Analysis: Five ways Notre Dame men's basketball can get back to NCAA Tournament

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Sunday is college basketball’s ultimate fun day. Like Christmas and Mardi Gras and the first day of summer vacation and a surprise birthday bash all rolled into one.

There’s nothing better than when the field of 68 teams for the NCAA tournament is revealed. The anticipation. The moment. Then, the realization that the ultimate pay-off for programs and players, when all the hours and hard work and sometimes, heartache, includes an invitation to the only postseason party that matters.

On the flipside, if you’re a team that didn’t do enough to merit NCAA inclusion, there’s nothing worse than this day. It stings. It stinks. It’s a reminder how you fell short of the ultimate in-season goal. How you better get back in the gym and get to work, be a little (or a lot) better next time so that the party doesn’t go on without you again.

For the second consecutive Selection Sunday and third time in six years, Notre Dame is on the outside looking in. The Irish weren’t good enough. That hurts. It should hurt. But it’s also over. Time to move on and focus on the future. What can Notre Dame do to make it bright?

Following are five paths Notre Dame could take to make sure Selection Sunday 2020 matters.

• Blowtorch the blueprint

Mike Brey’s known only one way as head coach the last 19 seasons — roll with a roster of veterans who’ve been around this program for three and four and sometimes five years. Sprinkle in a few transfers who get a year to sit out and learn the culture. Keep it all Kumbaya-like. Brey has backed off adding the always-tricky graduate transfer over concerns of how it might play in the locker room.

Forget hurting feelings. Notre Dame went 3-15 and finished last in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Irish need a different dynamic.

Brey dived in with graduate transfers, including an all-league talent, the last two summers. Neither materialized for various reasons. This year has to be different.

Notre Dame has two scholarships to offer, either for a late-rising high school senior (unlikely), traditional transfer (likely) or graduate transfer (most likely). This program needs an old guy on the wing who’s been around college basketball for four years. A stable guy. A guy who’s going to be the same on the last day of the year as he is the first day of practice. A guy who can make a high percentage of shots, hold others accountable, take coaching, accept criticism and show the young guys the way.

Can you make a shot? Lead? Score? Opportunity awaits at Notre Dame. What names enter into the transfer portal in the coming weeks will be of interest to Brey and his staff like never before. There already are a few and more to come.

All roster options are on the table. After this season, they have to be.

• Find a leader

Paging former guard Ben Hansbrough. The 2011 Big East player of the year was someone Brey often said could either heat up the arena or burn it down with his maniacal intensity. He lived on the edge, but also pushed the Irish to it.

This program is desperate for a Hansbrough-type personality. A Pat Connaughton. A Tory Jackson. Someone who’s going to get after you. Scrap with you. Go to battle with you. Win with you. Maybe it already has one in power forward John Mooney. All he did in his first full season as a key contributor and a captain was average 14.1 points and 11.2 rebounds. He led the league in rebounds. He led the league with 20 double doubles. He flirted with numbers that the league hadn’t seen since Tim Duncan. That’s some serious and select company.

Mooney only was named captain when another, Elijah Burns, parachuted out after four games. Mooney spent the next couple of months figuring out how to work in that role. He’s got it figured out.

He has to be the strongest voice in the locker room, mainly because he’s delivered like nobody else on the roster. It’s his time to say that this #$%&@ stops now.

Why such a lost season? Lack of leadership hurt. Too many times it seemed that the Irish had eight or nine guys operating off eight or nine agendas. There wasn’t one guy that got everyone pulling in the same direction.

Leaders live for the game. Live it every day. Embrace everything that goes with the role. Time to find someone to do all of it. Can’t do it to max potential? Don’t be a captain.

• Ride a tight rotation

It was the classic good news/bad news mantra as this season staggered to a finish — Notre Dame is expected to return every player next season.

Everybody’s expected back? Great. But this season with everybody available didn’t work. There were too many possibilities; too many players. Brey’s at his best when he operates off a tight rotation of six, maybe seven, rarely eight. He prefers that core work as one in the summer, in the fall, in the preseason, so that when they get on the court in the winter, they move and think as one. Everything flows.

