Noie: One day a time all that matters for Notre Dame men's basketball

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Squint this time of year on the daily drive to the office and Notre Dame coach Mike Brey could see the entire college basketball season opening up out the front window of his Buick Enclave.

He could see Christmas, the one day he annually sets aside to start thinking about Atlantic Coast Conference play. He could see January, when league play would kick into full gear and 20 conference contests would be marching toward town. He could see March and imagine its postseason possibilities. What would that month mean come league tournament time? Come Selection Sunday?

Usually, Brey could look down the hoops road in early November, even on a day like Monday when it was nearly 80 degrees and nobody was thinking much about college basketball (for obvious reasons) and dream of what the next five months would hold.

Not this year. Brey’s not all worried about the next five months. He’s probably not worried about the next five days. That’s life as a college basketball coach in the middle of a global pandemic, when nobody knows what’s coming around the next corner next week, let alone the next 24 hours.

“You’re really living day to day,” Brey said Monday during his first Zoom media call since April when the sports world was just turning upside down. “When you try and think of five months and think of March, that’s a little bit too much to bite off, quite frankly.”

So are dreaming any dreams of this program getting back to the NCAA tournament after missing each of the last three (the Irish weren’t going there last year even before the pandemic scrapped March). Does this group have what’s needed to play in March? Motivation won’t be an issue. Can this team win the needed games to get back there? As of today, who cares? Brey doesn’t.

Every regular-season game will feel like a tournament game. The Irish have a 27-game regular-season schedule (likely released Tuesday), but beyond that, they have, what exactly? A top-half team in the ACC? A team among the nation’s 68 best? High seed? Low seed? No seed?

“That’s all out the window,” Brey said. “Stop. Stop. Let’s get our kids playing and hopefully we play most of the 27.”

Most being the operative word. And, honestly, a scary word. Nobody knows what December and January and February will look like. Outside? Snow and cold. Inside? No fans? Few fans? Games? Few games? All a guess. The template to play in a pandemic is there now with college football, but all that changes when hoops starts. Football plays one game a week. It’s manageable. What happens when basketball plays three times in a week with travel mixed in. How will that look?

Brey has prepared his players for anything and everything. A couple good weeks where the status quo is super? Yep. A couple days when they don’t have enough guys to go five-on-five? The Irish have had that a few times in workouts because of contact tracing since beginning practice last month. Players are tested for the virus once a week. That goes to twice a week next week. Then three times when the season starts.

Brey figures as long as he has seven guys available on a given night, he’s good. There also may be times when the Irish are prepared to head for the airport and a charter flight to somewhere in the ACC, only to be told the bus isn’t leaving the Rolfs Hall parking lot for a ‘rona reason. Somebody’s going to miss a game or two or three along the way. Some games are going down with them. Big games. Important games.

The first road trip of the season will be by bus — more than likely Nov. 28 in an up-and-back visit to No. 13 Michigan State. The first flight trip will be at the end of December to a yet-to-be-announced ACC city (think snow). The Irish will be on a lot of planes a lot after the first of the year. It’s already causing Brey as many sleepless nights as planning for repeat league games against No. 9 Duke and No. 4 Virginia.

“We’re going to be thrown some major curves,” Brey said. “We’re going to have disappointments in our schedule and disappointments with guys unavailable, but we’re going to to keep plugging and we’re going to keep playing.

“My job is to kind of keep them in that frame of mind for five months.”

If the first month is any indication, the Irish are off to a solid start. Thanks to the pandemic and its multiple protocols, the Irish have operated behind closed doors since practice commenced Oct. 14. No open scrimmages for season-ticket holders. No exhibition games to work out the kinks and get used to the bright lights of Purcell Pavilion. No visitors allowed anywhere.

Pandemic problems and protocols aside, Brey likes this team. Every coach in the country says that in early November, but an extended preseason after classes started Aug. 10 and nearly two dozen practices have offered additional optimism. The Irish have worn masks daily. In meetings. In drills. Even in scrimmages. Brey and his staff have coached in masks, something he believes will continue during games.

Junior point guard Prentiss Hubb is in the pilot’s seat this season. Alongside him is Stanford transfer Cormac Ryan, who was one of the strongest and steadiest voices last year during his sit-out season. They’re running this show. They’ll run it well. There’s skepticism along the front line now that former first team all-league power forward John Mooney has taken his string of double doubles to Australia where he plays professionally, but that’s where Juwan Durham and Nate Laszewski have to help.

Durham didn’t always like being a forgotten big to Mooney. Now he’s not, so have at it. Laszewski was a boy his first two years. Brey says he looks the part of a man. Men are good. Men are needed in this league. In this season.

What’s it all going to look like? Nobody knows in early November (except last year when the Irish already had two regular-season games under their belts at this point), and even more so this year. The season opener’s closing quickly, but it won’t feel like hoops season around here until college football season ends. And that may be a while. That’s just the way it is.

Get ready for a college hoops season like no other. How’s it all start? How’s it all end? No one has a clue, which makes it even more intriguing. For however long the run lasts.

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey doesn’t have any idea how college basketball might get through the regular season during a pandemic, but they’re going to find out.
AP File Photo/Mark WallheiserNo more John Mooney means more of a chance for Irish power forward Juwan Durham.