Noie: Nothing easy yet about this college hoops season for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

How does someone whose job entails watching college basketball spend a day off?

By watching college basketball.

Interest in games from the Big East and the Big Ten and whatever other conference contest happens to be on eventually fades, and you find yourself looking for other ways to pass the day. You vacuum and do laundry. You take the recycling to the curb and clean the cats’ litter boxes in the basement. Cook dinner and even knock out a college football podcast.

Anything to keep from bouncing from game to game, where you watch how well other teams play. It makes you wonder why Notre Dame can’t play that way. Like the way Rutgers and Xavier and Northwestern and Minnesota played Sunday.

It’s been a trying three weeks to start this season for Notre Dame (2-4; 0-1), which has lost three of four. The Irish were supposed to be headed back into Atlantic Coast Conference action and out on the road for the first time in league play Tuesday at Syracuse (6-1; 1-0 ACC). That game was canceled Monday afternoon because of coronavirus issues within the Orange program.

Notre Dame now will host Bellarmine on Wednesday at noon before its next ACC game Dec. 30 at home against No. 16 Virginia.

Irish coach Mike Brey left Bankers Life Fieldhouse early Saturday evening after a loss to Purdue buoyed about where his program might be headed. He dropped that nugget in his postgame Zoom presser. With a certain ACC football championship game in progress 570 miles away in Charlotte, exactly three local media members attended a session that lasted all of 6:31.

That was plenty of time for Brey to peel back the curtain on his coaching mindset. He’d juggled his starting lineup for the first time that afternoon. Into the first five went Trey Wertz, a Santa Clara transfer who a week earlier at Kentucky was in team-issued warmup gear and watching from the bench while awaiting word from the NCAA on his eligibility future. Out of the starting lineup went graduate student (and team captain) Juwan Durham, who’s offered little in the low post.

Wertz then scored a game-high 27 points while Durham looked more like a freshman than a fifth-year guy. Afterward, Brey insisted that that was the rotation he’d envisioned for this team — four guards in the starting lineup with two graduate students/team captains coming off the bench — from the start.

“That’s the first time I’ve had my seven guys that we’ve been counting on,” he said of the way the rotation worked out. “That is what I envisioned, those seven guys flying in and out of the game for each other.”

The rotation has its limitations, as does this team. They’re not big enough or deep enough or maybe good enough to offer anyone much confidence that what we’ve seen in spurts (the first halves against Ohio State and Kentucky) can be sustained for 40 minutes. It’s been tough for the Irish to maintain any traction because there always seems to be a puzzle piece missing.

On Saturday, it was arguably the most important piece. The team’s pulse, its compass, the leading scorer in the league when the week opened, point guard Prentiss Hubb staggered through an O-for afternoon. For the first time since his freshman year, Hubb went scoreless. He took seven shots. Afterward, Brey tried to explain away that anomaly by saying that he liked the way Hubb didn’t force anything while he played more as a facilitator and a defensive stopper.

“I give him a lot of credit,” Brey said.

Give Hubb less credit and get him more points. Brey’s often referred to Hubb as his version of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who didn’t become who he is in the NFL by being a decoy. Imagine Mahomes lining up as a decoy wide receiver for four quarters. Or handing off every play. That’s essentially what Hubb did Saturday. He can’t just kind of, sort of be there and go from the league’s leading scorer last week (21.6) to tied for 11th this week (16.1). There’s no defending that.

As for defense, forget the idea of Notre Dame suddenly doing anything dominant on that end. Not happening. Not ever. The Irish open the week ranked 14th in the league for scoring defense (77.6 ppg.), 13th in field goal percentage defense (.451), 14th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.381), 15th in rebounding defense (37.0) and 14th in rebounding margin (-3.5).

They’re not going to become Virginia overnight. Or Virginia lite. What they can do, what they need to do, is get those one or two stops that will swing a game their direction. At least get a few stops to push the odds better in their favor.

There had been a chance Saturday. Couldn’t do it. In its last three losses, Notre Dame has allowed an average of 84.3 points. What are the answers to being better?

“I don’t know what those are yet,” Brey said. “There’s no question on that end of the floor, we’re just giving up too much too easy. It puts such pressure on our offense. We’re going to have to look at some zone at some times.”

And, honestly, guard better. Duke shot 46.9 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from 3 in last week’s win. Purdue then shot 49.2 and 50. In both games, it was too easy.

“We’re going to score enough,” Brey said. “We’ve got to figure out how to dig in on that defensive end a little better. It’s a prideful group.”

This season has been and will continue to be hard, for reasons other than basketball. It’s the coronavirus. It’s the protocols. It’s the uncertainty that awaits before and after every film session, every practice, every game. It’s also the schedule, which is as relentless as a lake-effect snow band. There’s no letup in sight. Brey insists that’s the way the Irish want it.

The latest projections on hand out losses to Notre Dame like Christmas presents to kids. Tuesday’s game at Syracuse was penciled in as a loss before being scrapped. Then two more next week at home to No. 16 Virginia and at Pittsburgh. Not counting Wednesday’s makeup game, Notre Dame wasn’t projected to win again until Jan. 6 at home against Georgia Tech. Even then, the Irish are given a 56 percent chance at success. Basically, a coin flip, or a defensive stop or two. projects Notre Dame to finish 10-16 overall, 7-13 in the ACC.

Like everything about this season to date, just getting there will be hard. And, maybe, hard to watch.

Keep that list of household chores handy.

Notre Dame guard Trey Wertz made it look easy Saturday with a game-high 27 points against Purdue in his second game after being ruled eligible under the NCAA transfer waiver.