Noie: Mike Brey all in on current Notre Dame men's basketball roster

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Think of the college basketball offseason as a poker game where the power conference head coaches sit scattered about tables.

Atlantic Coast Conference guys are over here; Big 10 and Big East over there. A former Louisville coach watches from afar, but he can’t find a game. The head coach from a power-five school in the desert and another in the bayou each are apparently counting cards, but that’s a story for another day.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey sits like Matt Damon’s character, Mike McDermott, in the cult classic “Rounders.” He’s staring down his foil, Teddy KGB, which in this case is the rest of college basketball. Brey ponders a big move, then another. He hesitates while thinking through every offseason option.

Take another card? Two? Call the bet? Hold? Fold? He pushes all his chips into the center. He’s all in. Doubling down. Call it whatever you want.

The chips don’t represent money. Each is a player on his current roster. Instead of adding one or two who might help next season, Brey’s decided it’s best to ride with the returning 10 guys.

For now, and likely the rest of the offseason, there is no graduate transfer for Notre Dame. A traditional transfer? That’s an option — maybe — but nobody who sits out will help these Irish get to where they not only need to go, but HAVE to go in 2019-20. That would be back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017.

There’s warranted worry about the current roster. That one finished 3-15 in the ACC and beat no team not named Boston College or Georgia Tech. Notre Dame now has to figure it out against a 20-game league schedule.

Publicly, the fan base frets. They should. Momentum from consecutive Elite Eight appearances has evaporated. Poof! Gone. How? Why? Myriad reasons. A program that looked to build some serious steam has stalled. Or has it?

Privately, the Irish staff believe they have enough within the current roster to chase down an NCAA tournament bid this season and next. And next.

They have to be right. For this group. For this staff. For this program.

Late last week, Notre Dame missed on its lone attempt to land a graduate transfer when former William & Mary swingman Justin Pierce chose North Carolina. Of all graduate transfers available — last count had that number well north of triple digits — Notre Dame targeted only Pierce. Just like two years ago, when former Indiana guard James Blackmon opted for the NBA. Just like last year, when Ethan Happ chose to remain at Wisconsin.

Pierce had a starting spot and major opportunities beckoning in South Bend. Here it is, my man.

No, thanks.

Not getting Pierce will cut deeper than an empty recruiting class. Couldn’t the Irish have added at least one incoming freshman this year? Why? This team doesn’t need to get younger with another freshman, or even a traditional sit-out transfer. A one-year window — next year — is all that matters. Be better, get back to the NCAA tournament, then focus on the future. Who knows what the landscape will look like, what this program will look like.

This program aches for a new dynamic in the locker room. An additional veteran voice. A shake-up of the status quo. Something different. Anything that might help pull free from that 3-15 ACC cloud.

Maybe adding a graduate transfer would have worked. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked. At least Brey would have said he exhausted every avenue to fix what didn’t work last winter.

Instead, he sends the message that he believes in fifth-year senior Rex Pflueger’s return from reconstructive left knee surgery. He believes T.J. Gibbs won’t pull another season-long vanishing act. He believes John Mooney, who was really good last season, will be even better as a senior. He believes the most talented freshman class he’s ever signed will prove worthy of those accolades as sophomores. That Nate Laszewski will be better. That Prentiss Hubb will be better. That Juwan Durham won’t allow another injury to torpedo his entire league season.

There’s no hoping these guys might deliver. They have to.

Brey believes basketball will be more important to them next season. He believes it’s going to be better, like the last time Notre Dame staggered to a losing record with no postseason in 2013-14. The next three seasons, the Irish went a combined 82-28 overall, 37-17 in the ACC. There was an ACC tournament championship. Elite Eights. Swagger. Dudes.

But is there a Pat Connaughton in this mix? A Jerian Grant? A Bonzie Colson? A Matt Farrell? Demetrius Jackson? Steve Vasturia? Anyone close to those cornerstones?

What if there isn’t? What if there is no repeat type of a bounce back? What if the Irish shake their ridiculous run of injuries and stay healthy but can’t stay above .500 in an unforgiving ACC? What if there again is no NCAA tournament?

This will be on Brey. That’s more than fair. This is the hand that he decided best to play. He’ll play it, but is it a winning one?

That brings it back to “Rounders” and that early-scene showdown between McDermott and KGB. What happened when McDermott pushed all his chips to the center of the table?

He lost it.

All of it.

Matt Damon went all in on one memorable scene in “Rounders.” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey looks to do the same for the 2019-20 college basketball season with the returning 10 players on his roster.
Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey believes his club is headed in the right direction.
Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger (0) talks with fans before the Duke-Notre Dame men's NCAA basketball game Monday, Jan. 28, 2019 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.