Noie: Time for Notre Dame men's basketball team to find early-season self

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Deciphering how to get any open looks against the suffocating pack-line defense of top-ranked Virginia might have been easier over the last 48 hours (for anyone not named UMBC, wink emoji) than gaining access to Purcell Pavilion minus proper credentials.

With the NCAA women’s basketball tournament in town, anyone not sporting the mandatory NCAA-approved lanyard was not allowed anywhere inside the arena at any time. Breach security and one was seemingly subject to a fine. Arrest. Maybe jail time. This was serious stuff. No credentials; no admittance; no exceptions.

As a result, the Irish men’s basketball team never did find an open window to hold media availability for coach Mike Brey or his players heading into Saturday’s second round National Invitation Tournament game against Penn State (22-13). That one tips at noon (ESPN) at security-tight Purcell Pavilion.

Sure, Brey and a couple of his collection of captains (at last count, it was five), could have gathered in the parking lot (hang tag now required) or hopped on the phone for a few minutes to discuss any number of hoops topics. The matchup. The NIT. The sting of being left out of the NCAA (nah, they’re way beyond that). But what would have been the point?

Now resolved — or resigned — to get back to New York and win that other postseason tournament, the Irish (21-14) have only one question needing an answer. It’s one that will not do with any soundbite or query prefaced by the dreaded “Talk about ...”

It’s one that only can be answered on the floor. On their home floor. On Saturday. Against Penn State. Over two halves. Oops, make that four quarters. Thanks, NIT.

Is Saturday the day that we finally see the Maui Jim Maui Invitational version of Notre Dame?

Coming clear of the regular-season finale two weeks ago against aforementioned Virginia, Brey left the visitor’s locker room at John Paul Jones Arena a happy dude. Despite everything the Irish had dealt with this season — injuries, ineffectiveness, injuries, jumbled rotations, injuries, losing — he was confident about where his team was headed as postseason neared. Notre Dame fell five points shy of stunning the nation’s best team — the Cavaliers were the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament before losing to No. 16 UMBC late Friday.

Brey felt that for the first time since late November, back when he went shirtless in a wacky postgame locker room party at Lahaina Civic Center that his team was back flowing the way it did to win Maui and climb to as high as No. 5 in the nation.

Watch out, his attitude conveyed, Notre Dame was coming.

Quickly.

Confidently.

OK, so, when?

The Irish followed that Charlottesville effort with a rather pedestrian production against Pittsburgh in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. They played just well enough to win (by three points) but not nearly well enough to offer any confidence of a deep run through Barclays Center in the New York borough of Brooklyn. Notre Dame looked headed home the next night after tumbling into a 21-point deficit with 15 minutes remaining against Virginia Tech.

But those final 15 minutes were something special. Seeing its potentially NCAA tournament chances flash before its eyes — it would flash again for good four nights later — Notre Dame flipped that Maui switch and roared back for the win. That set up the quarterfinal contest against Duke. Playing their third game in as many days, the Irish posted Maui-like numbers, be it the 44.8 field goal percentage, the season-high 25 assists or the 44 paint points. But all those good stats were scrubbed by a dominant Duke team that was on another level.

Even earlier in the week in the NIT opener at home against No. 8 seed Hampton, there was little to really like in front of a crowd of 2,101, many of whom made mad dashes to the best spot open seating had to offer. It was a scramble for seats that hadn’t been seen since Georgia fans gobbled up most of them last fall at Notre Dame Stadium.

Sorry.

Despite some shaky shot selection and indifferent defense, Notre Dame had little trouble in a contest that was more controlled scrimmage than competitive. Speaking of the football stadium, Tuesday featured enough bricks that the administration could have added yet another swanky expansion. The teams combined for 102 MISSED shots. Many of those were degree of difficulty, what-the-heck-was-that variety.

Saturday’s game also has the potential to not be very easy on the eyes. Penn State did nothing much well (36.7 percent field goal shooting, 35 percent from 3, 66.7 percent from the foul line), and trailed for nearly 36 minutes Wednesday but somehow beat Temple by six. This could be another grind of a game, but the Irish have to find their flow.

They need to string together stops and get out in transition. Get the ball moving. Get another impressive double double for points and rebounds (how about another 24-15 showing like against UVa?) from power forward Bonzie Colson. Get another solid effort from fellow senior Martinas Geben. Get point guard Matt Farrell (4-of-15 from the floor vs. Hampton, 1-of-10 from 3) back in shot-making mode.

Get back to being the Maui Invitational Irish.

Do that and the tournament quarterfinals await Tuesday with the final home game of the year. Don’t do that, and Irish eyes will be crying Saturday night in some of that gotta-have Saint Patrick's Day green beer.

Erin Go Bragh or Erin go home.

On the most Irish of holidays, this should be Notre Dame’s day. So, whatcha got?

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Getting Matt Farrell going with his outside shot can get Notre Dame back into its Maui Invitational mode during Saturday's second-round National Invitation Tournament game against Penn State. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)

2018 NIT

Second Round

WHO: No. 1 seed Notre Dame (21-14) vs. No. 4 Penn State (22-13).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at noon.

TICKETS: Plenty available. All tickets cost $10 and are general admission (open seating).

TV: ESPN.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM/96.1 FM).

NOTING: Penn State trailed by 11 points in the third quarter and nearly 36 minutes overall at home Wednesday before a 63-57 victory over No. 5 Temple. Junior guard Josh Reaves led four Nittany Lions in double figures with 19 points. Tony Carr, the leading scorer in the Big Ten at 19.4, finished with two points on 1-of-12 from the floor. … Penn State has scored a school record 2,600 points this season. … Winners of three of its last four, Penn State’s 22 victories are third-most in program history. The Nittany Lions won 25 in 1989-90 and 27 in 2008-09. … Penn State is without redshirt sophomore Mike Watkins, who led the Big Ten in rebounding (9.9 per game) and field goal percentage (.685). Watkins suffered a right knee injury late in the regular season. … Reaves led the Big Ten in steals (2.3) while senior guard Shep Garner led the league in 3-pointers made (2.9 per game). … Penn State finished 9-9 and sixth place in the Big Ten. … Penn State leads the all-time series 3-1 with the last two games, in 2000 and 2009 in the postseason NIT semifinals. Notre Dame won in 2000, Penn State in 2009. The teams have never played in South Bend. … Saturday’s winner advances to Tuesday’s quarterfinal against the winner of Sunday’s contest between No. 3 Oregon and No. 2 Marquette.

QUOTING: “We’re just enjoying each other’s company; we’re going to play hard and try to win this thing.”

-Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell on the NIT.