Notes: Notre Dame sophomore PF John Mooney ready to expand role

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

For Notre Dame sophomore power forward John Mooney, Saturday’s game against defending national champion North Carolina may offer a second chance to make a first impression.

In Mooney’s case, that would mean his first career start. Against Carolina. Maybe. Again.

It was around this time last season that the 6-foot-9, 248-pound Mooney was close to cracking the rotation. A consistent stretch of practice cornered the confidence of coach Mike Brey. Mooney was so on his mind that Brey was leaning toward rewarding him with his first career start in early February at North Carolina.

Not wanting to have the new guy debut against an established front line that featured former McDonald’s All-Americans Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, Brey reconsidered. He went with veteran Austin Torres. Mooney remained on the rotation fringe the rest of the year.

Based on his work of late, Mooney might start Saturday. He’s coming off career highs for points (11), rebounds (eight) and minutes (25) in Wednesday’s seven-point loss at Georgia Tech.

“Good game; I got out early and had some easy buckets,” he said. “It’s a matter of being confident and letting the game come to me more. Once you play a few games and get that under your belt, the confidence just gets higher.”

Notre Dame has searched for a starting combination to click since All-American power forward Bonzie Colson suffered a broken left foot. In three games without Colson, the Irish have trotted out three different starting lineups.

The Irish also have labored to score in the last two first halves. Torres and Elijah Burns have offered a defensive and rebounding presence as starters, but not much offensively. Mooney does.

“As points are tough to get, he can score for us,” Brey said. “He certainly can rebound.”

Mooney admits that he still has to shoot a better percentage (49 percent from field, 36.4 from 3) and his post defense still needs work. But the more he’s played, the more confident he’s become with his place in the program. As a freshman, he wasn’t always sure how he fit. Now he knows he does.

Mooney is averaging 4.0 points and 3.2 rebounds in 12.1 minutes. Those numbers have jumped to 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in 16.8 minutes in the first four ACC games.

“I can help this team out,” he said. “I have a role and I have to maximize it in as many ways as I can.”

Good Geben

Knowing that two of his fellow seniors are sidelined by injury, Irish power forward Martinas Geben accepted more responsibility to do, well, more of everything.

He’s delivered. Geben is averaging career highs for points (9.0), rebounds (7.4) and minutes (22.5). He’s been so solid in ACC play (10.5 ppg., 10.3 rpg., 26.3 mpg.) that he’s part of select company.

Geben is one of four ACC players averaging double doubles for points and rebounds in league play. The others are Duke’s Marvin Bagley III (23.5 ppg., 14.5 rpg.), Donte Grantham of Clemson (14.5, 10.8) and North Carolina’s Luke Maye (17.3, 11.8).

“We lost scoring and rebounding,” Geben said of not having Colson and fellow senior Matt Farrell available of late. “We all need to collectively step into those roles and produce.”

Geben scored a career high 16 points with a team-high nine rebounds at Georgia Tech. As the Irish labored to put the ball in the basket, the offense ran through No. 23. That’s never before happened, but likely will again.

“I think he’s played as good as any big guy in the league,” Brey said. “I’m so proud of him stepping forward and doing what he’s doing.”

Brey believes that for as much as Geben has given, he can offer more. A few more shots attempts. A few more points. Instead of kicking out the initial post feed, just go and attack the basket. Geben’s shooting 62.8 percent from the field, second on the squad, and a team-best 85.4 percent from the foul line.

“I’m not shying away from the opportunity,” he said. “It’s a confidence booster. It shows that Coach Brey trusts me in crucial games, critical situations to produce for the team.”

Résumé roulette

Every league game is critical for Notre Dame (13-4; 3-1 ACC) as it builds an NCAA tournament-worthy résumé, but each of the next three and four of five carry a little more weight.

Its next three opponents — North Carolina, Louisville and Clemson — are all ranked among the top 25 in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) according to ncaa.com. Carolina is at No. 9. Louisville is No. 22 and Clemson, still undefeated in league play, is at No. 5. Following the Jan. 27 game against Virginia Tech (No. 77), Notre Dame travels to Duke, currently ranked No. 1 in the RPI.

“You say the bad news is you’re in the ACC ‘cause it’s so competitive (but) the good news is you’re in the ACC ‘cause you have shots at résumé wins,” Brey said. “You don’t have to get them all. Just get the right number of them and you can be in there.”

Notre Dame’s current RPI is 44. That number will go down - in the right direction - with the upcoming run of power RPI games. Last year, Notre Dame closed with an RPI of 29.

“I like our math right now,” Brey said.