Noie: Can Notre Dame make tighter hoops rotation work in ACC?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Could less in some weird way be more?

The Notre Dame men’s basketball team hopes so as it opens Atlantic Coast Conference play Tuesday — Happy New Year! — on the road against No. 10 Virginia Tech. Less being more likely is the only way the Irish (10-3) make any push toward getting back to the NCAA tournament while dealing with the same situation this year — injuries to key contributors — that surfaced for coach Mike Brey’s team around this time last season.

Brey admitted an epiphany during one game last month when he looked down his bench and saw a seemingly endless line of potential contributors. So many guys. So many lineup combinations. It often left the veteran coach thinking about hoops morning, noon and night. Even during games.

It consumed Brey to the point that he actually forgot to sub in sharp-shooting freshman Nate Laszewski during the closing minutes of the home loss to Radford because his mind was too preoccupied with who was on the floor.

Oof!

Further non-league contests did little to ease Brey’s mind. It was always spinning. The deeper the Irish dived in the rotation, the earlier Brey removed his suit coat during games. That underscored his discomfort with it all. It all felt too confining. Too restrictive. Sometimes suffocating. He tried to go deep and go old, but it just wasn’t going to work.

Somehow, the rotation had to sort itself out.

Consider it sorted out. The Irish are young with a short rotation. Really short.

Now when Brey looks down his bench, when associate coach Rod Balanis isn’t up in his space for some reason, he sees too few guys. A rotation that opened at 11 sits at eight. Former captain Elijah Burns decided he didn’t want to stick around as another fringe contributor and bolted after four games. He has since surfaced at Siena and hopes to be available for the spring semester. Guard Robby Carmody, who became the first freshman since 2002 to start a season opener, underwent year-ending surgery on Dec. 27 for a torn labrum in his left shoulder.

Just when it looked like the Irish might have something two weeks ago, when they really looked like they could make a possible run back to double-digit league wins and the NCAA tournament, senior captain Rex Pflueger was lost with a season-ending left knee injury.

Pflueger is scheduled to undergo reconstructive surgery on a torn anterior cruciate ligament on Jan. 11. He’s expected to remain home in his native Southern California until closer to surgery in South Bend while his mother deals with a serious medical issue.

What’s left? Maybe more than many believe. In games after the rotation was shaved to nine (against Purdue) and then eight (Jacksonville), Notre Dame finished with season highs for assists. They had 20 against the Boilermakers, 24 against the Dolphins. That’s not a coincidence.

In a weird way, the tighter the rotation, the better the Irish play. Notre Dame has looked more like Notre Dame by limiting the combinations. The same core groupings of guys have figured out how to better play together. When the rotation was too large, the ball bounced all over the place. Into the stands. To the other team. The Irish didn’t have any of that all-important feel for one another that Brey’s teams long have owned.

They’re starting to settle in and figure out their roles, and their teammates’ roles. It’s shown. Maybe not Saturday against winless Coppin State, but there’s something there.

Freshman guard Prentiss Hubb has to facilitate first and second and maybe third. Shoot only in an emergency, and maybe not even then. Junior guard T.J. Gibbs has to become the player ND fans have waited for him to become since the season’s start. Sophomore wing D.J. Harvey still takes his share of bad shots and has his bad-mood/body language moments, but he’s too talented not to turn loose. Turn him loose.

Notre Dame might be at its best when riding the tag-team power forward combination of Juwan Durham and John Mooney (he of the league-leading six double doubles for points and rebounds). Playing two big men, away from the four-around-one looks he prefers, is akin to asking Brey to go from a run-and-shoot offense to a ground-oriented attack (gotta get that football reference in for Irish fans still nursing that Cotton Bowl hangover).

Freshman guard Dane Goodwin, whether he starts or comes off the bench, is going to play. A lot. As will Laszewski. No more forgetting about him.

Nothing ever is easy in the ACC. Wasn’t last year when the Irish were handed the “A” schedule, then saw their chances at competing for a league championship crumble (they were a popular pick in preseason to win the conference) when seniors Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell were lost for extended time with injuries. Brey cobbled together eight wins and pushed Notre Dame to team No. 69 in the 68-team NCAA field.

Now, with no senior in a rotation that includes three freshmen and a sophomore (Durham) who hasn’t played an ACC game, the league sends Notre Dame to Blacksburg, Va., Waiting is a Top 10 team, hopefully one without a good memory.

Last time these teams met, the Hokies blew a 21-point lead in the second half of an ACC second-round game won by the Irish. The meltdown caused coach Buzz Williams to almost blow up. If the Hokies have payback on their minds, the Irish are in for a rough start to the new year, and new league season.

However Tuesday’s conference opener unfolds, Brey will be quick to caution his team that it only counts as one. One win. Or win loss. There’s a long way to go to get to Charlotte (site of the conference tournament). The Irish don’t have the A-schedule but with so much inexperience, it will seem like a B+ slate. There will be setbacks. Maybe many. There might be a few surprises. A successful league season? Maybe eight wins.

Last time Notre Dame was this green going into league play was in 2013-14. The Irish finished that first ACC schedule 6-12. One year later, they were conference tournament champions.

Just something to keep in mind as this conference stuff gets going when less this season may lead to more down the line.

Notre Dame’s TJ Gibbs (10) celebrates with John Mooney (33) and Prentiss Hubb (3) during a game against Binghamton Dec. 18 in South Bend, Ind.
Notre Dame’s John Mooney (33), left, leads the ACC with six double doubles for points and rebounds.

WHO: Notre Dame (10-3; 0-0 ACC) vs. No. 10 Virginia Tech (11-1; 0-0).

WHERE: Cassell Coliseum (9,275), Blacksburg, Va.

WHEN: Tuesday at 1 p.m.

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: Virginia Tech has won six in a row following Friday’s 85-40 home victory over Maryland-Easter Shore. Graduate student guard Ahmed Hill led four Hokies in double figures with 20 points, including six 3-pointers. … The Hokies have been ranked in all nine Associated Press polls this season. They opened ranked No. 15. This is their highest ranking since 1995-96. … Notre Dame has not played a ranked team this season. … Virginia Tech has non-league wins over Ball State, Purdue and Washington. The loss was at Penn State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. … Virginia Tech returns three starters and four of its top six off last year’s team that finished 21-12, 10-8 and seventh place in the ACC. … Senior guard Justin Robinson leads the league in assists at 5.9 per game. He’s the fourth Hokie in school history to have at least 1,200 points and 500 assists. … Virginia Tech was picked in preseason to finish fifth in the ACC; Notre Dame was picked ninth. … The Hokies lead the league in 3-point field goal percentage (.444) and 3s made (11.1). They rank second in field goal percentage (.512), scoring defense (56.6) and scoring margin (+24.9). … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 8-2 and has won eight of the last nine. The Irish are 4-0 all-time at Cassell Coliseum. … Tuesday marks the third time in the last four years that Notre Dame opens league play on the road. …. The Irish finished 8-10 in the ACC last season, 3-6 away from home.

QUOTING:

“I’m excited about the challenge, but I told them it may be the biggest challenge you’ve had in your basketball careers, to play 18 games against this league as we’re still growing and figuring out who we are. What do we got to lose, man? Let’s just go for it and let it rip.”

• Irish coach Mike Brey on his young team beginning league play.