Noie: Questions to consider as ND men's basketball begins

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

{child_flags:featured}Ready for ND hoops?

{child_byline}By Tom Noie

South Bend Tribune

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Practice gets rolling this week for a Notre Dame men’s basketball program that looks nothing like the group that got to consecutive NCAA Tournament Elite Eights.

The delay in getting going nearly a week later than allowed is by design. Even though the Irish are beginning the six-month grind with a ton of roster turnover, coach Mike Brey believes his guys already are ahead of the game thanks to a handful of practices and three “exhibition” games as part of August’s foreign tour of the Bahamas. There’s still much to learn about his group, but Brey and his staff believe they already know enough to ease into preseason practice.

There’s a newness to a program that in many ways is starting over. The last links to the 2015 ACC Tournament championship and that NCAA run are gone. There’s no potentially deep NCAA tournament run or milestone win by the head coach to anticipate. No crusher league schedule lurking. A new practice facility (finally) is set to open. The five-man freshman class is Brey’s best. Expectations are average. These guys could be good, but ...

Following are six questions that might have answers between Monday, Notre Dame’s first official day of practice, and Nov. 6 when Notre Dame opens the regular season at home against Illinois-Chicago.

• How quickly can freshman point guard Prentiss Hubb get his game in gear?

The first player to commit to what would become a consensus Top 15 class, Hubb was a top target for one reason — he could step into the spot created by the graduation of guard Matt Farrell. The starting spot.

Brey believes his offense best flows playing two point guards at the same time. It makes everything go and makes it difficult for other teams to scout. Farrell and Demetrius Jackson. Farrell and T.J. Gibbs. Can it be Gibbs and Hubb? For Gibbs to be Gibbs, he needs help handling the heavy lifting of initiating the offense. Gibbs will have to score. He can’t spend all his time also playing point guard. He’ll wear out by February. That’s why Hubb is essential, even though he hasn’t played in an actual game since his junior year of high school.

Having undergone reconstructive right knee surgery last fall, Hubb was supposed to be medically cleared by Notre Dame on Sept. 1. That didn’t happen until two weeks later. But he’s been good so far. He can split a double team, get to the basket, find open shooters for high-percentage looks and make the occasional shot. He could be the most talented of the freshmen. For Notre Dame to do what it needs to do and look the way it needs to look, Hubb has to play. A lot.

• Will young and old coexist?

It’s the most fascinating dynamic of this year’s team, which features as many returning faces (six) as new ones. Throughout Brey’s tenure, the pecking order’s remained pretty much the same — the old guys play most of the minutes. The young guys watch and wait. Everyone has a place in the program, and they know it.

Maybe not this year. The old guys understand that the young guys are good. How good? In some cases, better than some of the returning experience at some positions (cough, cough, wing guard, cough, cough). Robby Carmody’s going to play. Dane Goodwin’s going to play. Power forward Nate Laszewski’s going to play. Same with Hubb. They own skills that last year’s team didn’t have. They’re shot creators and shot makers. They already look the part. They have to go play it.

Senior captain Rex Pflueger admitted as much in the summer — the freshmen are too good to sit. He knows it’s his job to help get them ready. Not only for this season, but beyond.

• Can Juwan Durham keep it simple?

Expect Durham to work the first couple of weeks as if he’s just thrown back a case of energy drinks. He’ll be wound that tight, be that revved up. It’s understandable since the kid’s really not played since he was a high school junior.

Durham missed much of his senior season with a knee injury. He didn’t play much (8.3 mpg in 28 games) his freshman year at Connecticut and sat out last season under NCAA transfer regulations. He also missed practice time last winter after suffering a wrist surgery. Key for him is not to get it all back right away. He’s not a main guy. Not yet.

He’s come a long way since he stepped on campus, but there’s still steps to take. Too often in the post, Durham prefers fade jumpers to drives and dunks. That might work in some non-conference games, but not in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Can’t be soft in the post in this league. He can’t fall in love with playing on the perimeter. The Irish have plenty of guys who do that. He’s got to do work down low.

That’s why Durham has to operate as if anything the Irish get from him offensively is a bonus. Notre Dame has guys who can score. If Durham can focus on rebounding and defending, that will be a solid start. Be a rim-protector. Get the first missed shot — on both ends. Do that, and he brings immediate value.

• How much will rebounding be an issue?

Brey believes that bench points are the most overrated stat. A close second for him might be rebounding margin. He insists that if his team can shoot it and score it at high percentages — both of which have been program staples — it can withstand getting crushed on the glass. That’s easy to say when he had Bonzie Colson averaging double figures for boards. It also wasn’t much of a concern when Colson went down with the foot injury last season and Martinas Geben delivered 8.0 rebounds a game.

Who’s going to rebound this season? Durham? Senior Elijah Burns? Junior John Mooney? None of the three have ever done it. Durham’s game still is too raw. Burns and Mooney are experienced guys, but never were required to rebound because the Irish got it from Colson and Geben.

It may be more of a team mentality where everybody from power forwards to point guards has to rebound. If the Irish can return to their efficient offensive ways, the lack of a consistent rebounder won’t keep Brey up at night. At least, not every night.

• Is this T.J. Gibbs’ time?

Notre Dame’s had a guard earn all-league recognition each of the last four seasons and seven of the last eight. This year should be no exception. Gibbs is headed toward being one of the league’s elite. He’s ready to be the next really good guard in a program that annually produces them, going all the way back to Chris Thomas and right up until last season when Farrell missed five conference contests but still earned third team all-league honors.

Gibbs played a lot and did a lot last season (15.3 ppg., 2.8 rpg., 2.9 apg., 37.4 mpg.) and he’ll have to do more as a junior. He’s really the one known on a team of unknowns. He wanted to be the guy a year go even before Farrell folded to the floor with a severely sprained left ankle. Teams will look to take No. 10 away. If others around him can raise their games, it will be difficult to do.

Gibbs is on track for a big year. If he plays the way many expect, there might be a decision come spring — stay or leave early? That would be a nice problem to have. If he’s that good, so too might be the Irish.

• Does D.J., Harvey have a role?

To be determined. No injury — not Colson’s, not Farrell’s — set the program back from a big picture standpoint more than when the 6-6, 225-pound Harvey’s left leg locked while grabbing a defensive rebound during the eventual double-overtime home loss to Louisville. Losing Colson and Farrell sunk last season, but no matter how those scenarios unfolded, both were going to be gone for 2018-19. They were graduating. They were moving on.

Harvey was seemingly just getting started. He was a prized recruit, a gifted scorer. Harvey missed 17 games that could have been critical to his development. He hadn’t even scratched the surface when he went down, never to return.

His game remains a blank slate after undergoing microfracture knee surgery in Chicago the same February day that Colson returned from his first broken foot. Harvey’s expected to be medically cleared Oct. 1. It will be a big month for him and for the Irish.

Notre Dame needs Harvey. Harvey needs to play. He’ll be given time to work back into game shape, but if he shows the slightest hint of hesitation, like he doesn’t trust the knee, a red flag is raised. Brey may see Harvey not wanting to cut it loose in practice and remember what Thomas told him after his microfracture surgery — it took him a full year after the procedure to start to feel like his former self. Will Harvey feel the same? If so, Brey will have to consider a medical redshirt, which basically shelves Harvey for a second straight season.

Harvey never showed last season anything he could be. It’s not good for him or for the program if that scenario repeats itself.

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