Noie: Back to Breslin Center for Notre Dame, and that could be good for this hoops group

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

EAST LANSING, Mich. — When the charter bus carrying the Notre Dame men’s basketball team crawled from the Breslin Center and made that left turn onto Harrison Road the last night of November 2017, South Bend was the anticipated destination.

Nobody knew the Irish would take a detoured dive into college basketball’s abyss.

Earlier that evening, Notre Dame was as high as one could be without the help of additional influences. Nine days earlier, the Irish won arguably the game’s premier early-season tournament, the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. Mike Brey, who in the weeks that followed would become the program’s all-time winningest coach, became a cult-like college basketball coaching hero when video surfaced of him flexing shirtless with a lei around his neck in the locker room out in Hawaii. The Irish were a veteran team, led by potential Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Bonzie Colson, who might even become a first-round NBA draft pick after maybe pushing the program to its second Final Four in school history.

Notre Dame’s early work that season, which included a half dozen wins and the Maui title, rocketed it to No. 5 in the national polls, a place it hadn’t been in either of its Elite Eight runs in 2015 and 2016.

Everything was falling into place for Brey and his bunch. That night in East Lansing, it all started to fall apart. A foundation that seemed so firm eventually crumbled down to the core until only rubble remained.

Running on Maui fumes that night, Notre Dame never had a chance against No. 3 Michigan State. The Spartans were too talented, too focused and too much for the Irish, who tumbled into a 20-point hole not even halfway through the first half and never led. The final margin was 18, but it seemed more like 28. It was only one loss, Brey likely counseled his team before they got back on the bus, but the Irish lost way more than that.

They lost their swagger, lost their belief that they could not only stand alongside a ranked team on the road, but beat them. That also was that night Colson first felt persistent pain in his left foot. In the weeks that followed, he’d be diagnosed with a broken foot. He’d have surgery and return, then break it again late in a season that saw the Irish finish 21-15 and basically become team No. 69 in a 68-team NCAA tournament field.

Notre Dame hasn’t been back to the NCAA tournament, hasn’t had a winning record in the ACC, hasn’t so much as been or beaten a ranked team. The Irish have lost 21 consecutive games to teams with an Associated Press poll number next to its name. Michigan State started that streak three years ago.

Brey didn’t need the team bus to pull up to the arena this weekend to have those memories come flooding back. He’s thought a lot about what happened that night and in the seasons that followed as Notre Dame opens Saturday at No. 13 Michigan State (8 p.m., Big Ten Network).

“That is kind of where some karma really started to change for us,” Brey said. “We also got our butts kicked by a really good team. We never really recovered. We spiraled.”

Who are these guys?

The Irish prepare to play arguably their most intriguing game since that night at Breslin Center in 2017. Seriously. Few give Notre Dame a chance in this building against this team, but what do we really know about these Irish? About this program? About this season?

Nothing.

Last time we saw Notre Dame, it had three starters who are no longer with the program putting together the program’s most lopsided ACC tournament win in school history back in March against Boston College (80-58). A day later, the college basketball world shut down, and it’s since remained pretty shuttered. Notre Dame has practiced in masks and behind closed doors at Rolfs Hall in its own basketball bubble. The Irish haven’t held any practices for outside eyes. There were no exhibition games. Brey also hasn’t brought in officials to oversee preseason scrimmages, one of his practice staples. The first time the Irish play anything that resembles a game will be Saturday against the Spartans.

“I am a little nervous,” Brey admitted earlier in the week. “I’m banking on our maturity. I’m banking on, these guys have played a lot of college basketball. They’ve been around. They’ve been in big games.”

And overdue to go win a few of those big games like Saturday. Forget the losing streak to ranked teams. Forget the combined 18-35 record in the ACC since the Irish opened that 2017-18 season 3-0 for the first time in school history. Forget that walking double-double John Mooney is now playing professionally Down Under in Perth, Australia. Forget that junior guard Cormac Ryan makes his Irish debut and may have a few nerves or that bench options may go no deeper than two.

Forget everything that everyone expects from this team — the early consensus being, not much — and just go play. Finally. For this group, that’s big.

Why is Michigan State first up for Notre Dame? Even that’s by design by Brey, who constructed a crusher non-league schedule that will challenge the Irish from the jump. This should’ve been a season for the Irish to stay home and hide and rack up some confidence and wins over overmatched teams. Brey doesn’t want this group to hide. He wants it out front, for all to see. He believe there’s a lot to see, and to like. Just watch.

“You don’t put this (schedule) together unless you look and go, ‘I love my team; I think we have a chance,’” Brey said. “To have a big one out of the gate, then look at the rest of December is so motivating for everybody.”

That Notre Dame is back at Breslin Center after that 2017 loss pushed his program toward irrelevance isn’t lost on Brey. Playing well and competing Saturday — maybe even getting an out-of-nowhere win — could do the opposite. It could get these guys again believing that they can be good. It could get everyone’s attention.

“That,” Brey said, “could be a really neat story, to come full circle.”

Late Saturday, the charter bus carrying the Irish men’s basketball team again will crawl from Breslin Center. It will turn left onto Harrison Road with the ultimate destination of South Bend. Instead of another dive back into the college basketball abyss, another road may await — one that sees a season of big plays and big wins and big moments. A season of surprise and success, one of dreaming big dreams in January and February and March.

