Noie: Small steps defined Notre Dame men's hoops season, but bigger ones beckon
Who were those guys?
Were they the ones who came within one possession of twice beating a Top 10 team this college basketball season? Or were they the ones who looked so thoroughly overwhelmed on the road against two elite outfits?
Were they the ones who snagged four Atlantic Coast Conference road wins after getting just one last season? Or were they the ones who again struggled to defend home court in league play, losing four games this season after dropping seven a year ago?
Was this team good enough to make a run through a league tournament that never was, or just not good enough to seriously chase a place in the NCAA tournament field?
When it comes to the Notre Dame men’s basketball program and the 2019-20 season, the answer to all is the same.
Finishing 20-12 overall and 10-10 in a down season for the ACC, Notre Dame was kind of stuck in the middle the last five months. The Irish were good, but never good enough. The Irish were bad, but never bad enough. Not awesome; not awful. Just, well, average.
Nobody wants to be average. At anything.
Notre Dame finished seventh in the 15-team ACC. It never lost more than two straight games, but never beat a team with a winning record in league play. These Irish never did have that one standout player who could put the program on his back. A Ben Hansbrough. A Jerian Grant or a Pat Connaughton. A Bonzie Colson. They had a lot of Betas, but no Alphas. Alphas equal elite in the ACC. The Irish are a long way from elite.
At least they get an A for effort.
When it seemed another league season was headed south with a 2-6 start and coach Mike Brey $20,000 lighter following his late-night meltdown in Tallahassee, Fla. — “We’re in the league, too! Come on! — the Irish found something, Found themselves. They ran off four straight wins. There was the near-miss at defending national champ Virginia in overtime — the Irish allowed only 50 points and somehow still lost — and that forgettable Saturday afternoon in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
That didn’t deter these guys. They bounced back and won three in a row. They were resilient from start to finish, we’ll give them that. They believed. Give them that as well.
They even made us wonder if this season was headed somewhere special. But two straight losses — to the second-to-last place team in the league in Wake Forest and at home to No. 7 Florida State on a last-second rebound bucket — swiped their collective soul and again sent Brey over the edge in walking on the post-game wild side.
Short of winning the ACC tournament, these Irish weren’t going to experience everything that everyone wants to experience in March. Turns out they weren’t alone. All the expected madness became sadness. And now, emptiness.
Notre Dame made sure its one league tournament game was memorable. Never before had it won an ACC tourney game by as wide a margin (22 points) as it did last week over Boston College. That gave the Irish wins in nine of their last 12. After last year’s nothing, this was something.
It’s been a week since coronavirus shuttered college basketball. It feels more like a month. Notre Dame wasn’t able to take its season where it believed it could. Then again, no other school did either. Everyone’s left with a big batch of what if...
Working only off the way this season ended for the Irish, let’s classify it a success. Notre Dame did win a half dozen more games overall than it did the previous year. It bettered its conference win total by seven. That’s difficult to do and impossible to ignore. The Irish did get better from last season’s bottoming out. This group then maxed it out with what it had. They did a lot with a little.
Now with no more double doubles from John Mooney, no more getting by on guts and guile from Rex Pflueger and no more spiffy stats and little else from T.J. Gibbs, the roster has some massive holes. For a myriad reasons. There wouldn’t be as many if D.J. Harvey had worked out, or if the sophomore class had progressed quicker. But he didn’t. They didn’t.
Sophomores Dane Goodwin, Prentiss Hubb and Nate Laszewski need to take another step as players, as leaders, as key guys. The training wheels now are off. There’s too much talent there. This has to be their team. Production must trump potential. It’s time for each of them to go and be great. It’s there. Tap into it.
Stanford transfer Cormac Ryan will help in so many areas. Freshman forwards Elijah Taylor and Matt Zona might surprise. Robby Carmody even might go a full season without suffering a third devastating injury.
The Irish move forward without any traditional seniors (Juwan Durham and Nik Djogo are expected to be graduate seniors) or sophomores next season.
Help Wanted? Absolutely.
Notre Dame needs a transfer or two — traditional or graduate — to tighten up a too loose roster. It’s an avenue that needs to be explored, but will it? Fit is big in this program. Brey and his staff lean on it a lot. How a potential player fits in the locker room and within the team dynamic is just as important as what he can do on the court.
With the university closed for who knows how long, how can anyone judge fit? There will be no spring pickup games. There’s no way of knowing if a potential addition can blend into that culture.
Might be time for blind faith.
Same might have to be said for Brey and his staff, which seemed stagnant and in possible need of an overhaul. But does anything happen with the way the world currently works. Or doesn’t.
What will Notre Dame basketball look like moving forward? For the first time in a long time, nobody really knows. That’s scary, sure, but also intriguing. Something needs to change, but what? Is just a tweak needed? A teardown?
This much is known — the NCAA tournament becomes the bare minimum expectation next season. The spin control of being team No. 69 two years ago, or being way too young last year or coronavirus this year won’t cut it. This remains a bottom line business.
Bottom line? The Irish have to be better. They know. Now they have to go do it.