Analysis: Next season already here for Notre Dame men's basketball

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Tomorrow is today, which may look a whole lot like yesterday in a way for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

Following the previous two NCAA Tournaments when Notre Dame was the only team to advance to consecutive Elite Eights (better squeeze everything out of that nugget with the shelf life set to end), there often was a gap between the time one season ended and preparation for the next commenced.

Having maxed out March, Irish coaches, players, heck even the media, needed time away from one another to decompress.

That doesn’t happen after what happened Saturday to Notre Dame (26-10), which failed to get to the Sweet 16 for the first time in three seasons following an 83-71 loss to West Virginia in a West Regional second-round game in Buffalo, N.Y.

After one day (Sunday) to let it all settle, 2017-18 unofficially started Monday with the first team meeting in four seasons that didn’t include soon-to-be graduated seniors V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia. There will be some new faces in new places next season, one coach Mike Brey and his returning guys started talking about and thinking about not long after the current run concluded.

In the locker room, sophomore guard Rex Pflueger already was running through a mental checklist of how he can be better as an upperclassman.

“It’s everything, redefining my body, getting it where I want it to be, getting ready to play those major minutes and then getting better in all aspects of the game, mentally and physically,” Pflueger said. “We’re going to come into this summer hungry and just get better as a team.”

Out in a KeyBank Center hallway, coach Mike Brey talked of his vision for next year’s team, one he saw in a cameo this year. Just as he often has two speeches ready for his team after every elimination game – one for if the Irish win, the other for if they lose – his mind wanders in two directions during off hours every March.

“Even though you’re playing, you’re thinking about next year,” Brey said.

Who will start? Who is in the rotation? How will the Irish play similar to this season? How might they be different?

Brey rewound to the Atlantic Coast Conference opener at Pittsburgh on New Year’s Eve. Specifically, to a point nearly midway through the second half of a game that Notre Dame won by one in overtime following a Vasturia wing 3.

With 13:15 remaining and the Irish down five, Brey made two substitutions – out came Beachem and Vasturia. In came guard Matt Farrell and small forward Matt Ryan. They joined a trio on the floor of junior power forward Martinas Geben, freshman guard T.J. Gibbs and Pflueger.

Three minutes later, the team’s third captain, Bonzie Colson, subbed for Ryan. That group, Brey would recall, looked a whole lot like ’17-’18.

“Maybe the most important game of the year was the Pittsburgh game,” Brey said. “Next year’s starting lineup gave us an eight- or nine-point lead and we were able to ride that out.

“That really sticks in my mind.”

Brey expects to return a core of seven – Colson, Geben, Gibbs, Farrell, Pflueger, Ryan and senior Austin Torres, who will return for his fifth year.

“They’ve all had a taste of big games,” Brey said. “They’ve all been a part of some good stuff.”

A pair of power forwards — sophomore Elijah Burns and freshman John Mooney — played minimal roles this season, but that could change.

“I really feel good about Johnny and Elijah,” Brey said. “They’re coming and we’ve got to find ways to get going.”

Freshman guard Nikola Djogo will push for perimeter time after sitting out this season. So will incoming freshman D.J. Harvey, a four-star prospect and consensus Top 50 talent. He may not be in the starting lineup to open the season, but well could be at the close. Harvey, who hails from famed DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School, is perhaps as talented a recruit to come to campus since Demetrius Jackson.

Whether Colson stays for his senior season remains to be determined. Last month in an interview with the Tribune and again Saturday, Colson hit all the important talking points in regard to his future. Colson insists he hasn’t thought about leaving early (unlikely) and that he came to Notre Dame to be a four-year guy (possible).

At the least, Colson is expected to declare for the June draft to explore the process and see how his game measures against top-tier talent.

Plans have a tendency to change – and quickly – when the lure of NBA millions become a factor. Last season, Brey outlined Jackson’s expected future plan following the loss to North Carolina in the East Regional final. Brey figured that Jackson would declare, not sign with an agent, weigh his options and then decide.

Forty-eight hours later, he was no longer enrolled in school and in the draft with both feet.

Colson and Farrell would give Notre Dame two of the top returning players in the ACC once the draft exodus shakes out. But that’s a bridge that just can’t be crossed right now – not until Colson decides if he’s all in or all out.

The talk with Brey and Colson and his family also is expected this week.

“I think he knows he should be a four-year guy,” Brey said. “If one (NBA) team loves you, and it’s the 18th pick of the draft, I’ll be the first to shake his hand.”

With or without Colson, there will be no shortage of motivation given how everything ended early Saturday afternoon in Western New York. During his post-game press conference, Brey used the words “men,” “veteran” and “stud” a combined five times to describe West Virginia.

“They were a little older than us,” Brey said.

He wasn’t just praising the other team as he was sending a message to his returning guys. His guys played young. Timid. Soft. It’s time to toughen up a little when tough is required. Saturday’s memory won’t fade as spring becomes summer which becomes fall.

“We have to use it as motivation,” Farrell said. “Whatever we do in our workouts, we’ve got to keep this in the back of our minds and get better.”

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