Notes: Irish freshmen close to making it a group effort

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Might Saturday be the day that a talented group of freshmen collectively puts it all together at the same time in the same game for Notre Dame?

Irish coach Mike Brey sure would like to see it happen.

Deciding earlier this season to go all in with the youth movement — four of the team’s five freshmen have started at least two games — Brey knew there would be growing pains. He knew there would be nights where not everything clicked or looked easy for the five (now four after guard Robby Carmody underwent season-ending surgery last month for a torn labrum in his left shoulder).

But as the Irish have dived deeper in their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, it’s often been one freshman steps forward, one freshman steps back. Seldom have they all stepped together.

One game, starting point guard Prentiss Hubb is going for a career-high 16 points and making the game-winning free throws against Boston College. Or scoring a career-best 18 points with six assists at North Carolina. Then he slides through scoreless games against Georgia Tech and Syracuse.

Fellow freshman Dane Goodwin scored 17 of his career-high tying 19 points against North Carolina State, then goes 2-for-10 from the field the next game out. Power forward Nate Laszewski looks a mess against North Carolina State (no points in 14 minutes) only to bounce back with a career-high 19 points in 31 minutes against Georgia Tech.

It might be one or it might be two, but it’s never been all three of the freshmen to get it going at once.

“Those guys have to try and keep making some plays for us,” Brey said.

On Saturday, they get their first taste of a sold-out Purcell Pavilion in conference play. National television in town. The joint will be juiced. The lights will be bright.

“This is a great opportunity for this team, for the young guys to get another experience, another game under our belts,” said junior guard T.J. Gibbs. “I’m excited. I’m jumping.”

Brey likes how Hubb’s taken care of the ball (2.13 assist/turnover ratio) to date. That will be tested against the nation’s best defense. Brey also likes how Goodwin and Laszewski are becoming more selfish about their shots. In this system, that’s a good trait.

“They have to score for us,” Brey said. “They’re getting better in practice and in games not turning shots down and even forcing some stuff because they have to for us.”

Brey can see in Goodwin and Laszewski what he saw in Hubb before he finally settled in. They’re close.

“Our young guys are starting to feel like they belong and get a feel for this league,” he said.

Just another opponent

Working against one of the league’s elite, a team that has won 22 of its last 24 regular-season league games, doesn’t faze Gibbs. Doesn’t matter that Notre Dame’s biggest struggle (making shots) is Virginia’s biggest strength (fourth in NCAA for field-goal percentage defense at 37.4).

“This is just like any other game,” Gibbs said. “They’re a great team. We’ve played plenty of good teams. I think we’re a good team.

“We just know that we have a couple areas that we’re going to need to polish up.”

Like offering a consistent 40 minutes. At home and on the road, the Irish have led at halftime in four of their first six league games. They’ve led in the second halves. But down the stretch, say from the under-12 media timeout on, they’ve had trouble executing their offense. Everything that flowed so freely goes so stagnant.

That’s not a good recipe against Virginia.

“We start really well, go into halftime with a great feeling,” Gibbs said. “We have to continue that in the second half so we go into the end of the game with that same great feeling.”

Durham still down

Irish power forward Juwan Durham, who leads the league in blocks (3.2 per game), will miss his third-straight game and fourth in the last five while continuing to recover from a left ankle injury suffered New Year’s Day against No. 10 Virginia Tech.

Durham missed the following game against Syracuse, then played against North Carolina but continued to feel pain in the ankle. He originally suffered a sprain but has since been diagnosed with a bone bruise. It’s an injury similar to the one former Irish point guard Matt Farrell developed after he turned his ankle early in league play last year. Like Farrell, Durham may have tried to return too soon.

“We have to let this calm down,” Brey said of Durham, relegated to riding the stationary bike in workouts. “We sure miss that rim protection. He’s unlike anybody we’ve had.”

Durham has 48 blocks this season. The rest of the Irish have a combined 62.

“Just having a guy back there, after he blocks one or two, everybody looks for him,” Brey said. “He’s turned easy buckets for other teams into fast breaks for us.”

Brey hopes Durham can resume practice by the middle of next week and be ready for the Feb. 2 game at Boston College.

Baseline bits

• Irish power forward John Mooney is averaging 14.2 rebounds in his first six ACC games. That’s the most rebounds an ACC player has averaged six games into league play since 1996-97 when former Wake Forest standout Tim Duncan averaged 14.9.

• Notre Dame is in a stretch of eight league games against five ranked teams, including three inside the Top 10. The Irish have lost their last 10 against ranked teams since the Nov. 22, 2017 victory over then-No. 6 Wichita State.

• Brey has 11 victories over top-five teams in his 19 seasons at Notre Dame. Seven have come when the Irish have been unranked.

• Virginia is the highest-ranked opponent to visit Purcell Pavilion since then-No. 2 (Associated Press poll) North Carolina on Feb. 6, 2016. That distinction will last about 48 hours until No. 2 Duke arrives for a Big Monday game.

• Saturday is the first sellout at Purcell Pavilion since last year’s mid-February home game against Miami (Fla.).

• Virginia (1.66) and Notre Dame (1.47) rank first and third in the ACC in assist/turnover ratio.

• In keeping with the day’s “Green Out” theme, Notre Dame will wear green jerseys against Virginia.

Notre Dame freshman guard Prentiss Hubb and his classmates have enjoyed a certain level of consistency in league games. Now can he and Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski all do it together in the same game?