Noie: Notre Dame men's basketball seeks identity with island trip

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — They weren’t supposed to be there inside Purcell Pavilion, not in the basement gym that soon will be rendered obsolete (at last) by the stand-alone practice facility opening in the fall.

On a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon in August, they usually would have been back in their hometowns in California and Florida and New Jersey and Ohio and other points around the country after a challenging six-week summer school session. Another academic year starts in two weeks, and the college basketball season follows not long afterward. That’s a grind that will keep them on campus nearly non-stop until March.

But the basketball gods, after seemingly turning their backs on them last season, one filled with injuries and ineffectiveness and too many losses with not enough wins to qualify for a fourth straight NCAA tournament, have smiled some on the Notre Dame men’s program.

If any team needed a foreign tour this offseason, even one with three “exhibition” games that likely will be one-sided affairs, it was coach Mike Brey’s bunch. They depart Tuesday morning on a flight to Atlanta before connecting to the Bahamas. Welcome to the wonderful world of commercial air travel, fellas.

Following five practices, a three-game, seven-day foreign tour beckons. That’s why the Irish were on the practice floor Sunday for 85 minutes. Working on fundamentals. Game situations. A scrimmage that featured triple overtime. Playing basketball. On campus. In August.

New for them, but also really needed.

“It’s very important,” Brey said of this week’s trip. “We’re searching a little bit. That’s kind of been exciting this summer. There’s more question marks than in any of my years.”

This week is the fourth time under Brey that Notre Dame ventures off on a foreign tour. NCAA rules allow Division I programs to go every four years if needed. Unlike the three others, to Barbados in 2003, to Ireland in 2008 and to Italy in 2014, this one is the most important from a pure basketball X and O sense.

That 2014 bonding trip laid the groundwork for a magical season that would include a 32-6 finish, an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship and a journey to the NCAA tournament Elite Eight. But coming off a 15-17 showing the previous year, the Irish rotation was pretty much set. You knew Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant were going to have big years. You knew Zach Auguste would be counted on to play a big part. You knew sophomores V.J. Beachem, Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia would be better.

You knew.

With this team, not much is known beyond senior Rex Pflueger and junior T.J. Gibbs. How can the Irish possibly replace the maniacal points and rebounds production of power forward Bonzie Colson? The attacking swagger of point guard Matt Farrell? The steadiness of power forward Martinas Geben? The locker room leadership of Austin Torres?

The void that the winningest class in program history (103 wins) leaves behind is massive. Crater-like.

Two days away from basketball for sightseeing and the sun aside, this Irish team needs to be on the practice floor, needs to be in the gym, needs, as Brey likes to say, to put the jerseys on and sit on the same bench. Needs to play against someone other than the same familiar faces they’ve seen since mid-June.

This Notre Dame team, perhaps unlike any other for Brey, who starts his 19th season and is signed for six more, needs this week to start forming its identity. Figure out who can do what well.

Why wait until official practice starts in late-September/early-October? Why wait until prized freshman point guard Prentiss Hubb, recruited with the sole purpose of stepping straight into the starting spot vacated by since-graduated Farrell, is completely cleared by the medical staff on Sept. 1 following reconstructive right knee surgery that cost him his entire prep season as a senior? Why wait for sophomore swingman D.J. Harvey as he continues on the path back from delicate microfracture surgery on a left knee injury that cost him 17 critical games of needed experience last season?

This team, this program, this season, can’t. Time to start moving forward this week.

When the Irish finally are whole, which might take a while, six new faces may blend with six old faces. But it’s not split that way in the locker room. Maybe not even when the Irish are complete.

“We’ve got 10 dudes, man,” said junior power forward John Mooney. “From one to 10 right now, we’re pretty deep. Everyone’s playing at a high level. The young guys have done a great job coming in and picking our stuff up. They’re really good.

“We have a really good team.”

It’s way too early to talk summer absolutes about how Notre Dame might look come winter. Who starts? How deep is the rotation? Who knows? Sunday did offer a snapshot. The talented freshmen are going to play. Maybe a lot. It’s funny how efficient an offense runs when guys can make perimeter shots.

Notre Dame looked more like Notre Dame on Sunday than it did for stretches — long ones — last season. Brey classified that offensive output as “inept.” But on Sunday, the Irish cut and moved and shared it and shot it. Made it look ridiculously easy.

“That’s kind of how we’ve played here,” Brey said. “Last year, offense was really hard for us to score at times, which hasn’t been the issue. We have some more weapons.”

The low-post game still needs some work. Gibbs and Pflueger and Elijah Burns are the strongest voices. On the floor. Off of it. The new practice gear features jerseys with no names on the back. That’s kind of a good no-name identity for this team, which has a chance to make one for themselves in the coming months. One that many might not know now, but later? We’ll see.

Can the Irish potential become productive? Usually, it has.

“We have that culture in our locker room,” Gibbs said. “When we’re playing together, this team could be special.”

It’s not going to be easy. Seldom is it in the ACC with Duke and North Carolina and everyone else lurking. To survive and thrive in arguably the nation’s most challenging conference, Brey has worked to stay old, stay experienced.

These Irish simply won’t be. Who will they be? Remains to be seen. The calendar says that college football is about ready to rev into overdrive. That college basketball doesn’t stat for another couple of months.

For Notre Dame, it’s already rolling. Toward what? Stay tuned.

The Notre Dame men’s basketball team has plenty of questions to be answered during its foreign tour of the Baahamas this week.