Noie: Signing day dance doesn't tell whole recruiting story for Notre Dame men's hoops

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — When it’s been two years since the second Wednesday in November mattered for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, it kind of sneaks up on you.

Hey, look, national signing day. Welcome back.

At a quarter past 3 on Wednesday afternoon, Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey arrived in the lobby of Rolfs Hall and dusted off his annual signing day song and dance for the media. It’s one he hasn’t done in two years, but that’s another story.

Brey offered the usual platitudes for his two additions — power forwards Elijah Taylor from Philadelphia and Matt Zona from Rockland County, N.Y. He talked of liking their games and loving their fits, of how each was perfect for his program and the university. How they’re perfect for the system. Get ‘em out here and grow ‘em. Always better to be safe than sorry.

Taylor already resembles former Irish power forward Ty Nash, right down to his left-handed shot and handle. Like Nash, he’s a city kid. Nash was from Queens, N.Y.; Taylor from North Philadelphia. He plays with an edge this program can use. He’ll rebound. He’ll defend. He’ll compete. He’ll give the Irish an interior nastiness that they haven’t had from the power forward spot maybe since Harold Swanagan nearly 16 seasons ago.

As for Zona, he may be a combination of a couple other Irish stretch fours — Rob Kurz and John Mooney. He’s got good size, a good shot, good hands and good court awareness. He’s good.

Both expected to be four-year guys, Taylor and Zona might grow their games to become important pieces for a program still in need of an injection of talent. In the biggest of pictures, there are two additional players who might be more important to the all-important big picture than the two Brey added Wednesday.

That would be shooting guard Cormac Ryan and center Hunter Dickinson.

Ryan’s already on campus, sitting out this season after transferring following his freshman year at Stanford. He should be fully cleared Monday after offseason surgery for a sports hernia. He becomes the ultimate plug-and-play guy next season. When senior T.J. Gibbs graduates in the spring, Ryan seemingly steps right into that vacated starting spot. The 6-foot-5, 190-pound Ryan plays with that edge that’s so needed in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He’s got some Tim Abromaitis in him. Some Steve Vasturia. At times, a little Pat Connaughton. If Ryan can channel any or all three over his final three years, he’ll be one to watch.

Dickinson’s still walking the halls of high school as a senior at DeMatha (Md.) Catholic. Brey made Dickinson (7-2, 255) a recruiting priority since the left-handed low-post player was a prep freshman. He’s been to open gyms, to countless AAU tournaments, into the home for visits. All to let Dickinson know — he’s atop the Irish wish list. Then and now.

It’s now that Brey waits for Dickinson to decide — his future and maybe the direction of the Irish.

Notre Dame’s overdue to land someone like Dickinson. Ranked No. 34 nationally, he’d be the highest prospect to sign with Notre Dame since it landed guard Demetrius Jackson (also No. 34) from neighboring Mishawaka. It likely will come down to Michigan or Notre Dame. Duke attempted to parachute in at the 12th hour, but Dickinson saw through Mike Krzyzewski’s late push. Thanks, he told K, but no thanks.

Like Ryan, Dickinson likely steps into a large role from the jump next summer. It’s all there for him — immediate playing time, touches, opportunity, education. Everything. So why wait? He is a kid and this is recruiting which means anything that might happen usually does. Dickinson’s kept his recruiting cards so close for almost no one to see. He reportedly remains enamored with the possibility of playing for Juwan Howard in Ann Arbor. He might commit in the next 24 hours; he might commit in the next 24 days. He might wait until the end of the month or push it until spring.

Notre Dame remains right there, but what does that mean? Something? Everything? Nothing? The longer the process goes, the tougher it might be for Brey to close. Situations like these never seem to end well for the Irish. Maybe this one does.

“Every day is a new day in recruiting,” Brey said. “You just keep on digging.”

Hopefully, not out of another hole. There’s a perception (sprinkled with a little reality) that the Notre Dame hoops recruiting machine has gone stagnant. That it’s stalled and needs a jump. Fast.

Coming off arguably Brey’s best recruiting haul two years ago — that five-man class of current sophomores was consensus Top 20 (and third in the ACC) — the Irish signed no prep seniors last season. Brey insists that was by design. It did help land Ryan in the summer, which was a big get. It was hard to offer anyone in 2019 and what they all sought — immediate playing time — until he knew exactly what he had in his 2018 guys. Now he knows, but the first recruiting result was two three-star guys.

Securing a 2020 recruiting class ranked by one service (247Sports) as No. 61 is a hard way to climb back into the NCAA tournament relevance, let alone stay afloat in the ACC. But five-star guys still aren’t giving Notre Dame more than cursory interest for reasons too many and complex to detail. They’re just not coming. Three- and sometimes four-star recruits typically equal two-year development guys. They need time to grow their games and grow into their frames before they really get going.

Guys like Taylor and Zona often are big-picture guys who are about tomorrow. This program could use a few small-picture guys who are about today.

Look at next year’s roster with Ryan and Taylor and Zona. Is it top half ACC quality? NCAA tournament quality? Don’t know? There’s your answer.

Absolutes are so few in recruiting, but Brey and his staff could use a few more. They’ll be the first to admit it. Ryan’s one the second time around. Dickinson would be another. Then this recruiting class, maybe with a graduate transfer added come spring, would pump some much-needed optimism into the immediate future, wherever it’s headed.

When it comes to recruiting for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, Mike Brey gets who he gets — program guys who are good fits on the court and in the classroom.