Noie: What made latest Notre Dame basketball recruiting class a heck of a haul?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

What is the Notre Dame name doing on THAT college basketball rankings file? Sure it’s not a misprint?

It’s not uncommon come November to see the Irish with numbers next to their name. Heading into the season opener Saturday at DePaul, Notre Dame is ranked 14th in the Associated Press and the USA Today/Coaches polls. The Irish are projected to finish third in the all-mighty Atlantic Coast Conference. They also received four votes to outright win arguably the nation’s most competitive conference.

Standard stuff for a solid squad that includes All-American power forward Bonzie Colson. This Notre Dame team is very list-worthy.

But also on THAT one? Which one?

When the early-signing period commences Wednesday, Notre Dame will add at least four high school seniors – a fifth (forward Chris Doherty) remained a possibility as of Tuesday afternoon – that comprise one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. Point guard Prentiss Hubb (Upper Marlboro, Md.) is ranked as high as No. 59 nationally. Shooting guard Robby Carmody’s (Mars, Pa.) best ranking is 80; fellow shooting guard Dane Goodwin (Upper Arlington, Ohio) is 77. Power forward Nate Laszewski (Avon, Conn.), is as high as 51.

The class is ranked seventh in the nation by and 11th by Prior to a late commitment run from other teams, Notre Dame had been as high as No. 2 following its haul of four four-star prospects.

That will make it the highest-ranked class ever in coach Mike Brey’s 18-year tenure. Will it help deliver any more ACC tournament championships? Deeper dives in the NCAA Tournament? Time will tell.

How did it happen? Myriad reasons:

• The roster demanded it be restocked

Heading into the spring evaluation period, Brey and his staff – associate head coach Rod Balanis and second-year assistants Ryan Ayers and Ryan Humphrey – had no choice. They had to find talent. And find it fast.

The Irish had to fill at least four scholarships. Colson, Matt Farrell and Martinas Geben are entering their final seasons. Brey also had reached an agreement last winter to bring back Austin Torres for his fifth and final year. A fifth spot opened when sophomore guard Matt Ryan transferred to Vanderbilt. Carrying over two previously unfilled slots, Notre Dame had a staggering seven available scholarships.

That means Notre Dame was set to return only six players with previous college experience to start 2018-19. Nowhere near the norm for Brey, whose teams have a history of playing – and staying — old.

Notre Dame also was able to do that in this class with the addition of former Connecticut power forward Juwan Durham, who is sitting out this season under NCAA transfer regulations. He’ll have three seasons of eligibility remaining starting next fall.

Never before under Brey have the Irish added at least five new scholarship faces in one year. Now they will.

• Elite prospects can see the sustained success

Brey is in the midst of arguably his best coaching years in South Bend. Over the last three seasons, Notre Dame has averaged 27.3 overall victories, 12.3 in the ACC. The Irish have finished third, tied for fifth and tied for second and also have played for a conference tournament championship twice. They’ve beaten every league team at least once. They’ve gone to each of the last three NCAA Tournaments with two trips to the Elite Eight.

Nobody saw any of this coming as the program transitioned from the Big East to the ACC. After going 15-17 in his first season in the new league, Brey was thought to be over his head in the ACC. But the head coach has made it work, partly because he’s finally comfortable with who he is, and what his program is. There’s an identity, a culture of winning that has tangible traits. Before, it was something players could only talk about and dream about. Still, nobody knew about actually playing for conference tournament championships or advancing to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Now they have ACC championships rings and a banner and NCAA bids. They want more. The drive and determination of the seniors trickles down to the underclassmen, then spills into recruiting weekends. They’ve got something special going on to sell — be a part of it and take it to an even higher level.

Guys want to.

• The Ryans can recruit

Adding two former Irish who played for him to his staff – Ayers and Humphrey – breathed new recruiting life into Brey, who became a bit stale in previous Julys. Both in their 30s, Ayers and Humphrey now keep Brey moving along the AAU circuit. They want to see so many games, scout so many prospects. It’s the nature of their job – they’re young, they’re fresh, they have energy and they want to do the job and do it well.

