Noie: Despite setbacks, Notre Dame hoops believe it's close to closing

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Nudged this week into a new role, Notre Dame junior power forward John Mooney now views the locker room in a new way.

Named a team captain coming clear of last week’s near-miss at UCLA, Mooney no longer can be concerned about only his game or his points or his minutes or his rebounds or his anything. He has to constantly be in tune with the team’s five freshmen as they continue to learn about life, sometimes a hard one, in college basketball. He has to work as one with fellow captains T.J. Gibbs and Rex Pflueger. He has to think like a coach as well as a player. He has to take big-picture views of practices, of lifts in the weight room, of film studies, of wins and of losses and of just about everything that has to do with the Irish basketball program.

In many ways, Mooney already was there. During scout sessions, coach Mike Brey often asks players for their input. One player’s voice often speaks first — Mooney’s.

Nobody expected him to do it, he just did it.

“He’s been great as a leader and helping the young guys,” Brey said. “The one thing about Johnny you like is emotionally, he’s really steady throughout a game.

“I’ve been really proud of Johnny Mooney.”

On Thursday, following two consecutive losses that has tested the Irish resolve and a week of final exam work that has tested their sanity, Mooney stood on the practice court of Rolfs Athletic Hall, looked around at his teammates and liked everything he saw. The Irish had every right to be dragging after losses to Oklahoma (85-80) and UCLA (65-62) and after surviving a trying academic week. But the opposite on Thursday was true.

“No one in this locker room is like that at all,” said the 6-foot-9, 242-pound Mooney, who leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in rebounding (9.7 per game) and double doubles for points and rebounds (five). “We’re a real confident group right now. We’re confident in ourselves individually, confident in each other. That’s the start of it.”

To sustain that confidence, the Irish really could use a win. Notre Dame erased double-digit deficits in the second half to lead in each of the last two games only to fall short in both in the all-important game situations. When someone needed to make a play, make a shot, get a stop, grab a rebound, nobody on the Irish roster did. Notre Dame trailed Oklahoma by one with 2:25 remaining and led UCLA by five with 3:39 left.

A lack of a true closer (where have you gone, Jerian Grant?) saw the Irish only get close in both.

Who can consistently close? Gibbs? Mooney? Sophomore D.J. Harvey? Might even be Pflueger, whose senior season got off to a rocky start but has started trending in a better direction.

“We’re still searching for that, especially away from our building,” Brey said. “We played young and inexperienced both games last week and you just can’t beat a pretty good team on the road, away from your building, unless you play a little older, a little smarter.”

The search for a win, a better start and that late-game consistency continues Saturday in what’s become a (Field) House of Horrors for Notre Dame — Bankers Life in Indianapolis — against Purdue in the eighth-annual Crossroads Classic (1:30 p.m., CBS). In each of the last three Classics — two games against Indiana, one against Purdue — Notre Dame has led by at least 14 points, only to watch those leads dissolve into defeats. That’s left the Irish (6-3) with some long and lonely bus rides back up U.S. 31, something they hope to avoid Saturday.

“It’s all about doing stuff in the last five minutes of the game to kind of seal the deal,” Mooney said. “It’s just making plays, man. With a younger group, that will come with time.

“Once we get one or two, I think we can be really good in that regard.”

Six weeks ago, the Irish gathered in one of Bankers Life’s cramped auxiliary locker rooms that they’ll likely be in again Saturday. On that late-October Sunday, they had just finished a game against Cincinnati in one of those not-for-public-viewing secret scrimmages. The Irish did some stuff well and other stuff not so well in a 66-61 loss. As Notre Dame prepared to depart for South Bend, Brey counseled his team about this season being a long road, and about this weekend’s return visit.

Prior to the return, there would be nine games — seven at home, two away from home. Could the Irish get better during those games so that when they step back inside Bankers Life in mid-December, they could be better than they were against the Bearcats?

Everything then was a jumble of uncertainty. Brey had no idea what his rotation might look like, let alone a starting lineup. Mooney wasn’t a captain. Senior captain Elijah Burns was counted on to be a main guy and nobody knew what Juwan Durham might offer.

Six weeks later, Mooney’s a captain, Burns has transferred to Siena and Durham leads the ACC in blocked shots (22). Is Notre Dame better now than then? Even with consecutive losses and needing a win to avoid its first three-game December losing streak since 1993-94?

“I definitely think so,” Mooney said. “We’re a more confident group. We were still kind of figuring things out six weeks ago and we still are today.

“We have a better idea of who we are.”

Time to go show it.

Notre Dame senior power forward John Mooney, named a captain this week, likes where the Irish are at despite two consecutive close losses.
Notre Dame senior power forward John Mooney, named a captain this week, likes where the Irish are at despite two consecutive close losses.

Crossroads Classic

WHO: Notre Dame (6-3) vs. Purdue (6-4).

WHERE: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (20,000), Indianapolis

WHEN: Saturday at 1:30 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM/96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at


NOTING: This is the first of two games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Butler and Indiana follow at approximately 3:45 p.m. … Purdue has been idle since Sunday’s 72-68 loss at Texas. Boilermakers guard Carsen Edwards tied his career high of 40 points. … Purdue also has losses to Virginia Tech, Florida State and Michigan. … The Boilers have lost three of four. … Purdue has been ranked as high as No. 19 in the Associated Press poll this season. … The Big Ten preseason player of the year, Edwards is averaging 25.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 32.4 minutes per game. … The Boilers were picked in preseason to finish fifth in the Big Ten. … Purdue returns one starter to a team that finished 30-7, 15-3 and tied for second in the Big Ten. It was a school record for victories for the Boilermakers, who’ve won 30, 27 and 26 games the last three seasons. … Purdue is 2-5 all-time at the Crossroads. The Boilers opened 0-5 before wins over Notre Dame and Butler. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 22-21, 10-5 at neutral sites. The Irish have won two of the last three meetings. … Power forward John Mooney has at least 10 rebounds in six of the first nine games. … The three Irish losses this season are by a total of 11 points.

QUOTING: “It’s a tremendous honor. A chance to lead more, lead with my voice, lead by example. I’m up for the challenge.” —  Notre Dame junior power forward John Mooney on being names a team captain this week.