matter? Does winning? Does being anything more than average?

Those answers won’t yet surface. Let’s see what January and February and March bring. Until then, here are five other questions that require answering this season, which basically starts in summer.

1. Is there an Alpha anywhere in Rolfs Hall?

More than maybe anything, this is the one area where this team has fallen so strikingly short the last three seasons. Need someone to handle a huddle when the other team’s on a run and say that this #$%^& stops? Notre Dame hasn’t had one. Need someone to show the way when the going gets rough on the road, as it did last season when Notre Dame let a 20-point lead in the second half get away at Syracuse? The Irish haven’t had one. Need someone to bring an edge every single day on the practice floor and the weight room and the game floor? There hasn’t been that one guy this program can point to and say that he's not going to let us down or let us lose.

Notre Dame men's basketball needs a clear-cut leader. Can point guard Prentiss Hubb be that guy?

There has been no Bonzie Colson or Pat Connaughton. There has been no Ben Hansbrough or Tory Jackson. That, aside from the league losses that have piled up like a recent college graduate's credit card debt, may be the biggest reason for this program’s malaise.

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Who can be the Alpha Dog this season? That has, has, has to be identified this summer. Maybe it’s Hubb. Maybe it’s Dane Goodwin. Maybe its Stanford transfer Cormac Ryan. You could make a case for all three, but someone has to rotate into that role in June and July to make sure January and February matter.

This has been a program and a team that has simply treaded the leadership waters the last three years. A bunch of guys have been fine with being the fit-in types. Nobody’s been willing to take a lead role and run with it. Somebody now has to run for this team to do the same.

2. Will power forward Paul Atkinson channel his inner Dan Miller?

A former swingman at Maryland, Miller maxed out his only season with the Irish in 2002-03. Miller jumped into a leadership role in 2002-03 and was a key reason why Notre Dame advanced to its first Sweet 16 in 16 seasons. He had respect in the locker room and in the meeting room, then backed it up on the floor. He wasn’t the team’s leading scorer or rebounder or assist guy, but he was the leader.

A similar role awaits Atkinson, a graduate transfer from Yale who, like Miller did, steps into an immediate starting/main guy role. Atkinson was so eager to get his one Notre Dame year going that he was on campus days earlier than required this month. The Irish need his presence in the low post, but may need it more in the locker room. He’s a veteran guy, a been-there guy. His addition is so important that this was thisclose to being the No. 1 question for the offseason.

Yale power forward Paul Atkinson (20) transfers to Notre Dame for the 2021-22 season.

While Miller had the advantage of sitting out one season to figure out how everything worked, Atkinson has to do it fast. Like, right now. He’s the program’s first graduate transfer and needs to be that veteran presence from the jump.

3. Can the head coach again reinvent in season No. 22?

Back in the days of the old Big East when the league kept shuffling its conference formats and expanding, Mike Brey kept reinventing and kept winning. Back when Luke Harangody got hurt and that 2009-10 season was circling the drain, Brey reinvented with the burn offense and won.

He reinvented again when it was time to jump to the ACC, and still, he won.

Brey tried to reinvent coming clear of the consecutive Elite Eight appearances after his coaching staff turned over in 2016. He believed he could move forward with unproven, younger assistants. It didn’t work out, and the 62-year-old was the first to admit as much.

So it’s time to reinvent again, to get more experience and stronger voices on his staff. He now believes he can reinvent one more time and finish the final four seasons on his contract the way the winningest coach in program history should finish it out. Strong. Focused. Successful.

Brey knew way back before last season ever started that change was coming to his staff. Change was needed. Change was necessary. He recognized it. Change happened. It’s still happening. No clue on whether it will allow Brey to reinvent one more time for that one final run that every head coach believes is still there for them. Here. Now.

Senior Trey Wertz is part of a crowded Irish perimeter.

4. How will the perimeter rotation evolve?

Hubb’s going to start and play a lot. Goodwin’s going to start and play a lot. Either Ryan or Santa Clara transfer Trey Wertz will start. Which one does doesn’t matter. Both are going to play a lot. That’s a pretty crowded perimeter before we even get to freshmen guards J.R. Konieczny and Blake Wesley and sophomore Tony Sanders, Jr. There’s also senior Robby Carmody, on track to graduate next spring but remains a freshman athletically after having his first three seasons obliterated by injury.

Not everybody is going to get that proverbial bite of the playing-time apple. It’s just not going to happen. Too many guys, too few positions and bites to go around. Forget the rotation going deep enough that all get meaningful minutes. Somebody’s going to be left to watch and wonder about their future, especially since all four of those main guys own eligibility that extends to 2022-23 if anyone wishes to use it.

That means Konieczny and Wesley and Sanders have to show something over the summer that shows the coaching staff they’re ready and ready now. That means defending and rebounding and competing. That one or two or three might be left on the outside of the rotation looking in won’t be an indictment on them or their future.

That’s where a heightened compete level comes in. Hubb and Goodwin and Ryan and Wertz? Main guys now and moving forward, but the others can make it difficult by not letting them get comfortable in their roles, something that’s been an issue in seasons past where veteran guys played because, well, they were veteran guys.

Would be nice to see that change this season.

What makes Notre Dame power forward Nate Laszewski and his senior classmates tick on the basketball court? Will we see it this season?

5. Who are these guys?

Usually when seniors get to this point in their careers, there’s a good read of what makes them tick. What motivates them? What drives them? How good they really can be as basketball players?

Are they OK with being OK? The first three years for Hubb and Goodwin and Nate Laszewski seem to say as much. But nobody really knows. About them. About any of it.

Thanks to the combination of losing so much at such a young age early in their careers and the pandemic last season, we don’t know what their collective college basketball motivations might be compared to the guys on the 2015 and 2016 teams. Even when the Irish went 15-17 in 2014, it was evident that it would get be better sooner than later. The returning guys were built different. There were three future NBA draft picks and plenty of future pros on that roster.

Are there any on this one?

Nothing that this core has done to date offers any indication that this season will be different than the previous three. They’ve been an average ACC outfit at home (12-15) and below average on the road (8-21). They’ve never been nationally ranked. They’ve never ended a year with a winning league record. They’ve not won enough and lost a lot more.

Everything they haven’t done – succeed – they have to now do. Average can’t be acceptable this summer, and then again this season. It’s one where everything is abnormal in returning to normal. But there can’t be any more adjustment asterisks with this group. It has to do enough that this winter means something. Means that the program is back. Means that this summer was in fact, as Hubb said, one where the Irish worked harder than they’ve ever worked.

The last three years for this program have been a tough watch. One big bounce-back year can make all that disappear. How much magic can they muster?

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI