Going old nothing new for Notre Dame men's basketball team

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Pairing shorts with dress socks pulled up around the knees, dinners that are more like really late lunches and bedtimes that beat the sunset can be pretty popular around these parts.

Now entrenched in a journey through the final full month of the regular season, even the Notre Dame men’s basketball program has decided to go old.

Not retire-to-Florida old, but old enough to hopefully survive a brutal stretch of Atlantic Coast Conference contests. Five of Notre Dame’s seven games this month are on the road. It begins Wednesday at No. 17 Miami (Fla.).

The Irish now sport an all-upperclassmen starting lineup.

“I’m a big believer in being old,” coach Mike Brey said. “Young coaches ask me sometimes advice on the road, I say get old and stay old. We’ve been able to stay into that rhythm pretty good.

“That’s our label. It really is.”

Brey aged his team a little more this week when senior captain A.J. Burgett, an end-of-the-bench regular much of the last two-plus seasons, started in a 23-point victory Sunday over Wake Forest. The idea that Notre Dame (15-6; 6-3 ACC) needed to get older first dawned on Brey last month.

Working through a January slate of games against Pittsburgh (loss), Georgia Tech (close win) and Virginia Tech (even closer win), Brey was struck by a theme familiar with each opponent. Each was better than the previous year because they were older.

They weren’t alone.

“You look around the country, a lot of the teams that have been really successful (Iowa, Xavier, etc.) they’re not necessarily filled with freshmen, but guys that have been around,” said junior captain Steve Vasturia. “That’s big. You’re trying to win close games and games on the road, you’re going to need people who’ve not only been there but won in those situations.”

Notre Dame went to Syracuse last week and returned with an 81-66 loss, mainly because of guards Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije. Both are in their fifth years and, Brey joked, somewhere around 27 years old. It was on that flight home from Central New York that Brey decided the Irish needed get older. Now.

He looked longer and harder at getting Burgett more into the rotation. Burgett hadn’t played much, but nobody’s voice on the team is more respected. That experience cannot be dismissed. Not at this point in a season that still could go any number of directions for the Irish.

“I know how old this league is,” Brey said. “I want an old guy on the floor right now.”

Sunday was the first time since 2011 that four Irish captains started. They’ll do it again Wednesday against the Hurricanes (16-4; 5-3), a team that has won a lot this season behind two veteran/transfer guards in Sheldon McClellan (Texas) and Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State). It will mark the first time since early in the 2013-14 season that five upperclassmen have started consecutive games for Notre Dame.

The difference is noticeable.

“We have better communication when all five veteran voices are out there talking,” junior starter V.J. Beachem said. “It really helps us out defensively and offensively, we had a better flow at the beginning of the game than we do some other nights.”

Being old is nothing new for Notre Dame. Old often worked for the Irish during their latter days in the Big East. Old was a big reason why they won at least 10 conference games each of their last four seasons.

A magical 2010-11 season of 27-7 and 14-4 was fueled by an all-senior starting group of Tim Abromaitis, Ben Hansbrough, Scott Martin, Ty Nash and Carleton Scott. Abromaitis, Nash and Scott barely played early in their careers, then rarely left the floor as the old guys. All except Martin were team captains that year.

“It was clutch having five seniors,” Nash said in a Facebook message to the Tribune from Germany, where he plays professionally. “I felt we always had the advantage of being more mature, thus enabling us to handle tough situations and hostile conditions.”

Being older allowed those Irish to play old and play as one.

“That definitely makes the game easier to play,” Nash said. “Together. That was our motto. No matter what happened, we wanted to do it together.”

For myriad reasons, it has been mainly young guys on the floor for Notre Dame through its first two ACC seasons. Even during last year’s run to a league tournament title and Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA tournament, the Irish needed big efforts from then-sophomores Demetrius Jackson and Vasturia and power forward Bonzie Colson, then a freshman.

Two years ago. Beachem, and Jackson and Vasturia were forced to work through their rookie growing pains as core contributors. They took their lumps in a 15-17 season, a season Vasturia admitted the Irish really could have used more veterans around to help them. But there were no other options.

It all seemed so complicated.

“It’s a much simpler game for us now,” Beachem said. “I don’t know how to describe it. The game’s a lot slower than it was.”

Burgett’s emergence allows the Irish options off the bench. Freshman Matt Ryan, a one-time starter, can shoot it, can rebound and can defend. Sophomore guard Matt Farrell can handle and make a shot. Colson, a one-time starter, just competes. All three have helped the Irish win games this season, and likely will do so again.

A bench that was panned earlier in the year for not being developed might be developed.

“We just have many options,” Burgett said. “It’s just day-by-day, see how we feel and see how the matchups are. It keeps teams on their feet.”

Who’s next? Martinas Geben? Austin Torres? Who knows? The Irish plan to play old, but still will need more from the young guys and likely need a combination of each to navigate what’s coming. Quickly.

“The next nine games are going to be difficult,” Burgett said. “We’ll just take it a game at a time and see how it goes.”

Spoken like an old guy.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

WHO: Notre Dame (15-6 overall; 6-3 ACC) vs. No. 17 Miami (Fla.) (16-4; 5-3).

WHERE: BankUnited Center (8,000), Miami.

WHEN: Wednesday at 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

WORTH NOTING: Sheldon McClellan scored 18 points and Angel Rodriguez added 15 points and six assists in Miami’s 85-69 loss Saturday at North Carolina State. The Hurricanes shot a season-high 93.8 percent (15-of-16) from the free throw line. The loss snapped a three-game ACC win streak. … The Hurricanes also have league losses to Clemson and Virginia. … Miami has been ranked as high as No. 8. … The Hurricanes are 10-1 at home with a loss to Northeastern. … Miami is 4-0 at home in ACC play. … Four starters return off last year’s team that finished 25-13, 10-8 and tied for sixth in the ACC. After not earning an NCAA tournament bid, Miami advanced to the postseason National Invitation Tournament championship game before losing in overtime to Stanford. … The Hurricanes were picked this preseason to finish fifth in the ACC, one spot behind Notre Dame. … Miami averages 78.8 points per game and allows 65.9. … Notre Dame has scored at least 76 points in four of its last five games. … Nine Hurricanes average at least 10 minutes per game; four average double figures in points led by McClellan (16.4). … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 10-8, including 4-4 in Miami. The Irish have won four of the last five meetings, including last year’s ACC tournament quarterfinal, 70-63. … Notre Dame last won in Miami on Feb. 23, 2002 when the Hurricanes were ranked No. 13. … Notre Dame is 2-1 against Miami as ACC colleagues, 0-1 in South Florida. … Irish power forward Zach Auguste has had at least 10 rebounds in each of the last five games. … The Irish have fielded a different starting lineup in each of the last three games. … Miami is one of four repeat league opponents for Notre Dame. The teams meet March 2 in South Bend. … The Irish have won their last two league games (against Boston College and Wake Forest) by an average of 25 points. … Notre Dame wraps a three-game-in-seven-day run Saturday at home against No. 2 North Carolina. It will include a visit from ESPN’s College Gameday. The game is already a sellout.

WORTH QUOTING: “We’re under par on the first nine holes at 6-3. The back nine of this ACC course is much harder. We’re well aware of that and this is one heck of a test. February and early March is quite a challenge.”

-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey after his team went 6-3 halfway through its league schedule.