Noie: Notre Dame basketball does it differently than other schools when playing by NCAA rules

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Aside from three weeks in March and the time right around the New Year after snoozer non-league laughers transition into conference contests, this is supposed to be one of the good times for college basketball.

The start of another season – official practice commenced Friday – offers the 351 teams in Division I a new hope. A fresh outlook. A chance to start working in fall toward that one selection of a Sunday in spring.

Instead, a cloud hovers over the sport. A dark and stormy one. It’s not going to clear anytime soon. It sits over every conference from the Atlantic Coast to the Western Athletic following last week’s bombshell news that involved college head coaches, assistants, nationally-known programs, shoe companies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

That’s never a good combination.

Certainly, it wasn’t last week, which already saw one Hall of Fame coach, Louisville’s Rick Pitino, placed on unpaid leave while the school begins the termination process. What school, what head coach, what program, what star recruit is next to go through the FBI wringer and have their dirty basketball laundry aired for all?

Stay tuned. This won’t end anytime soon.

“It’s disappointing,” Irish coach Mike Brey said Monday, the day his team held its first official practice for 2017-18. “I don’t know if we can get any lower than the situation we’re in now. We’ve had this (shoe company) underworld as part of the fabric for a long, long time.

“Now that it’s a criminal investigation, this is whole new territory.”

Territory that, right or wrong, drops every Division I school together in one big bowl of dirt. If assistant coaches from Auburn and Louisville and Oklahoma State and USC are blatantly breaking NCAA rules, then certainly there are dozens more – maybe hundreds – of schools that are sweating as they see where this leads.

One place it likely won’t lead is to South Bend. To a Notre Dame program that has long done it the right way during Brey’s tenure, now 18 years and counting.

“We’ve had a template here for how we run things,” Brey said. “I feel very, very good about it. There’s a lot of moving pieces in recruiting and everything (and) I think I know just about everything that goes on.

“But there may be things I don’t know.”

At any program, and Notre Dame is no exception, it starts at the top. The Irish may be without peer when it comes to identifying prospects – and it’s a really small talent pool from which to choose – who can be good fits academically and athletically. Brey and his coaching staff do it by the book. Sometimes right down to chapter and verse. Rarely will Notre Dame take a chance on a kid that might be at right in either area.

The current players notice how it’s done here as opposed to there. And there.

“We don’t do what some of the other schools are doing,” said sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs. “That comes from our coaching staff and trickles down from there.

“We know that they’re not doing anything shady, which leads to us not doing anything shady. No matter what, we have each other’s backs.”

Gibbs may only be halfway through his collegiate career, but he’s been around the basketball block long enough to understand how the college world works. There are cheaters. Liars. There is money, a lot of it, changing hands. Some schools play by a different set of rules (their own) that others abide by.

Once he learned that the FBI was involved in college hoops last week, Gibbs had one reaction.

“Wow!”

He also didn’t spend much time dwelling on the outside noise.

“We’ve talked about it as a team (but) we haven’t had that trouble here,” Gibbs said. “That’s what we focus on — our culture and how we keep it together here instead of what’s going on out there.”

Finding a fit

When two and two in one federal indictment were put together last week, and “University-6” became Louisville and “Player-10” was prized freshman guard Brian Bowen, whose family was in line to be paid $100,000 by Adidas to choose that school virtually out of nowhere in June, Brey started doing some figuring.

He wrote down the names of all the kids that he’s recruited in his time at Notre Dame. From a little-known guard out of Columbus, Ohio who was his first recruit (Chris Quinn) to his latest (Nate Laszewski). Brey also wrote down their AAU programs and those programs’ sneaker affiliations.

Some players from those early years were so lightly-recruited as two-, and three-star guys that they had no shoe company affiliation. At all. They were like free agents. Others, like current senior captain Matt Farrell and former guards Pat Connaughton and Steve Vasturia played on the lower-level AAU circuit. They weren’t “A” list recruits.

That helped give Brey a clearer picture – and likely a conscience – of how his rosters have been constructed.

“I’m pretty darn confident how we do business, but you never know completely,” Brey said. “I think I pride myself in really being plugged in to everything that goes on.”

Notre Dame does it differently in many ways than a lot of the schools in its own league. The Irish aren’t going to shoehorn a player into their program just because he can run a team well or hit a shot or grab a rebound. He has to match every aspect of Brey's program. On the court. In the locker room. Within the culture. They have to want to go to go to class. Have to want to work on their games. Have to want to be in South Bend for more than a nine-month stopover on the way to the NBA.

Handouts and one-and-dones?

Not likely.

Not here.

Before he became a McDonald’s All-American and one of the nation’s gotta-get recruits in the last recruiting cycle, Bowen took an unofficial visit last fall to Notre Dame. He spent the day of that night’s football game against Michigan State with the current players. He wandered the pre-game tailgate lots. In the end, Notre Dame wasn’t for him, even though he played his senior season 30 minutes down the road at LaLumiere.

Many wondered why Notre Dame didn’t make the final cut for Bowen. Now we know.

“Guys have to come here for the right reasons,” said junior guard Rex Pflueger. “They have to fit in how we do things. On and off the court.”

Pflueger had a tough time Monday finding the right word to describe what it’s like as a current player to hear of last week’s college basketball sins.

Surprised? Not really.

Disappointed? Not quite.

“That stuff happens,” Pflueger admitted.

Moving forward, Brey would prefer to answer questions only about issues on the basketball court. How are Farrell and fellow captain Bonzie Colson going to lead this team? Can fifth-year senior Austin Torres shake a stress fracture in his left leg that has him sidelined for at least six weeks and be ready by December? How are Pflueger and Gibbs going to embrace their starter spots? What’s the ceiling for a squad that privately has talked about getting to the Final Four for the first time since 1978? About playing for a national championship. About even winning one?

All those answers will evolve over the next six months, yet the off-court questions that linger today likely still will be there tomorrow. And for the weeks and months to come. Maybe longer.

That might not be good news now. Later? Perhaps.

“There’s going to be a lot more going on than games,” Brey said. “Maybe in that window, and it’s going to take some time, we can kind of fix some things.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs is confident in the way that head coach Mike Brey runs his program that the FBI won't be visiting anytime soon in the ongoing investigation into college basketball wrong-doing by coaches, assistants and shoe companies. (Tribune File Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)