Noie: Ready for some Notre Dame basketball? Yes, please

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Watching days grow shorter and leaves tumble from the trees brings a belief that everything about the job is falling back into its proper place.

High school teams are winding down their fall seasons. Prep football playoffs commenced Friday. Notre Dame football has played for a third straight week for the first time this season.

It all seems so normal.

Something’s still missing. It’s there, but not yet all there.

For the previous 22 years at the Tribune, the first 15 in the Big East and the last seven in the Atlantic Coast Conference, late October was the unofficial OK to pivot toward another year of covering the Notre Dame men’s basketball program. Some seasons (2011, 2015), you never wanted the ride to end. Others (2005, 2019) couldn’t end soon enough. But once they did, next season couldn’t start soon enough.

Next season is here, but only kind of.

By now, Media Day would’ve come and gone. That’s where coach Mike Brey would’ve offered his usual 10 words as his opening remarks, ones he’s repeated after seasons like the previous three.

It’s real simple, gotta get back to the NCAA tournament.

By now, we’d have been to a practice where we’d see for ourselves how the pieces to this team would fit. The first exhibition would be days away. Last year at this time, we were days away from Notre Dame doing what it had never before done — opening the regular season with a conference game. On the road. First time, last time for that.

As October winds down, Notre Dame men’s basketball remains a mystery — just the way Brey prefers it. Nobody’s talking or thinking hoops yet. There’s been nothing to talk or think about. There was no Media Day. There was no open practice. No interaction with Brey or his staff, which includes first-year interim assistant coach Scott Martin, thrown into an impossible situation after the departure of former assistant and player Ryan Ayers for reasons that likely have nothing to do with basketball.

There has been no official release of the regular season schedule. That might be coming the first of next month. In place of knowns, there’s only unknowns.

We think the Irish will be led by the guard combination of Prentiss Hubb and Cormac Ryan, a Stanford transfer who sat out last season but immediately earned the respect of teammates for his team-first approach. Hubb hails from the DMV (D.C.-Maryland-Virginia) while Ryan’s a New England kid with New York City roots.

Remember the last time Notre Dame turned the team over to a guard from the DMV and a New England kid with strong leadership skills? Nobody’s projecting this pair to be the second coming of Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, who drove the program to within one win of the Final Four in that magical 2015 season, but after what the Irish have been through the last three years, it’s a good start.

Getting there

Bits and pieces of news nuggets about the Irish have trickled from Rolfs Hall. Hubb went for 11 assists in one scrimmage. Ryan seemingly just has it. They’re secure in what they do and who they are. The two frontline guys — Juwan Durham and Nate Laszewski — actually look the part of legit Atlantic Coast Conference frontline guys. The 6-foot-11 Durham is up to about 238 pounds (he arrived as a Connecticut transfer at 223) while the 6-10 Laszewski is close to 228 after playing near 200 as a freshman. They could be joined by true freshman Matt Zona, who’s impressed with the all-important feel for the game. He’s tough and doesn’t play like a freshman, which is exactly what the Irish need.

If the Irish were to play tonight, the rotation might only go about six deep. For now. That’s six guys that the staff trusts. Again, for now. It could stretch to seven or eight. That might include Santa Clara transfer Trey Wertz, who was expected to sit out this season under NCAA transfer regulations, but even that’s become a great unknown.

There have been rumblings that the National Association of Basketball Coaches (with some prodding from Brey, a past president who’s rotated off the board this season) will petition the NCAA that all transfers become immediately eligible this season. That would offset any potential COVID-19 related roster management issues. An eligible Wertz to go with Hubb and Ryan and junior Dane Goodwin offers the potential of a potent perimeter. Brey believes that you can never have enough good guards. Because if you have good guards, you’ve always got a chance.

And sorry, T.J. Gibbs and Rex Pflueger, the Irish guards just weren’t good enough the last couple years. Thus, no chance. But they’re gone, and the program should be better off. Good guys, but good guys whose ceilings had been hit way too early in their careers.

What gives this coaching staff optimism that this season will look less like the previous three and more like what we’ve come to know the program for? Easy. Age. The Irish — specifically the core guys — have rotated back into an older, more mature and focused group. Growing pains of the last two years surely will cease. We should see more of what made Hubb and Goodwin and Laszewski part of Brey’s best recruiting class.

Had there not been a pandemic, the regular season would’ve started at home against Army on Veterans Day. Now, it looks like the Irish won’t start playing actual games (exhibitions have been eliminated) until the first week of December. Once the regular season comes, it’s going to come quickly with plenty of high-powered, prove-it games that first month.

Games like an ACC/Big Ten Challenge home game (opponent TBD). And Dec. 12 at Kentucky (that one’s still penciled to be played), then Dec. 19 against Purdue in Indianapolis (ditto). And three league games before 2020 finally ends. There’s still a plan to play at Howard on Martin Luther King Day (Jan. 18).

Players are tested for coronavirus every Monday. That may increase when the season arrives. There might be stops and starts. There are — for now — no bubbles planned for the Irish. Fans aren’t expected to be allowed in anytime soon, and likely not at all. Conference play will include 20 league games. Perhaps a league tournament awaits at season’s end.

No matter what, the NCAA tournament is expected to be played, maybe at any cost. The future of the sport depends on it.

That’s about all that is known about this college season. Can’t wait to find out the rest. It’s hoops time.

The first of two exhibition games should be nearing for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team. Instead, the regular season (with no exhibitions) likely won’t start until the first week of December.
Much of what Notre Dame wants to do this season will be centered around junior point guard Prentiss Hubb.