Noie: No decision - Young guys have to play for Notre Dame men's basketball team

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Big decisions by the one who has final say can bring about healthy, extended and sometimes spirited dialogues in the (old, but not yet new) Notre Dame men’s basketball offices.

When Mike Brey reaches a conclusion on something, it’s often after consultation from his staff. The assistants speak freely, even if opinions differ. That’s good. That’s healthy. That works.

In March of 2016, Brey made a decision that sent a conference room at the Marriott Marquis in midtown Manhattan up for grabs. On the eve of meeting Michigan in the NCAA tournament, Brey wanted to start reserve guard Matt Farrell alongside Demetrius Jackson.

No matter that weeks earlier, Farrell had had one foot, and probably close to two, out the door. Buried in the rotation, Farrell had every intention to transfer. Instead, on the game’s biggest stage, he made his first career start.

Members of Brey’s s staff balked. Some, vehemently. That time was not the right one to start Farrell, they offered, so stay the course on a season that would deliver 24 wins. Back and forth it went in the Marquis. Reasons why Farrell should start. Reasons why he shouldn’t. Finally, after some debate and maybe some cooling-off time, Brey rendered the final decision.

Farrell’s starting, Brey barked, and that’s the end of it. Get a game plan ready. Three wins and another trip to the Elite Eight later, Farrell was a starter to stay.

But the most recent big Brey decision, made not long after the start of this college basketball season, was met with less resistance.

Like, none.

It just kind of happened. Had to happen. Then it did happen. For Notre Dame to do anything this season, for the Irish to lay the groundwork for future success, Brey would have to do something he’s never before done in his 19 seasons here. He had to go young.

“I’ve gotten to the point where you’re secure enough to say, we’re going to play these guys and let’s play through mistakes and not be hung up on young stuff that maybe I’d be hung up on in the past,” Brey said. “We’re invested in them and we’re going to play them.”

The youth movement went into full effect since the Nov. 17 loss to Radford. Old was out. Young was in. Didn’t matter whose upperclassmen toes might get stepped on, the program’s five young guys (four freshman and a junior transfer) all would have to play and play a lot.

Now.

Heading into Tuesday’s matchup against Illinois, in yet another rematch in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge (7 p.m., ESPNU), the young guys are involved. A lot. The four freshmen — Robby Carmody, Dane Goodwin, Prentiss Hubb and Nate Laszewski — are each averaging at least 13.5 minutes per game. Carmody became the first freshman since 2002 to start a season opener. Hubb has started each of the last three games and has hit for career highs in points three times. The latest arrived Saturday when he scored 15, highlighted by a drive and dunk — with his off (right) hand — in a 95-70 beatdown of DePaul. Laszewski added his career best of 15. Goodwin finished with a plus-minus of +17.

“It starts in practice,” Hubb said. “We’ve got a lot of old guys pushing us and helping us along the way. You’ve got to stay humble and keep working hard.”

Hubb and his classmates and his teammates are coming off their best collective effort against DePaul. They scored a season high for points. They won big. They played well.

“We’re having fun,” Hubb said. “We had a lot of energy and everybody was participating.”

Junior power forward Juwan Durham collared a DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision) in the third game against Radford. Since then, he’s logged games with minutes of seven, nine and nine while looking more at ease around the basket. In limited work against DePaul, Durham had seven points and four rebounds.

There’s been growing pains with suspect shots, turnovers, missed defensive assignments. That’s expected. Even healthy. But for the most part since Brey went young, the kids have been all right.

And that’s all right with Brey. At one point, he looked out in one game and saw almost all young guys. His staff calmed him down.

“I said, ‘My God, look who we have on the floor right now,’” he said. “It’s new territory for me, and I’m growing in that area.”

Six games in for a 5-1 team that’s averaging 78.0 points, 40.8 rebounds and 12.6 assists per game, the five new faces have combined to average 32.5 points, 15.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists.

“These guys are good, man,” said power forward John Mooney. “There’s no question that these guys have to play. They’re getting better.

“These guys are just ballin.’ That’s who they are.”

Getting Durham and Laszewski regularly into the front-court rotation meant someone would be left out. That someone was former power forward Elijah Burns, who has announced plans to transfer to Siena. Leaning on Carmody and Goodwin on the perimeter has squeezed the minutes for junior Nik Djogo. That’s usually not how it works in this program.

But this year’s different. These guys are different.

Point guard Prentiss Hubb is part of a talented freshman class that’s pushed their way into the regular rotation of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.
Notre Dame’s Robby Carmody (24) dishes out a pass as William and Mary’s Matt Milon (2) defends him during the Notre Dame-William and Mary NCAA men's basketball game Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

ACC/Big Ten Challenge

WHO: Notre Dame (5-1) vs. Illinois (2-4).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Tuesday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: ESPNU.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM/96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI

MEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Trent Frazier scored 16 points and Illinois tied the school record for 3-pointers with 16 to go with 26 assists in an 86-67 victory Sunday over Mississippi Valley State. The win snapped a four-game losing streak. It was Illinois’ first game since going 0-3 in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational with losses to Iowa State, Gonzaga and Xavier. … Illinois returns one starter and four scholarship players off last year’s team that finished 15-17, 4-14 and tied for 11th in the Big Ten last season. It was Illinois’ worst record since 1998-99. … Illinois was picked in the preseason media poll (the conference does not do a coaches poll) to finish 13th ahead of only Rutgers in the 14-team Big Ten. … Illinois is 8-11 all-time in the annual conference challenge. Notre Dame is 3-2. The ACC has won the challenge the last two years and leads all-time 12-5-2. … Illinois leads the all-time series 27-14. Notre Dame is 5-3 at home. … This is Illinois’ first visit to Purcell Pavilion and first to South Bend since a 103-93 victory in the old Fieldhouse on Dec. 13, 1955.

QUOTING: “They’re hard-working. They make our jobs easy and fun. We want our young guys to do well. We want them to be involved in everything we’re doing. Just to see them succeeding is awesome.”

• Notre Dame senior captain Rex Pflueger on the Irish youth movement.