It didn’t happen for them the first time around in the summer of 2016, but part of that was by design. Former assistants Martin Ingelsby (no surprise) and Anthony Solomon (surprise) left for other coaching jobs after the spring evaluation period, so it was going to take time for Ayers and Humphrey to find their recruiting sea legs. As a result, Notre Dame signed only one prospect – current freshman D.J. Harvey – who was recruited by Brey and Balanis.

Ayers and Humphrey used that first summer to figure out how everything worked, then hit the recruiting road last fall and winter and spring. They had their contacts. They had the names of prospects. They had the energy.

They also have the stories. They know what it’s like to be a student-athlete at Notre Dame. They understand the value of a Notre Dame degree, and what it’s like to play professionally. They speak, prospects listen. Their words and work carry more weight.

They’ve helped raise the recruiting bar.

 • They can point to pro ball

Though playing in the NBA is not most on the minds of prospects who have Notre Dame on their short lists – they also want to do it differently and get a first-class education – professional basketball remains an option that almost all want to chase.

They can come to Notre Dame and do that.

Notre Dame has had three players – Pat Connaughton, Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson – selected over the last three NBA drafts. All returned to campus for the Georgia football weekend and were able to interact with the four commitments. That matters. Tomorrow’s Irish standouts can talk with those of yesterday. They’ll learn that two of the three (Connaughton, Grant) were not highly-recruited with can’t-miss NBA potential. Both worked at it to make the NBA an option. So have fringe NBA guys like Zach Auguste, V.J. Beachem and Jack Cooley.

There was a time not too long ago – 2013-14 – when there were no former Irish in the NBA over an entire season. Prior to that, it hadn’t happened since 1969-70.

Come to Notre Dame, grow your game, and you’ll at least get a look in the Association.

• One-and-dones don’t matter

Brey’s long said it and may do so again Wednesday — if the right situation presents itself and all the recruiting stars align, he’ll invest in a one-and-done prospect. But he and his staff aren’t spending a lot of time on the same AAU game wooden bleachers alongside the staffs from Duke and Kansas and Kentucky and North Carolina.

That goes back to embracing who the Irish are and what the Notre Dame program represents. Why waste valuable time shadowing a five-star, one-and-done guy when there are four-stars like Hubb and Carmody and Goodwin and Laszewski?

Brey and his staff recruit to fit. And for the most part, those pieces have.

Wish-lists do

Say this about the Irish coaching staff – they often get their guy. Their main guy.

Five years ago, it was Jackson. Then Ryan. Two years ago, it was sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs, now a starter and potential breakout star. Last year, it was Harvey. All were atop the Irish recruiting wish lists in the spring. By fall, all were Irish.

This year, Hubb was the gotta-get guy. They got him, and it helped the rest of the class fall into place. Carmody was near the top of the Irish wish list the last two recruiting cycles. He committed before July. Laszewski’s game blew up over the summer and a who’s-who of schools showed interest. But there was one still there that had been there from the start – the school he’ll sign with.

Notre Dame’s done a solid job of identifying prospects who best fit its blueprint, then getting them.

One long-overdue dream is reality

It’s not the main reason or even the second or third, but the program’s eventual stand-alone practice facility set to open next summer has become a key recruiting tool. Showing players the plans for it is part of the pitch. Hubb bought in big-time, and mentioned as much shortly after he committed in May.

Finally transforming what was Rolfs Sports Recreation Center to a basketball-only practice facility is important to prospects. It shows them that the school they’re interested in is serious about the game, about allowing players to work on their craft no matter the hour or date on the calendar.

The Irish have been challenged over too many summers to consistently find a place to play. On their own campus. Often, the Purcell Pavilion main floor is disassembled and sent away to be refinished, making the arena unavailable. Sometimes The Pit is open, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, players have to wait for events like America Youth on Parade to roll through before they can get an open court. Please.

Prospects sometimes weren’t encouraged to make official visits in the summer. There was too much else besides basketball going on. This summer, Carmody and Goodwin made official visits. With that basketball-only building, the program can be showcased 12 months a year. And no longer will Brey have to worry about dodging baton twirlers on his way to a summer practice.

Basketball matters at Notre Dame. The Irish have a program to prove it. They’ll soon have their basketball-only building, and a really good recruiting class.

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey has collected arguably the best recruiting class in his 18-year tenure. The class will sign during the early period, which commences Wednesday. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)