Noie: Hoops challenges keep coming, but can Notre Dame again answer?
INDIANAPOLIS — Every game the Notre Dame men’s basketball team plays during a global pandemic feels like finding that one last present under the tree.
Any game day that doesn’t include an e-mail from Notre Dame that starts by stating “Due to COVID-19 …” is a great day.
Still, that doesn’t mean contests should carry all the intensity of those Sunday evening summer pickup games with the fellas at the court behind the grade school (remember those days?). When the compete level against really good teams from really good leagues remains incomplete five games in, you have issues.
The Irish (2-3) have issues.
One reason coach Mike Brey constructed this sledgehammer of a schedule with high-level opponents stacked like firewood outside the patio door was that he had an experienced group that he trusted would know how to handle playing in big games. He knew the rhythm of this season (choppy at best) would be different than any other, but it was one he believed his team could embrace.
Absorb one big punch after another with no margin for error and a schedule that features one challenge after another? Yeah, the Irish could do that.
They haven’t done it. They’re 0-3 against ranked teams, 0-2 against the Big Ten, 1-3 in those high-wire matchups they so wanted this season. They couldn’t hold an 11-point lead in the second half at home against Ohio State. They almost couldn’t hold a 22-point halftime lead at Kentucky. They never held much of anything against Michigan State or Duke.
“They know,” Mike Brey said of the schedule, “it’s coming at us hard.”
It’s been hard for the Irish.
When you have more losses (three) that good halves of basketball played (really, two) against power opponents, red flags are raised. The latest went airborne around 11 on Wednesday night when Notre Dame went AWOL against Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference opener. It wasn’t that the Irish lost to the Blue Devils (75-65). It’s that it looked a lot like the opener three weeks ago at No. 4 Michigan State.
There’s no shame in losing to Duke and to Michigan State. A lot of teams will do that this season. But it’s the way that Notre Dame looked (lost) that’s cause for concern.
Michigan State? Write that off as first-game stuff. Too nervous. Too unsure in that road environment. Still trying to work out the kinks of not playing an actual game in nearly nine months. Being on the business end of a 26-0 burst and tumbling into a 28-point hole was expected, even with this group. They hadn’t done any tough stuff yet to handle that tough stuff.
Then there’s Wednesday.
Notre Dame had every reason to raise its collective compete level. The Irish were really good in the first half of the Dec. 8 loss against Ohio State. They didn’t get that one, but grew enough from it to go and win for the first time in school history last weekend at Kentucky. Big step for a group that needed a big step. But they also needed to build off it.
When it came time to lay the foundation’s next brick, the Irish instead shot too many of them. It all was so last year or the previous year for these guys. This program, these guys, are supposed to be beyond that.
They aren’t. At least, not yet. Disappointing? Absolutely, but there’s no time to be discouraged because here comes the next test — surging Purdue (5-2), fresh from a win over No. 20 Ohio State in its Big Ten opener — at the annual Crossroads Classic in fan-free Bankers Life Fieldhouse (2:30 p.m., ESPN2).
Brey hinted in his post-game Zoom media meeting the other night that the Irish might look a little different to start, and maybe to finish. Who wants to defend? Anyone? They’ll play.
“If guys’ minutes change or starters change for Saturday, well, we’ll do what we have to do here early in the season,” he said.
Brey rarely shakes the starting five just to shake them up, so that option really may not be one. If — and that’s a massive IF given Brey’s penchant for sticking with his main guys — he shuffles the first five so the Irish can start a little differently and maybe look a little differently, the only real option involves power forward Juwan Durham.
Durham’s been stuck in neutral all season. He hasn’t been a defensive presence. He hasn’t been anything near an offensive presence. He hasn’t been what a fifth-year big needs to be in this program. The Irish need more from him. The train’s left the station, and he’s still standing on the platform. Harsh? Perhaps, but fifth-year guys need to play like fifth-year guys.
“Juwan’s doing the best he can,” point guard Prentiss Hubb said before Durham finished with seven points, two blocks and one rebound in 19 minutes against Duke.
Sitting Durham to start would allow Notre Dame to play a way its long played under Brey, play the way that might best suit this guard-heavy group. Going four perimeter players around one post player better opens the floor for the guards to do what they do. Do what they did the first half against Kentucky when they exploded for 48 points on 59.3 percent shooting and 54.5 percent from 3 (6-for-11). Durham played eight minutes in that first half.
Two bigs too often bogs everything down. Brey’s even open to flooding the floor with five guards.
“We’ll do that too if we have to,” he said. “We’ll get the big guys out.”
The Irish also have had myriad defensive issues the last three halves, where they’ve allowed a combined 112 points. Can’t guard. Can’t help. Can’t gang rebound. Can’t string together stops. Much of that stems from not being able to get going on offense. It too often affects the want-to to defend. The Irish haven’t looked anywhere like themselves on offense since that first half at Rupp.
“We don’t have to force stuff,” Brey said. “This group has learned, when they move together and swing it a little bit, we get something pretty good.”
All the good vibes these guys garnered last weekend are gone. Now possible lineup and rotation changes loom only six games in. A little extreme? Doesn’t matter. A veteran group should do something they haven’t yet shown — be mature enough to play through it.
Any of it. All of it.
WHO: Notre Dame (2-3) vs. Purdue (5-2)
WHERE: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (20,000) Indianapolis.
WHEN: Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
TICKETS: None available. Outside of family member of players, fans are not permitted in the arena.
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: Forward Trevion Williams scored 16 points with nine rebounds and eight assists and Eric Hunter added a season-high 15 points in Purdue’s 67-60 home victory Wednesday over No. 20 Ohio State in the teams’ Big Ten opener. Valparaiso’s Brandon Newman added 10 points and seven rebounds. The Boilermakers held the Buckeyes to 37.9 shooting from the field, 25 percent from 3. … Purdue has won two in a row and four of five. Its losses are to Atlantic Coast Conference teams – Clemson and Miami (Fla.). … The Boilermakers have had at least 16 turnovers in four of their first seven games. … Former Marian High School standout Jaden Ivey is averaging 8.0 points and 1.0 rebounds in 13 minutes over two games. He’s shooting 50 percent from the floor, 16.7 percent from 3 and 33 percent from the foul line. The freshman guard missed five games after a right foot injury in the opener against Liberty. … Purdue returns three starters off last year’s team that finished 16-15, 9-11 and tied for 10th in the Big Ten. … The Boilers were picked this preseason to finish ninth in the Big Ten. … Purdue has gone from 30 wins to 26 wins to 16 wins the last three years. … Micah Shrewsberry, the first full-time head coach in IU South Bend program history (2005-07), is in his first season as an associate head coach at Purdue after six years as an assistant with the Boston Celtics. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 23-21, 11-5 in neutral site games. … The Irish have won three of four matchups at the annual Crossroads, including an 88-80 victory on Dec. 15, 2018. … Notre Dame is 4-5 in the Crossroads; Purdue is 2-7. … This is the doubleheader’s second game at Bankers Life. Butler and Indiana tip at 11:30 a.m.
QUOTING: “He’s a very confident player. He’s a shot-maker. It was good to get him out there. It’s really hard after you’ve sat out. He was excited to play. Hopefully he plays better Saturday.”
—Purdue coach Matt Painter on South Bend native Jaden Ivey, who had four points, one rebound and one steal in eight minutes Wednesday against Ohio State.