Maybe there is a bright and beckoning light at the end of it all.

It would be a welcome change for a program that for too long has wandered around in the dark.

Notre Dame returns to Breslin Center on Saturday to play No. 13 Michigan State for the first time since everything about the program started to change during an 18-point loss on Nov. 30, 2017.

2 Trey Wertz,SG, 6-5, 195, Jr., Charlotte, NC

3 Prentiss Hubb, PG, 6-3, 175, Jr., Upper Marlboro, Md.

5 Cormac Ryan, SG, 6-5, 195, Jr., New York, N.Y.

11 Juwan Durham, PF, 6-11, 231, GS, Tampa, Fla.

12 Tony Sanders Jr., WG, 6-7, 202, Fr., Miami, Fla.

13 Nikola Djogo, WG, 6-8, 230, GS, Hamilton, Ontario

14 Nate Laszewski, PF, 6-10, 227, Jr., Jupiter, Fla.

22 Elijah Taylor, PF, 6-8, 231, Fr., Philadelphia, Pa.

23 Dane Goodwin, SG, 6-6, 200, Jr., Upper Arlington, Ohio

24 Robby Carmody, WG, 6-4, 215, Jr., Mars, Pa.

25 Matt Zona, PF, 6-9, 243, Fr., Blauvelt, N.Y.

31 Elijah Morgan, PG, 6-1, 165, Soph., New Orleans, La.

Noting: Wertz is expected to sit out under NCAA regulations after transferring from Santa Clara. Taylor will miss this season after undergoing ankle surgery. Carmody is a junior academically but still a freshman athletically after missing much of his first two seasons because of injury.

• 2020-21 NOTRE DAME MEN'S BASKETBALL SCHEDULE

Home games in CAPS

NOVEMBER

Sat. 28 at Michigan State, 8 p.m. (BTN).

DECEMBER

Wed. 2 WESTERN MICHIGAN, 7; Fri. 4 TENNESSEE, 8; Tues. 8 OHIO STATE (ACC/Big Ten Challenge); Sat. 12 at Kentucky, noon (CBS); 16 DUKE; Sat. 19 Purdue (Crossroads Classic, Indianapolis); Tues. 22 at Syracuse; Wed. 30 VIRGINIA.

JANUARY

Sat. 2 at Pittsburgh; Wed. 6 GEORGIA TECH; Sun. 10 at Virginia Tech; Wed. 13 at Virginia; Sat. 16 BOSTON COLLEGE; Mon. 18 at Howard; Sun. 24 at Miami (Fla.); Wed. 27 VIRGINIA TECH; Sat. 30 at North Carolina.

FEBRUARY

Tues. 2 WAKE FOREST; Sat. 6; at Georgia Tech; Tues. 9 at Duke; Sun. 14 MIAMI (Fla.); Wed. 17 CLEMSON; Tues. 23 at Louisville; Sat. 27 at Boston College.

MARCH

Wed. 3 NORTH CAROLINA STATE; Sat. 6 FLORIDA STATE

WHO: Notre Dame (0-0) vs. No. 13 Michigan State (1-0).

WHERE: Breslin Center (15,000), East Lansing, Mich.

WHEN: Saturday at 8 p.m.

TICKETS: No fans allowed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

TV: Big Ten Network (BTN).

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: Guard Foster Loyer scored a career-high 20 points and Marquette transfer power forward Joey Hauser added 15 points and nine rebounds as Michigan State opened Wednesday with an 83-67 victory at home over Eastern Michigan. The Spartans led by as many as 22. They had 27 assists on their 30 field goals. ... Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is 69-0 all-time at Breslin Center in November. ... The Spartans return three starters off last year’s team that finished 22-9, 14-6 and tied for first in the Big Ten. They lost their top two scorers (Cassius Winston, 18.6 ppg.) and Xavier Tillman (13.7) to the NBA draft. Michigan State was picked this preseason to finish fourth in the Big Ten behind Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. … Michigan State has been to the NCAA tournament for 22 consecutive seasons. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 60-37, including 25-23 in East Lansing. The Irish are 0-1 at Breslin Center. The Spartans have won four of the last five in the series. … This is the first regular-season game (not ACC/Big Ten Challenge or NCAA tournament) since Feb. 5, 1975. … Michigan State has averaged 26.6 wins over the last five years; Notre Dame has averaged 23. … This is Izzo’s 26th season. He’s 629-241 all-time. … This is the second straight season and the third time in the last four years that Notre Dame opens a season on the road. It’s the first time since 1970-71 that the Irish have started on the road a second straight season. … This is the latest that a Notre Dame season has started since 1993, when it also started on Nov. 28 at home against Valparaiso. … Notre Dame’s home game on Dec. 4 against No. 12 Tennessee has officially been canceled.

QUOTING: “I know there’s a little bit of a movement out there of, ‘Oh, shut it down.’ We need to kind of try and do this. Football has soldiered through this thing with casualties being games canceled or postponed. We really need to keep moving and try this thing.”

-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey on playing during a global pandemic.