Noie: Weirdness dominates wins during Notre Dame men's basketball season

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Season No. 112 in school history ended Saturday for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, and here’s to another century before a year as strange as this one again surfaces.

Weird best describes the last six months. Nobody would have bought this script in September. Couldn’t be believed. Wouldn’t. Consider:

• Notre Dame won its first game against a Top 25 team, then didn’t beat another.

• After losing a combined six home games the previous three seasons, the Irish lost six this season.

• The Irish won a game after making two free throws in the closing seconds of regulation (Wichita State) and lost another in overtime because it couldn’t make one free throw in the closing seconds of regulation (Indiana).

• Mike Brey became the winningest and losingest coach in program history. He won his 400th game at Notre Dame, then his 500th overall and his 50th in Atlantic Coast Conference play. He also lost his 200th.

• Brey lost his shirt on purpose after one game (Wichita State again) and his mind in another (St. Francis Brooklyn).

• Injuries cost Notre Dame its top player (Bonzie Colson) for 15 games, its top guard (Matt Farrell), for five, its top perimeter defender (Rex Pflueger) for one and its lone freshman (D.J. Harvey) for 17. That necessitated nine different starting lineups.

• The Irish won an ACC road game on a high degree of difficulty, deep 3-pointer from Farrell against Wake Forest and lost a league home game on a point-blank, put-back by T.J. Gibbs against North Carolina.

• Notre Dame beat North Carolina State by 30 points in early January, then trailed State by 30 in early February. That 60-point swing and eventual 18-point loss loss led to an air-it-out, get-it-together, players-only meeting in the PNC Arena locker room.

• Sophomore power forward John Mooney went 6-for-6 from 3 at North Carolina on Feb. 12, then missed 16 of his final 17 attempts from 3 over the last 10 games.

• Every player on the roster not named Colson or Farrell set individual highs for minutes played this season.

• After all that, Notre Dame found a way to be on the board and in the bracket as one of the NCAA tournament’s chosen 68. Hours before everything became official, they were nudged out, then had to debate how seriously they wanted to play in the NIT. After nearly an hour meeting, they agreed to give it a go.

Strange days, indeed.

Notre Dame (21-15) saved its best — worst? — weirdness for last. Coming off what Brey termed two of the best days of practice that his team had in weeks, maybe even months, the Irish drifted through Saturday’s second round National Invitation Tournament game against Penn State. At home. On Saint Patrick’s Day. The Irish played like they had too much green beer the previous night. Win? Lose? Who cares?

The sting of not getting into the NCAA tournament aside — enough with how Syracuse stole Notre Dame’s bid after the Orange did what the Irish couldn’t (beat Michigan State) — this team didn’t have much desire to extend this season.

Totally understandable after it all veered off course Jan. 3 when Farrell landed on the foot of North Carolina State’s Lennard Freeman and rolled his left ankle. Colson already was on the bench in street clothes with a broken left foot and wouldn’t return for eight weeks. When Farrell joined him as a training room regular, it ultimately harpooned hope.

When Notre Dame couldn’t beat Louisville or North Carolina or Virginia Tech, all getable games at home, this year likely wasn’t going to go where everyone wanted it to go. Notre Dame never did make anyone forget the early losses to Ball State and Indiana. Those lingered in the shadows through January and February and March, and likely cost Notre Dame an NCAA bid.

As much as Brey tried to do his best magic act — abra....cadabra....hocus...pocus... — there was only so much smoke and mirrors to utilize. The effort by the Irish often was there — yeah, they played hard — but it often was difficult to watch after three previous seasons saturated by such success.

The Irish had to show plenty of fight every ACC night just to be average. Fight wasn't enough.

Knowing it was win or else from mid-January on, sometimes with only seven available scholarship players, they just wore down doing what Brey asked of them – empty the tank. At some point, there’s no refilling the tank.

Brey admitted Saturday that Notre Dame will be off everyone’s radar next season, and it will. The Irish need radar just to see the 2018-19 college basketball radar. No preseason Top 25. No sweet NCAA tournament seed projection. Even in the ACC, they’ll be picked closer to the bottom. If they played the "A' schedule this season, can they get the "D" or "E" slate next year?

Colson’s gone. Brey termed x-rays of his left foot “inconclusive.” Farrell’s gone. Arguably the team’s most valuable player this season, Martinas Geben, is gone. The winningest class in school history is just that.

Last year’s prized recruit with possible NBA potential, Harvey will consider a sit-out season as he faces a long recovery road from serious microfracture knee surgery. How many Irish remain who can make a shot? For one of the few times in Brey’s tenure, Notre Dame fell into a can’t-shoot-straight category that usually affected other teams on the schedule. A program so efficient on the offensive end became so inefficient.

The Irish were a shot-maker short. Maybe two. That has to change next year and may with the addition of freshmen Robby Carmody, Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski. But their arrivals may push Brey to review how his program runs. It’s forever been the old guys over the young guys for the key rotation roles. Does that change if the upperclassmen can’t deliver in games the way they do in practice?

Enough of the ball fakes to draw defenders closer before dribble drives into nothingness. Enough of the corner 3s that hit the top of the backboard or clang clumsily off the rim. Enough of offering energy and little else. That may win a possession or two, but not an ACC game.

If the Irish are to be better, next season’s returnees have to be better. A lot better.

Farrell best summed it up late Selection Sunday night when he tried to put on a happy face over the Irish postseason fate. He knew what got away that day, and likely knew how it all would end.

“Sometimes,” he said, “life sucks.”

In many ways, so did this season.

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Extended injuries to Notre Dame seniors Bonzie Colson, left, and Matt Farrell lead to a season of struggles for the Irish, whose season ended Saturday in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament. (SBT Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)