Noie: No summer school a setback for Notre Dame men's basketball team
It was past 10 on a weekday night one June, but the head coach was calling.
He was looking for something, anything, about the guys on the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, guys he was unable to see for himself.
As late as the mid-2000s, NCAA rules prohibited coaches from spending much time with their teams during summer school. Staffs were allowed a maximum of two hours a week. If those 120 minutes had been exhausted, and players gathered to play pickup late at night, it was a violation for coaches to watch. So they stayed away.
That led Notre Dame’s Mike Brey to contact a print reporter who’d been at those pickup sessions. For over an hour, on the old and dusty and worn-down Purcell Pavilion floor (the main one is shipped off for refinishing every offseason) the guys went up and down. They interacted. They competed. They bonded. Brey wanted to know the reporter’s thoughts. Who looked good? What about the freshmen? Who could play? Who couldn’t?
Brey embraced any nugget of news.
Why? Summer mattered.
Summer allowed former Irish power forward Luke Harangody, who’d finish his collegiate career as the second leading scorer and rebounder in school history, to realize how he needed to get his game in gear if he was to do anything as a freshman. Days after arriving on campus for summer school, Harangody was handed his pickup lunch by former power forward Rob Kurz. Afterward, Harangody feared he was in over his hoops head. He spent that summer getting better, to the point where he became a freshman starter. He averaged 11.2 points and 6.2 rebounds and earned a spot on the Big East’s All-Freshman team.
One reason former guard Tory Jackson stepped into a starting role in January and helped drive the Irish to an NCAA tournament bid as a freshman was that he spent that summer learning how to lead, how to take better care of the ball, how to be a point guard first and a scorer second. He learned where his teammates liked and wanted the ball. Jackson then delivered it.
“Summer school,” Jackson said Tuesday, “was clutch for me.”
Former Irish power forward Chris Doherty never settled in, partially because of summer. Painfully homesick, Doherty spent the summer before his freshman year back in Marlborough, Mass., while his teammates — and classmates — stayed in South Bend. Doherty spent the rest of his freshman year playing catch-up. With his teammates. With the system. With college. With everything. Doherty left the program last December and transferred to Northeastern.
On Monday, university president Rev. John I. Jenkins announced plans for the fall semester to start two weeks early (Aug. 10) and end the week of Thanksgiving. Folded into that hopeful timeline was the decision to scrap the second summer school session. For the first time since 1998 — before the final season of former coach John MacLeod — Irish basketball players will not attend summer school.
That’s going to sting. Maybe early in the season, maybe late in the season, one where Notre Dame must snap a three-year NCAA tournament drought. Somewhere along the line, not having the summer to be on campus together, to be in the weight room together, to be on the court together, to spend the weekends together, will show.
“Over the summer, all we had was each other,” Jackson said. “That benefited us during the year.”
The time’s often about more than just books and basketball. It’s about bonding and about getting one’s mind and body right to handle the grind of the six-plus month season. It’s about becoming better teammates and becoming a better team.
“I loved summer school,” former Irish guard David Graves told the Tribune on Monday. “Great time to get better with the guys.”
A time to grind
When the decision to do away with summer school was finalized Monday, Brey was about a month away from his usual first-day-of-summer-school speech. It’s the same one that hangs in the team lounge, the same words he’s repeated as his mantra for so many previous summers — if you go to class and take care of the basketball, we’ll get along just fine.
Last season, Notre Dame led the nation in assist/turnover ratio (1.68). No team in the country took better care of the ball. Why? Because for those six weeks of summer, the Irish learned how to take care of it. Go ahead and throw it away during pickup sessions at Rolfs Hall in June and July. Come November and December and January, the Irish better value every offensive possession. They know how to best play together. Summer’s the time the Irish core learns how to operate as one. To think as one. To move as one.
This was set up as a critical summer for Notre Dame. Sunday’s graduation of T.J. Gibbs, John Mooney and Rex Pflueger leaves a leadership void. It’s expected to be filled by juniors Prentiss Hubb and Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski and sophomore Cormac Ryan. Hubb was ready to really find his voice as the guy; Goodwin and Laszewski and Ryan are expected to better find theirs.
This was the summer that the program would be totally turned over to the junior class. It was their time to run with it. All of it. The leadership. The starting spots. The larger roles. Everything. Now that plan gets pushed back to who knows when. Instead of finding their flow in June and July, the Irish will have to do it in August and September. With little leeway.
Summer’s big for the known guys, and for the unknowns. The most popular offseason question often is how might the freshmen fit? So little of what they did in high school as seniors matter. The game’s too different for any of that to really matter. Seeing them play summer pickup, you first see that, ‘Yeah, that guy’s going to play’ or, ‘Whoa, that guy’s going to need a year in the lab with strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski.’
This summer was big for incoming freshmen Tony Sanders, Elijah Taylor and Matt Zona. At least one was going to get an early chance at a rotation spot. Now that’ll have to wait. The coaching staff remains hopeful that the team might be able to report to campus sometime in July to get at least some sort of jump on 2020-21. By that time, they’ll have been separated for over four months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now that plan’s part of a greater college athletics unknown. Instead of having summer to ease into everything, basketball’s going to hit the ground running. Ready or not, it’ll be time to go. Whenever it’s time to go.