Notre Dame treks quirky basketball recruiting route

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

A prospective plan that the Notre Dame men’s basketball program hoped to follow to its 2016 recruiting class basically could have been set aside and shredded in early May.

Everything coach Mike Brey and his staff had hoped to do, everybody they had wanted to see along the summer circuit, every position they looked to fill was effectively altered mere weeks after the 2014-15 regular season ended.

Such is life in the wild and often wacky world of college basketball recruiting, where the commitment pieces either fall into place or fall apart.

Following the early-May commitment of guard Temple “T.J.” Gibbs (Scotch Plains, N.J.), the Irish recruiting road took a totally different direction. The wish list that took weeks and months to compile and refine was eventually junked as Brey added power forward John Mooney (Longwood, Fla.) and swingman Nikola Djogo (Stoney Creek, Canada). That three-man class became official Wednesday on national signing day.

“We try to make recruiting this exact science and it’s so far from it,” Brey said Wednesday, the first day he could talk about his three newcomers. “It sure ain’t an exact science.”

Neither is working off all those prep All-American lists. Or chasing the five-star guys. Even wooing four-star guys. And as for getting in on guys that are ranked in recruiting circles as difference-makers and future NBA millionaires? None of the three newest Irish are going to be McDonald’s High School All-Americans. None of them are five-star guys or one-and-done guys. Only Gibbs (No. 73, ESPN) is nationally ranked.

All that matters little to Brey, whose class doesn’t garner any national buzz or attention inside the Atlantic Coast Conference.

That’s OK. They fit what he likes. That's that.

“If you’ve got a guy, seize it, jump on it,” he said. “You sit there and twiddle your thumbs, analyze it, you lose momentum or an opportunity. I’ve tried not to overanalyze it too much.”

This class took shape in a big way with the addition of Gibbs, considered the gotta-get guy. With the chance that this season will be the last for Irish junior guard Demetrius Jackson – the NBA is expected to come calling loudly in the spring – Brey and his staff knew they needed a pure point guard. They then tapped into their old Interstate 95 recruiting corridor for someone they believe best fit their system.

In the 6-foot-3 Gibbs, Brey saw a lot of one of his favorites, former Irish point guard Tory Jackson.

“I love his toughness,” Brey said. “We really had to get a (guard). I didn’t pay attention to much else in the ’16 class in the spring. We’ve gotta get TJ Gibbs.”

Just as he did the previous two recruiting cycles with Demetrius Jackson two years ago and current freshman swingman Matt Ryan last year, Brey locked up his top recruiting target. No name sat higher on the board.

“I feel good we’ve been able to concentrate on the right guy to close on and get,” he said. “We’ve made the right decisions. We’ve been realistic in what we can get and we’ve been good about being aggressive when it was time to get a decision.”

Recruiting fell into an extended holding pattern after getting Gibbs. Maybe the Irish would look to land a big. Even two. Maybe another guard. Or a small forward. Brey then fielded a phone call in mid-August from former University of Florida coach Billy Donovan.

Mooney had committed as a high school sophomore to play for Donovan in Gainesville. When Donovan left for the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, Mooney threw open his recruiting. One of the first schools he looked at – thanks to Donovan – was Notre Dame.

But the mention of Mooney’s name by Donovan didn’t immediately ring a recruiting bell with Brey. The kid had been off the circuit so long that Brey couldn’t place the name with the prospect.

“I thought he was trying to endorse a coach for me or something,” Brey recalled.

What Donovan did do was put Brey together with the type of prospect he’s coveted for years – a power forward who has the strength and size to battle around the low block but the skills and smarts to step outside and beyond the 3-point line. Brey has long looked for someone who can play like a certain former Irish.

He might have finally found one in the 6-9 Mooney.

“There’s a lot of Rob Kurz in him,” Brey said.

If Mooney was an under-the-radar guy, Djogo was completely off the radar and in another country until Brey and assistant coach Anthony Solomon made a September trip to Athlete Institute in Mono, Ontario.

The Irish coaches had headed north to scout five-star 7-foot prospect Thon Maker, who remains an option in the spring. They needed only two hours to become thoroughly impressed with and intrigued by the 6-7 Djogo and his ability to play myriad perimeter positions.

Two days later, Djogo had an offer from Notre Dame. By mid-October following an official visit, the zero-star prospect was the final piece to the recruiting class.

“He just gives you a lot of flexibility with what he brings,” Brey said. “He guards. He’s athletic. He’s old (mature). He’s a man.”

Though the names and the player positions may have changed over the last few months, Brey’s main goal remains. He’s wanted all along to sign at least four prospects in this cycle, and still believes the Irish can add another piece.

A big piece.

Brey is prohibited under NCAA recruiting regulations from naming names, but Notre Dame remains involved with two five-star big men – Maker and 6-11 Jarett Allen of Austin, Texas – both of whom are expected to be in the NBA long before their college eligibility expires.

Allen made his official visit to Notre Dame in October. Maker is expected to visit for the North Carolina game in February.

Notre Dame currently does not have any available scholarships, something that could change come spring.

“We’re full-speed ahead on some big guys that are still out there,” Brey said. “We want to sign one more guy. Could that be early? Maybe. It could be late, too.”

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