Noie: Where's it all headed for Notre Dame hoops?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

This should be a column about how the Notre Dame men’s basketball team will be better in Purcell Pavilion for Atlantic Coast Conference contests after losing seven league games at home last season.

It isn’t.

This should be a column about how the Irish will figure it out moving forward with eight available scholarship players after another season-ending injury to a key contributor.

It isn’t.

This column is difficult because the respect for everyone inside that program — the head coach, the assistants, the players, the strength and conditioning coach, the support staff — runs deep after being around it for over two decades.

But given where Notre Dame (6-2) sits after another lopsided loss to another ranked team this week — 21 points to No. 3 Maryland — everything about this program, about its present, about its future, about its past that once was so promising, feels so different. So uncertain.

It feels like Notre Dame basketball has reached a point of no return after 20 seasons under coach Mike Brey.

Injuries the last two-plus seasons to key guys have been a factor. So have some recruiting holes with scholarships that could have been given but weren’t. Then there’s player development, critical to this program’s success in seasons past, which hasn’t developed at the levels necessary to survive in the ACC. It leaves one to wonder — who are these guys?

Only eight games in, this doesn’t look like a program that’s headed back to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence. This doesn’t look like a program poised for a big climb up the league standings after being buried in the basement.

It looks like a program hanging on for its life in a league where that can’t happen.

“You can kind of roll into feeling sorry for yourself,” Brey said Friday, “or you can bounce back and do your thing.”

Thing is, what’s the thing for these Irish? A once-elite outfit no longer competes with the elite, something it did on such a routine basis not so long ago. That’s when the Irish were winning a conference tournament championship. When they were going to consecutive Elite Eights. When they’d rip off undefeated season after undefeated season at Purcell Pavilion. When the NCAA Tournament wasn’t a dream.

Wednesday was consecutive loss No. 17 against a ranked team for Notre Dame. The average margin of defeat is 13.1 points. Nine have been by 14 or more; four by at least 20. It’s not that the Irish have been beaten by ranked teams, it’s that they haven’t looked competitive. It’s been painful. They trailed Wednesday at one point by 27.

Against the elite, they struggle to guard their guy. They struggle to shed their guy off the dribble. They struggle to finish at the rim. Why shoot so many 3-pointers (currently second in the ACC at 215 this season)? They have no way to the basket. No breaking down defenses off the dribble. No swing it once, swing it twice, swing it again and make a shot for one, two, three consecutive possessions. No finishing drives with dunks. Just chuck it up and hope it goes in.

Brey said Wednesday that it was the varsity (Maryland) against the junior varsity (Notre Dame). That’s the third or fourth or whatever time he’s used that analogy the last two years. However many times he’s leaned on that line after a lopsided loss is too many.

This program never should be considered anything close to the junior varsity. Not after 2015. Not after 2016. But in 2018 and now early in 2019, it’s been boys among a league of men.

More of the same?

Maryland’s going to do to a lot of teams what it did to Notre Dame. Understood. Wednesday would have been easier to accept had the Irish brought their best and scored a bunch of points and competed for 40 minutes, then lost in the closing minutes. Instead, Notre Dame scored a season low 51 points and shot season lows from the field (29 percent) and from 3 (28 percent).

What does that say?

Different year, same Irish.

Not to these Irish, who refuse to believe that any of this — the lack of shot making, the injuries — is the beginning of a repeat of last year. How?

“Positivity, that’s all you can preach right now,” said guard Rex Pflueger. “If you try and dwell on it, then I think you’re going to get lost in it.”

The deeper Notre Dame travels through another season on this same troubling treadmill — just wait until they make shots — the more you wonder if an eventual tear down is imminent. There can be no wondering for the Irish. Not now.

“Either you’re going to snap out of it and play,” Brey said, “or you’re going to keep getting beat.”

Brey has long found the answers to help his guys score or defend or compete. Play up-tempo? Done. Downshift to the burn? Done. Win track meets. Win grinders. Win at home. Win on the road. Win. Every button Brey pushed usually produced something solid.

Now he pushes, but nothing really is sustained. Brey looked lost last season when the Irish went 3-15 and finished in last place in the ACC. He looks as lost this season. Worn down. It’s hard to watch the winningest coach in program history scramble for solutions when there might not be any.

Publicly, Brey still continues to be Brey. Upbeat. Positive. Optimistic. Any reason to worry that it might never swing back Notre Dame’s way?

“I am too far into my career to really worry about it,” Brey said. “If I were young, I would. I think this group will develop.”

This isn’t a program that’s broken as much as it’s in neutral. A program running in the same place with the same cast of characters doing the same stuff with the same results. It’s not invading irrelevancy yet, but it’s closer than anyone ever imagined after that 2015 regional final near-miss night in Cleveland.

They promised this year would be better. A better mix of young guys and old guys. A better sense of togetherness. A rock-solid resolve. A better team that would will its way back to the NCAA tournament. That still may all be. Let’s see. But this 6-2 feels more like 2-6. Notre Dame was fortunate to beat Presbyterian. To beat Marshall. And if that 3 from T.J. Gibbs doesn’t wedge between the rim and the backboard in the closing seconds of regulation against Toledo, that’s a loss.

Little will be learned Saturday against Boston College. Why? Notre Dame always beats Boston College. Doing so again in the home league opener won’t be any sort of elixir. It’s Boston College. A win can get Notre Dame to 1-1 in the league, but then what?

What will Notre Dame basketball look like in a month? In three months? In six months? In a year?

For the first time in a long time, nobody can say.

That says a lot.

What buttons might Notre Dame coach Mike Brey push next with his team down to eight available scholarship players the rest of the regular season?

WHO: Notre Dame (6-2; 0-1 ACC) vs. Boston College (4-5; 1-0).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: Plenty available.

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

NOTING: Jairus Hamilton scored 12 points with four rebounds and Derryck Thornton added 11 points, four rebounds and three assists in Tuesday’s 82-64 home loss to Northwestern in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Eagles shot 44.8 percent from the field, 29.6 percent from 3 and 44.4 percent from the foul line. They allowed 45 points in the second half and trailed by as many as 20. … Boston College has lost four in a row. The Eagles are 1-1 on the road with a win at South Florida. … Boston College opened league play and the regular season with a 77-70 home victory over Wake Forest. It looks to go 2-0 in league play for the first time since 2010-11. … Boston College returns three starters off last year’s team that finished 14-17, 5-13 and tied for 11th place in the league. … The Eagles were picked this preseason to finish 13th. They’ve won 14 or fewer games each of the last five years. … Eagle center Nik Popovic is one of two returning players (along with Notre Dame power forward John Mooney) to rank in the Top 20 in scoring (17th) and rebounding (15th) and top 10 in field goal percentage (3rd) in the ACC last season. … Thornton is a graduate transfer from USC who spent his first season at Duke. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 21-10 overall, 14-4 in South Bend and 12-0 as ACC colleagues. Boston College last beat Notre Dame on Feb. 4, 2004 in Conte Forum. Its last win in South Bend was Jan. 11, 1997. … Boston College is one of five repeat league opponents. … Notre Dame looks to avoid starting 0-2 in the league for a second-straight season. Since opening 3-0 in the ACC in 2017-18, the Irish have gone a combined 8-26. … Notre Dame opened league play with a loss at No. 7 North Carolina.

QUOTING: "Realistically, we're just better than that. I think we're going to show that Saturday."

-Notre Dame guard Rex Pflueger on bouncing back from Wednesday's loss to No. 3 Maryland