Hoops Notebook: What's up with guard Trey Wertz?
Three games in, and he remains the most asked about, talked about and thought about player on the Notre Dame men’s basketball roster.
He’s scored exactly zero points. Grabbed zero rebounds. He doesn’t have an assist or a turnover or a blocked shot. He hasn’t started a game or finished a game or even appeared in a game. Yet it seems everyone wants to know about junior guard Trey Wertz.
Is he playing? Close to playing? Might be playing? Irish coach Mike Brey has mentioned Wertz in each of his three post-game Zoom calls when dissecting and discussing his team’s perimeter, where the three starters (Dane Goodwin, Prentiss Hubb, Cormac Ryan) have combined to average a whopping 38.0 minutes a game.
Brey went that route again after Notre Dame staggered down the stretch of Tuesday’s 90-85 loss to No. 22 Ohio State.
“We could use one more guy to kind of rotate through, especially on the perimeter,” Brey said. “We’ll see what happens with Trey’s situation.”
To understand Wertz’s situation moving forward, we must first move backward. In the spring, the 6-foot-5, 195-pound Wertz transferred to Notre Dame after two seasons at Santa Clara. As a sophomore, he averaged 11.9 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists. He shot 48 percent from the floor and 40 percent from 3. He never made an official visit to campus. He never met the Irish coaches in person. He still decided that it was a place for him. After a year of sitting out under NCAA transfer guidelines, Wertz would have two seasons of eligibility remaining.
One reason Wertz wanted a sit-out season, one reason he accepted a sit-out season, was that it would help put him on track to earn a graduate degree in the Mendoza College of Business. In essence, not playing a season of college basketball would set up Wertz for life after basketball.
“When we took Trey, we took him under the condition that he was going to sit out,” Brey said. “I’ve always been a proponent of sitting out.”
At a time when seemingly every transfer seeks a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately, Wertz and Brey and the Irish never went that route. They were fine with Wertz sitting. They weren’t going to come up with some far-flung excuse as to why he should play sooner than later. And with a veteran perimeter already in the mix, there would be little reason to need Wertz this season.
“I like the five-year, sit-out guys,” said Brey, himself one when he transferred from Northwestern (La.) State back home to George Washington as a college player.
As spring became summer and summer became fall and the pandemic showed no sign of slowing, Brey started thinking. There might be a time when Wertz would be needed. Say his team ran short of available players because of positive coronavirus testing or contact tracing. Shouldn’t his team — shouldn’t every team — have the ability to turn to a sit-out transfer in case of emergency?
“There is a school of thought, you know what, maybe all these guys need to be eligible now so we can get through a season and not cancel games,” Brey said. “It’s just logical.”
Back in preseason, Brey and Notre Dame compliance director Brent Mohberg drafted a proposal for the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) to present to the NCAA about having transfers like Wertz — not specifically Wertz — ruled eligible in case of emergency.
The NCAA may rule on the NABC proposal as early as Wednesday. Wertz, and every other sit-out transfer, might be ruled eligible to play this month. They might be ruled eligible to play next month. They might wind up doing what they’re currently doing — sitting out the season.
Nobody knows how the NCAA will rule. But they’re not ruling solely on Wertz’s waiver; they’re ruling on the NABC proposal.
“I applaud the NCAA for at least discussing this Wednesday,” Brey said. “I have the utmost respect that it’s at a discussion level on a serious note. This doesn’t move that fast usually.”
Notre Dame (1-2) has played the last two games with seven available scholarship players. The Irish are not expected to have eight for Saturday’s game at No. 20 Kentucky. Graduate student Nik Djogo is not expected to return from a sprained left ankle.
Rough waters ahead
Having seen the Notre Dame football program successfully navigate a regular season with only one major pandemic issue — the late-September campus outbreak that forced the postponement of a game at Wake Forest that ultimately was canceled — athletic director Jack Swarbrick isn’t confident that the college basketball season will run as smoothly.
“It’s going to be a mess,” Swarbrick said Wednesday during a Zoom media call. “We went into it with the knowledge that it would present a special challenge because of contact tracing in basketball, the size of the squad, the nature of the time together.”
As of Thursday afternoon, at least 39 Division I programs were paused in some capacity because of coronavirus protocols. At least 60 programs had recently returned from some sort of shutdown/quarantine situation.
Notre Dame had three home games canceled last week because of coronavirus issues. Every game carries a concern whether it will be played. Some contests have been canceled as close as 90 minutes before tip.
Swarbrick was a proponent of playing conference-only games (the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 20-game league schedule starts Wednesday at home against No. 6 Duke for Notre Dame). He also pushed for every Division I team to play in an expanded NCAA tournament.
“I wish I’d been more effective at selling the all-comers notion,” Swarbrick said of the proposal that never gained traction. “You’re going to have such differences in the number of games played and the nature of games that postseason selection is going to be very, very difficult.”
Notre Dame has missed the last three NCAA tournaments.
Freshman power forward Matt Zona looked like a freshman his first time out at Michigan State on Nov. 28. He played six minutes and scored one point. He looked like a freshman second time out Sunday against Detroit Mercy when he played two scoreless minutes.
On Tuesday against Ohio State, Zona settled down and settled in. He played seven minutes with two points, three rebounds, an assist and a block.
Late in the second half, with the Irish needing some additional interior presence after starting power forward Juwan Durham fouled out, Zona was in the game in a tight situation. He delivered a rebound bucket to bring the Irish within one with 4:30 remaining. Over a minute later, Zona corralled an offensive rebound and kicked it out to guard Prentiss Hubb for a 3-pointer that tied it at 75.
“He’s not really afraid of playing in tough situations,” Hubb said of the 6-9, 243-pounder. “Him coming off the bench giving us productive minutes, I’m proud of him. He’ll be a good player for us.”
Typically, an athletic director might have a suggestion or two when he sees a non-league schedule that carries as much weight as Notre Dame’s does this season. For a program that needs as many wins as possible before league play, going big might not be the best option.
Swarbrick never felt that way when he saw the schedule that Brey assembled. Saturday’s game at Kentucky is the third non-conference game against a ranked opponent. A potential fourth, against No. 12 Tennessee, was lost because of coronavirus issues within the Volunteers’ program.
Swarbrick never believed that Brey was overdoing it with his schedule.
“In this environment, with all this uncertainty, I was Mike’s biggest cheerleader in developing this schedule he developed,” he said. “My view was, this is the year to do this. Let’s take a shot at this.”
Had this been a “normal” season, Swarbrick admitted there’s no way Notre Dame would’ve put together anything close to a schedule like this one. It wouldn’t have opened at No. 4 Michigan State. It wouldn’t be on the road this weekend.
“My big regret with it is we have all these marquee games and no audience, which brings more than a little bit of a frustration,” Swarbrick said. “Really proud of Mike for taking this on and love the enthusiasm of the guys.”