Noie: Does one long opener = one long season for Notre Dame men's basketball?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Easing into a front-row parking spot only steps from what should’ve been a sold-out Breslin Center, intrigue was everywhere.

What would this college basketball season opener hold for Notre Dame? How would the pieces fit Saturday against No. 13 Michigan State? How would this nucleus, now a veteran group that their head coach believes will be good, hold up against one of the Big Ten’s premier programs? What would covering and playing college hoops look like during a global pandemic?

So many questions and so many storylines. Saturday was the first chance to see it (relatively) up close.

Hours later, somewhere along the Toll Road as late Saturday night became early Sunday morning, some of those questions had answers. There also was concern. As in, whoa, Notre Dame might be in for a long season. Like, we’ve seen this movie.

It would be easy to look at Notre Dame’s 80-70 loss (the Irish closed with a 36-18 run after trailing by as many as 28) and take the easy conclusion route out. That would be this — these Irish aren’t that good, and likely won’t be. That they aren’t much better than last season’s 20-12 outfit, and maybe closer to the one that finished 3-15 in the Atlantic Coast Conference two seasons ago. That there is no bench, no rotation to rely on, no dude in the front court to play King of the Hill in the paint, no one guy (Prentiss Hubb’s game-high 23 points aside) who can get a bucket when the Irish need a one. They needed one Saturday after laboring more than nine minutes without a field goal as Michigan State ran off 26 unanswered points.

Yep, simply stating that the Irish are no good only one game in would be too easy. Nothing will be easy about this college basketball season. Just getting through to January will be hard. Getting to March will be hard. Playing an NCAA tournament for the first time since 2019 (quick, name the still defending national champion) might be hardest of all.

Notre Dame (0-1) learned some hard lessons Saturday. It learned that it takes more than a couple good possessions nestled within 12 acceptable minutes of first-half basketball to be better than average. At one point, after five good minutes, the Irish even led by as many as four. They looked like a cohesive group. They moved the ball. They took care of it. They dug in and defended. They competed.

When this one went south, it did so in a hurry with a flurry of bad shots and quick shots. Ball movement and boxing out became rumors. Playing with poise and purpose? Also, out the window.

At night’s end, it would’ve been OK for the Irish to leave Breslin Center disappointment after not getting that one rebound or making that one shot that would snap a losing streak against ranked teams that’s hit 22. It would’ve been OK to be disappointed with coming close and being good, but not yet good enough. For this group, that would’ve felt like a win.

Instead it all was disheartening — the loss, the lack of options, either on the floor or off a bench that goes only three deep. The junior class looked less like a cornerstone of this season and more like they did the previous two when they were having their lunch taken as freshmen and sophomores.

They have to advance everything about themselves — their games, their mindset, their leadership, their everything — to be better than what they collectively showed Saturday for this season to have any chance at anything.

Michigan State blocked 10 shots in the first half. It reached a point where it looked like the middle schoolers had coaxed the upstart elementary kids to the playground court with the double rims and chain-link nets at recess. Wanna play? Let’s play. The big kids then swatted shots into the swings. A few more by the jungle gym. Some over by the hopscotch board. The endless loop of no ball fake, shot attempt, block. It was hard to watch.

This was a game the Irish pointed to over the last few pandemic weeks. It was a game that coach Mike Brey believed his team was ready to play. From a physical and mental standpoint, they needed this challenge. Start the season at home against some strength of schedule bottom feeder? Not a chance. Time for these guys in this program at this time to go big. Think big.

Afterward, Brey could’ve taken a similar post-game path as he’s walked the last few years. He could’ve talked about how it was the junior varsity against the varsity (it was). He could’ve classified it as men against boys (at times, it was). Instead, the head coach was rather upbeat. The week featured four coronavirus tests for his players. The game wasn’t given the green light until the final batch of tests returned negative around noon Saturday.

“I’m kind of thrilled we got the game in,” Brey said.

Nothing about 2020 has stayed to the script, and Saturday’s opener was no exception for the Irish. Like life today, accept it and keep moving. Keep hoping. There’s a long way to go in this season. Notre Dame will get a few more chances at ranked teams, both in and out of ACC play. The way college basketball’s started, it’s too early to draw any conclusions in concrete. Virginia looks like a certain Final Four team one day, then loses to San Francisco the next. Villanova looks ticketed to challenge for a third national championship in six seasons out of the gate, then loses to Virginia Tech.

All signs seemed to stress that Notre Dame would be beyond average. Saturday showed that the Irish aren’t there yet. On a night when it was supposed to be older and wiser and better, it wasn’t. But there’s time.

This season’s going to get weird. Notre Dame plays next Wednesday, but if testing protocols go sideways, it might not play again for a couple weeks. Just getting to the next game is a win. And after the first one, at least we know something about Notre Dame.

The Irish have a long way to go. Too early to write everything about them off, but keep that pen and paper close.

NOTRE DAME (0-1): Durham 2-7 0-0 4, Laszewski 4-6 3-5 12, Goodwin 3-10 6-7 12, Hubb 7-23 5-7 23, Ryan 3-12 4-4 13, Djogo 1-1 0-0 2, Sanders 0-0 0-0 0, Zona 0-0 1-2 1, Morgan 1-1 1-1 3. Totals 21-60 20-26 70.

MICHIGAN ST. (2-0): Hauser 4-11 2-4 10, Henry 4-11 5-5 14, Kithier 2-3 2-2 6, Langford 3-7 0-0 8, Loyer 1-1 1-1 3, Brown 4-8 0-0 9, Watts 5-11 0-0 13, Hall 2-3 0-1 4, Bingham 3-8 1-1 7, Hoggard 0-2 0-0 0, Hoiberg 0-1 0-0 0, Marble 1-1 1-1 3, Sissoko 1-1 1-1 3, Izzo 0-2 0-0 0, Smith 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-70 13-16 80.

Halftime_Michigan St. 39-26. 3-Point Goals_Notre Dame 8-21 (Hubb 4-11, Ryan 3-7, Laszewski 1-1, Goodwin 0-2), Michigan St. 7-22 (Watts 3-5, Langford 2-3, Henry 1-3, Brown 1-5, Hall 0-1, Izzo 0-1, Hauser 0-4). Rebounds_Notre Dame 33 (Laszewski 9), Michigan St. 46 (Hauser 16). Assists_Notre Dame 13 (Goodwin 4), Michigan St. 26 (Watts 6). Total Fouls_Notre Dame 11, Michigan St. 21.

Michigan State’s Joey Hauser, left, and Notre Dame’s Juwan Durham battle for a rebound during the first half of Saturday’s game at Breslin Center.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and Notre Dame coach Mike Brey meet at midcourt after an 80-70 Spartan win Saturday at Breslin Center.