That never happened. Brey seemed baffled in November and early December trying to find a combination and a style that worked. Play big? Go small? A little of both? The more combinations he tried, the less the Irish looked like the Irish have long looked. Cohesive. Connected.

We did see it in the Dec. 15 victory over No. 13 Purdue when a core of six guys all played at least 25 minutes. Those six operated as one and finished with 20 assists. The Irish scored 88 points, 52 in the second half, and shot 52 percent from the field, 52.4 percent from 3. We didn’t see that again until last week in the first-round Atlantic Coast Conference tournament win over Georgia Tech. The rotation went six deep. The Irish shot 47.4 percent from the field, 57.1 percent from 3 for the game. They also scored 52 points in the first half.

In this system, less is more. Get back to it.

If that means a main guy this year is left out next year, too bad. Be a “we” guy, not a “me” guy. “We” guys win.

• Get back to basics

In its first five ACC seasons, Notre Dame averaged 75.4 points per game while shooting .466 percent from the field, .372 percent from 3. It averaged 10.2 league wins.

This season, Notre Dame averaged 68.7 points per game, shot .393 percent from the field and .315 percent from 3, all historic lows under Brey.

For Notre Dame to rediscover its ACC swagger, it has to again do something it couldn’t do this year — shoot, score, win. Over the last 11 league games, Notre Dame scored at least 70 points only once. It hit at least 70 only three times in 20 league games. That’s why it won only three times and beat only Boston College and Georgia Tech. This league is dominated by offense. If you can’t score 70, you’re not going to succeed. Preach defense and run rebounding and box-out drills all you want, but if this program under this coach can’t score, the only success will be failure.

Notre Dame never will be a buckle-down, lock-you-down defensive group. Virginia it’s not. Nobody is. Brey’s calling card has long been offense. He coaches to it; he recruits to it; he gives his guys the ultimate freedom to play it. That’s why this year was such a wreck. The one area his teams have always been able to excel in failed.

• Stay healthy

It’s not the main reason why Notre Dame will watch another NCAA tournament leave without it, but it is a reason.

In Notre Dame’s previous three-year NCAA tournament run from 2015 to 2017, it lost a combined 13 player games to illness/injury and fielded 11 different starting lineups. In the last two non-NCAA seasons, Notre Dame lost a combined 102 player games to injury/illness with 20 starting lineups.

No coach and no program in any league could survive that kind of revolving door. When the Irish have been healthy, they’ve been good. When they haven’t been healthy, they haven’t been good. Welcome to the last two years which, in fans’ eyes has erased everything about the previous three. For too many, it’s like those years never happened. But they did, which makes it possible that they can again.

Why such a thin line between success and failure? Brey has built all of this to run a certain way — the main guys play the most minutes. He gives them the ultimate level of trust. That trust is reciprocated by staying healthy, doing work and winning.

When you lose too many main guys, even if it’s one or two, and have guys that you can’t trust, those roles and those minutes have to be filled by guys who aren’t ready. The pieces won’t properly fit. The program will stagger to maintain momentum. Frustration festers. Outsiders wonder. About the future. About the head coach. About everything.

Is that fair? To an extent, and certainly a discussion for this time next year if everything trends further in a wrong direction. Can we first see what Notre Dame does with a roster that’s not in the training room more than on the practice floor?

Give Notre Dame something it didn’t have when potential ACC player of the year Bonzie Colson broke his foot last year, when Matt Farrell turned an ankle, when this year ended with more players in street clothes (four) than able reserves (three).

Give the Irish a chance.

Then we’ll see about their fight. And their future.

Outside of Boston College and Georgia Tech, Notre Dame didn’t beat anyone else in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season.
Getting back to a tighter rotation that includes a core of six, maybe seven, might help Notre Dame coach Mike Brey’s team score a few more points in a league where points are pretty important.