Lesar: Notre Dame men's basketball still in search of a closer

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS – Trust is something that can be difficult to cultivate during the course of a basketball season.

It’s usually developed through the hard work and grinding that goes into the offseason; far from the bright lights.

That being the case, Notre Dame has a serious trust issue. It was evident in last week’s setback to No. 1 Villanova. And, was manifested again Saturday in the 86-81 Iceroads Classic loss to No. 15 Purdue.

Early double-digit leads. Plays well on TV. Drive for show, putt for dough.

In both outings, with the game on the line, the Irish were missing someone they truly trust to pick up a lagging team, inject a shot of energy, and supply the spark to pull out a victory against a quality team.

In baseball vernacular, the Irish need a closer; someone to come in with it all on the line and get the job done.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey called it an inability to do the tough stuff in the paint.

Irish guard Matt Farrell called it a lack of trust.

“Having trust in each other (is the way to scale the mountain of insufficient energy),” said Farrell. “Sticking to our game plan. When we’ve got open shots, we’ve got to be ready to take it.”

Matt Ryan was ready to take it. And, he whiffed. 

With 23 seconds to play and Purdue up by three, Ryan had an opportunity to step up and be the guy who turns the momentum in Notre Dame’s favor. With ball movement and rotation finding him in a perfect position – feet square, just to the right of the arc – the 6-foot-7, 228-pound sophomore, who is at home with the 3-point shot, launched an air ball at the time he was needed most.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who can play, and a lot of guys who can score,” said Farrell. “It’s just having trust in one another.”

Nobody besides Farrell (22 points, 10 assists) and Bonzie Colson (23 points, 10 rebounds) was worthy of any measure of trust against the Boilermakers.

V.J. Beachem had 10 points at halftime. He finished with 10. Steve Vasturia had three at halftime. He finished with three. Martin Geben scored nine in the first half. He finished with nine.

Three leaders. Three significant components of the Irish offense. All blanked in the second half.

“I’m not so concerned about that,” Brey said of the lack of production. “Martin Geben battled. I’m not worried about him as much.

“With V.J., (Purdue) really took him away, and we don’t want him to force (anything). It’s kind of, for him, the way we play. We’re not running stuff for him all the time. Over the course of the game, he usually gets pretty good looks. I’m glad he didn’t force anything.

“Steve was trying so hard. (I) feel for him.”

With the ACC portion of the Irish schedule set to start on the last day of 2016 at Pitt, the situation could get worse before it gets better.

In the past, there was always Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton or Demetrius Jackson around to demand the ball and will the Irish to a victory. The role players trusted that those guys were going to get the job done.

There’s no such trust with this team; a good team loaded with complementary players. Notre Dame will be able to win some games with its current situation; probably enough to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the ACC.

The difference between good and great is that one guy. When it comes to the elite teams, Brey admitted the Irish aren’t in that league yet.

“For us to beat really good teams …, our big four (Beachem, Farrell, Vasturia and Colson) have to play really well,” said Brey. “We didn’t have that.”

They also lacked trust. Hard to come by in a hurry.

Notre Dame’s Matt Farrell (5) drives tot he basket as Purdue’s Ryan Cline (14) guards him during the Notre Dame at Purdue men’s basketball game in the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016. Purdue won 86-81. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA