Noie: Notre Dame offense back to its previous scoring ways
Stuffed somewhere in the far back corner of the pop culture closet, the Magic 8-ball wouldn’t be much help.
Ask again later.
The old, non-answer answer. Par for the course in this profession. But we digress.
It’s February and nobody knows what this season holds for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team as it hits the halfway point of its 20-game Atlantic Coast Conference schedule. The Irish (13-8; 4-6) have won two in a row heading into Wednesday’s weird start time (6:30 p.m.) at home game against Pittsburgh (14-8; 5-6). But the Irish of today look a whole lot like the Irish of yesteryear, which gives the Irish of tomorrow something the program has chased the past year and a half.
Hope that brighter days are near. Hope that the scoring struggles of last season and earlier in this one are over. Hope that that this core has figured it out to get back to playing — and scoring — the way all those previous Irish teams did not long ago, the ones that were perennial double-digit league winners and NCAA tournament visitors.
A look at the final scores of the last four Notre Dame games show that there’s something different about this group, something that we haven’t seen since 2016-17. The Irish always have known how to move it and share it and take care of it. What they’ve lacked for too long, they’ve seemingly found.
Notre Dame is visiting the 80s and even 90s for points without a problem. The Irish have scored at least 80 in each of their last four games. Only one ACC team — No. 7 Duke — is averaging more points (83.3) than Notre Dame (76.7). The Irish finished 13th in the league last season for scoring offense (68.7). That same group that bogged down so many times to remember a year ago is rolling.
In 18 league games last season, Notre Dame averaged 62.7 points per game. In 10 this season, it’s averaging 77.1 In its first four league games this season after New Year’s, Notre Dame averaged 74.5. The next four? Eighty-four a game.
That’s Notre Dame basketball.
“We’re playing how we know we can play,” said senior guard T.J. Gibbs, key in the offensive resurgence. “We’re getting back to the culture that’s been set here. When we’re able to put 80-90 on the board, it just proves it.
“The way we’re moving the ball now is fun.”
And scoring it. There was a time not long ago when Irish coach Mike Brey would walk toward the locker room at intermission and take for granted seeing 40 or more points on the board next to the Notre Dame name. A second half later, he’d see at least 80. For so many seasons, the Irish would dare other teams to keep up. Few could.
“That’s who we’ve been,” Brey said. “When we can get into that rhythm, we’ve got a shot to beat anybody, which we’ve shown we can do.”
What took so long for the Irish to rediscover how to score? Why now? Myriad reasons.
Gibbs found his place as the next in a long line of really good senior guards for the Irish. Prentiss Hubb continues to evolve as a playmaker and a scorer. Graduate guard Rex Pflueger is moving the ball and making a few more shots. Sophomore guard Dane Goodwin has become ultra-aggressive and confident in chasing his scoring chances. Like, he’s going to get at least 14 points a night. Fellow sophomore Nate Laszewski is starting to score.
Then when you have a league player of the year candidate in double-double machine John Mooney, everything looks easy.
Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said Monday that there are two ACC teams without peer when it comes to one end of the floor. Defensively, it’s Virginia. Offensively, it’s Notre Dame.
“Notre Dame’s the best offensive team in the league,” he said.
It’s taken longer than anyone imagined to get back to that. But the Irish seem back.
A year ago, Notre Dame scored 79 points or fewer in each of its last 21 games. That included one staggered stretch of five straight and six of seven when they couldn’t crack 65. Notre Dame’s current run of four games of at least 80 is its longest since 2016-17 when it won 12 league games, nearly won the ACC Tournament championship and advanced to the NCAA tournament.
Can’t consistently score it in the 70s and beyond in this league, and you’re cooked. Consistently score it, and you’ve got a chance.
“Man, we’ve been able to develop as a team and grow and find one another,” Hubb said.
Notre Dame remained deep in search mode for that offensive flow earlier this year. It managed only 64 in an overtime victory against Toledo. It scored 51 against Maryland and scrambled to get to 60 against Indiana. Through November and December, Brey played the part of a used-car dealer. Except he wasn’t trying to unload a 1996 Buick Century with rust spots and no side mirror. He was pitching the buy-in that this group could be the best defensive unit he’d ever had.
Come on. Defense never has been this program’s calling card. Why would it be then?
“That was a sales job,” Brey said with a smile. “I knew that was what we had to hang our hat on then. We knew, God, that’s the only way we can win.”
Now? The Irish shoot for their first three-game league win streak since opening 3-0 in 2017-18. Playing and scoring the way they’ve done comes at a price, and senior power forward Juwan Durham has paid it.
Notre Dame found a scoring gear by going small, which has cut into Durham’s minutes. As the Irish have downshifted to play more with a more perimeter-oriented lineup, Durham’s still a starter but also odd man out. He played a season low 10 minutes in Saturday’s victory against Georgia Tech.
“He’s struggling a little bit,” Brey said. “It’s changed for him. We’ve got to keep him alive because you just never know.”
Say the same for the regular season’s final 10 games. Maybe the downshift runs its course and points again come at a premium. Maybe the Irish keep rolling and find even another gear to string together more league wins than anyone anticipated. Maybe a season many figured was lost is found.
The Irish believe that as well as they’ve played recently, even in the near misses against No. 8 Florida State and Syracuse, there’s still more to show. And do.
“We’re on our way to finding our rhythm,” Hubb said. “We keep playing the way we’re playing, it’s all going to pan out.”
WHO: Notre Dame (13-8; 4-6 ACC) vs. Pittsburgh (14-8; 5-6).
WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).
WHEN: Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.
TV: ACC Network
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: Note the game’s start time — 30 minutes earlier than usual to accommodate television. … Sophomore guard Trey McGowens scored 17 points with four rebounds and four assists and fellow sophomore guard Au’Diese Toney added 15 points and 10 rebounds in Sunday’s 62-57 home victory over Miami (Fla.). The Panthers forced 13 turnovers and held the Hurricanes to 38.8 percent from the field, 13.6 percent from 3. The win snapped a two-game losing streak for Pittsburgh, which also had lost four of six. … The Panthers are 1-4 on the road in league play with the win against North Carolina. Pittsburgh opened the season with a home win over now No. 8 Florida State. … Pittsburgh returned four starters off last year’s team that finished 14-19, 3-15 and 14th place last season. Pittsburgh was picked this preseason to finish 10th in the ACC. … Pittsburgh opened the week in a five-way tie for sixth place; Notre Dame opened in 11th. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 34-31, including 18-11 at home, 2-4 as ACC colleagues. Pittsburgh won the only meeting last season, 56-53, at Petersen Events Center. This is the lone regular-season meeting this season between the teams. … Notre Dame ranks second in the ACC in scoring (76.6), 12th in scoring defense (62.6). Pittsburgh is 13th for scoring offense (66.2), third in scoring defense (62.6). … The Irish are 15th in the league for 3-point field goal percentage defense (.342). … Notre Dame leads the nation in assist/turnover ratio (1.78), fewest fouls (259), fewest turnovers (204), personal fouls per game (12.3) and turnovers per game (9.7). … Power forward John Mooney leads the league and is fifth in the country in rebounding (13.2). … Notre Dame looks to win three straight league games for the first time since opening ACC play 3-0 in 2017-18. The Irish have since gone 12-31. … Of the final 10 league games for the Irish, seven are against teams with losing records.
QUOTING: “Once our offense starts flowing, there’s no limits to what this team can do.”
• Irish senior guard T.J. Gibbs