Noie: Long way for No. 5 Notre Dame to go after being hammered in hoops by No. 3 Michigan State

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

EAST LANSING, Mich. — This one would hurt. In the locker room right after the 40 minutes had ended. On the ride home. In Friday’s film session. Tomorrow. Next week. Next month.

Anytime No. 5 Notre Dame might start to feel good about where it’s going the rest of the college basketball way, start to feel like it has it all figured out, the Irish will remember a long Thursday night in Central Michigan and remind themselves there’s still a long way to go.

For this season. For this team.

No Irish was happy how everything unfolded on one of the biggest stages in a young college basketball season. But somewhere along the way, maybe next month when Atlantic Coast Conference play gets going full-throttle, in February along a treacherous Tobacco Road or even deeper into March, it all should help Notre Dame (6-1).

Help to remember how Michigan State coasted to a 22-point lead; how mere minutes into Thursday’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge the Irish game plan had been so thoroughly shredded in every phase, in every way; how the Spartans dominated the backboard for a (+21) rebounding advantage; how a home team feeling really good and confident and playing with some serious swagger in its own gym shrugged off another second-half Notre Dame run that made it a seven-point game, then ballooned it back to 20 before an 81-63 victory at Breslin Center.

Michigan State didn’t drop a hoops hammer on Notre Dame. The Irish were hit with the whole toolbox.

Notre Dame boarded its charter bus for the ride back to campus on a late Thursday night in November. The traveling party arrived on an early Friday morning in December. If the players didn’t have their faces buried in their phones, or were fast asleep long before the bus approached the Indiana-Michigan border, they might see something out the window.

Out beyond all the stars and the moon in a clear sky. There. Right there. A ways off in the distance. There it was.

March.

Notre Dame teams like to dream big dreams every season. This year’s no exception. The Irish dream to go further than they did in 2015 when they got within one basket of their first Final Four. Dream to go further than 2016 when their magic-carpet ride again ended one win shy. Further than last year when they were sent home from snowy Buffalo, N.Y., on the tournament’s first weekend.

Going further means playing the way Michigan State played Thursday. The type of team, the type of effort that Notre Dame saw is one often seen in March. When teams are firing on every cylinder so confidently, so convincingly. Right from the start. No easing into high-energy games against high-caliber competition and tumbling into big deficits. Last two times out in the first half against two teams with Final Four dreams, Notre Dame trailed by 16 to Wichita State and by 20 to Michigan State. Oh, the Irish made it interesting each time. They won one. But the Spartans offered no similar hope. Even when the Irish got it within seven, the other team hit another gear.

Notre Dame couldn’t keep up. It will take solace in its second-half success. But in the beginning, it was a whole lot of ugly for the Irish. Everywhere. From everyone. Captains. Seniors. Main guys. Young guys.

The takeaway — Notre Dame might be good right now, but nowhere good enough for March. Not yet.

“We’ve got to keep our heads up going forward right now,” said junior guard Rex Pflueger, who scored a career-high 15 points. “That’s what we did in the second half. It was really good.”

Notre Dame’s got plenty of power games remaining for its March resume. Against conference teams. Good teams. But maybe none better than what it saw Thursday. Michigan State’s really good. Special good. Still there when it’s all over in San Antonio good.

That was the prevailing sentiment late Thursday back at Breslin. It wasn’t about what the Irish didn’t do as much as it was about what the Spartans did. Like, everything. It might be hard to find a team better right now. Anywhere.

Michigan State’s got it.

“I respect them; they have a lot of pieces,” said Irish senior power forward Bonzie Colson. “It was a great reality check for us. It's great for us to get those reality checks out early. We’ve got a lot of growth to do.”

From everyone. The Irish core of Colson and Matt Farrell and T.J. Gibbs and Pflueger were rendered ineffective early for various reasons. Can’t happen. The bigs on the bench, because this one got away so quickly, were non-factors. Can’t happen. So was D.J. Harvey, who played like a freshman in an environment that was too much too soon. Can’t happen. Not for the Irish to get to where they believe they can go.

Maybe down the line, all will be better. But not now. Not yet.

“We’re not a finished product,” Colson said. “We’re moving on.”

Thursday’s loss showed that Notre Dame is bunched together like so many other teams not named Duke and Michigan State as December dawns. Everyone’s still trying to figure it out. Irish coach Mike Brey knows it. The players know it.

How good is Notre Dame? Maybe not the fifth-best team in the country. Maybe not the eighth. Or the 10th or 15th or even 20th. These are smart guys. A veteran group that has won a lot together. They’ll figure out how to be better on the backboard. Better in transition. Better in starting games without staring at another double-digit deficit. Better in dictating their tempo.

Better.

“It’s hard for us to keep digging out of holes if we want to be special,” Colson said.

They can, and not because they hit all the right talking points before heading for home. Ask someone who’s not as invested in the daily doings around Notre Dame, someone who knows a whole lot about being special. About Final Fours. About winning a national championship.

“Don’t underestimate how good Notre Dame is,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. “We beat a damn good team.”

How good of a group does Brey have, Izzo was asked.

“His team, I think, will be playing a long time come March and April,” Izzo said.

That opinion might be the biggest takeaway of this trip.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI