Noie: Toughness wanted, needed for what ails Notre Dame men's basketball team

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Ten games into what’s becoming another long and lost college basketball season around these parts, the book’s out on Notre Dame.

It’s not a good read.

Heading into Wednesday’s Atlantic Coast Conference game at No. 18 Virginia (7-2; 3-0 ACC), Notre Dame (3-7; 0-4) has lost three in a row and five of six. It hasn’t won once since Dec. 12. It’s become apparent as non-league play morphed into league play that the way to get these Irish is to get the game into the second half.

That’s when opponents have feasted, and the Irish have folded. Something about halftime flusters Notre Dame. Maybe the Irish don’t make many adjustments. Maybe teams finally find the Irish soft spot and attack. Maybe the Irish just aren’t good enough or tough enough to withstand everything you have to withstand over 40 minutes.

Twenty minutes? The Irish usually have been all in. Twenty-five? They’re often still OK. Anything beyond that has been beyond them.

“We continue to learn the hard way,” said coach Mike Brey. “We’ve been happy at halftime a couple times.”

Specifically, four. Halftimes of games against No. 21 Ohio State, Kentucky, North Carolina and Sunday at No. 20 Virginia Tech, have underscored how Notre Dame’s game goes from good to gross. In those four contests, all was right in the first half. Notre Dame’s numbers were workable and winnable. It averaged 40.5 points. It shot 50.9 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from 3. It grabbed an average of 16.7 rebounds with 7.7 assists. It limited turnovers to 5.5. The Irish led at half in each by an average of 9.5 points.

Then those halftimes happened, and everything the Irish had done well disappeared. In the second halves of those four games — three of them losses — they averaged 28.7 points with percentages of 28.9 from the field and 33.9 from 3. Rebounds dipped to 13.2, assists to 5.2. Turnovers jumped to 7.5. Opponents also saw an improvement in their numbers across the board. They scored it better. They shot it better. They rebounded it better. They took care of it better.

They played better.

Most stunning was scoring margin. It flipped from (+9.5) to a staggering (-14.2). There are scoring struggles and then, there’s Notre Dame. The Irish often play first halves perfectly connected. They play second halves like perfect strangers. Who are you again?

Notre Dame seemingly (hopefully) bottomed out Sunday when it made only two baskets the entire second half. Subtract those buckets — both from Prentiss Hubb — that arrived inside a 1:44 span and the Irish played 18:16 without any made baskets. In an actual college game. Without blindfolds or roller skates or circus music in the background. Seriously.

“When it comes to game situations and winning the game, we have to do a better job of executing,” said graduate student guard Nik Djogo, who apparently drew the shortest straw and met the media via Zoom following Sunday’s 14-point loss/meltdown. “It’s easy in the first half when there’s not much on the line. When it starts coming down to crunch moments, we’re going to have to do a better job to play a full 40 because every team we play in this league is a very good team.”

A sustained struggle

Notre Dame is not very good. It hasn’t been since January 2018. When everything goes south, as the last few seasons have, it’s easy to remember the consecutive Elite Eight runs of 2015 and 2016 and wonder why the Irish can’t return to those days. That’s likely as good as it ever gets under Brey. Still, Notre Dame should be better than what it’s been.

Since opening 3-0 in ACC play for the first time in school history in 2017-18, the Irish are a combined 18-39 in the conference. There have been nights when the Irish have been close, but too many when they’ve been absolutely smoked. Fourteen of those losses have been by double digits. Overmatched has been a common theme. It’s been hard to watch, harder to cover.

Notre Dame needs a league win, but it’s probably not getting it Wednesday against that program. It would snap a 26-game winless streak against ranked teams. It would be Notre Dame’s first win over a ranked team in 1,147 days. It would be Notre Dame’s first road win over a ranked team in 1,824 days.

The odds of those streaks ending may be too great for this group given the way it’s played — or, really, hasn’t — when it has to do the tough stuff. In the second half of close games against quality opponents, that means defending. That means rebounding. That means competing.

Nothing about additional film sessions or practice periods offers a fix. Same goes for lineup changes or rotation tweaks. It has to come from within.

“We really just have to dig in when the other team’s making a run and getting more aggressive offensively,” Djogo said. “We just have to want to more than we do.”

Brey believes the Irish have enough talent to compete, to be better than being winless in the league. What they don’t have enough of is toughness. Enough tough guys. Brey said so Sunday. The Irish have a few guys who can do tough stuff, but need a few more. Problem is, Bonzie Colson and Pat Connaughton’s aren’t walking through that Rolfs Hall door. Tory Jackson’s out of eligibility. Luke Harangody retired from basketball. All gave the Irish that certain something the current group lacks.

“We get really great kids and they’re really smart,” Brey said. “For the most part, you’ve got to try and make them a little tougher. A lot of times, they’ve got to go have their nose rubbed through the gutter and then they react.”

This group’s been through the gutter, but has yet to react. Two years ago, the current junior class went 3-15 in league play as freshmen. Last season in league play (10-10) offered optimism that better days might return. The program’s still in the same dark and dreary and disappointing place. The clock keeps ticking.

The main guys have gotten older, but the Irish haven’t gotten any better. They’re all just kind of there.

Notre Dame’s off to its worst start in conference play in school history. There’s been little indication from anywhere or from anyone that it’s going to flip. The letdowns have come from everywhere and from everyone.

“I believe (with) this group,” Brey said, “the lightbulb will go on at some point.”

If it doesn’t, this season will continue to carry more heavy and, honestly, fair questions. About this core. About this roster structure. About this coaching staff. About this program. About the future. That writing may already be on a Purcell Pavilion wall. It may soon be time to acknowledge it.

Like with this season to date, it won’t be a good read.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey has contemplated shaking up the starting lineup and rotation for Saturday’s game against Purdue at the annual Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis.

WHO: Notre Dame (3-7 overall; 0-4 ACC) vs. No. 18 Virginia (7-2; 3-0)

WHERE: John Paul Jones Arena (14,593), Charlottesville, Va.

WHEN: Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.

TV: ACC Network.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM/96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at


NOTING: Jay Huff had 18 points, eight rebounds and five blocks and Sam Hauser added 17 points and 10 rebounds in Saturday’s 61-49 victory at Boston College. The Cavaliers held the Eagles to 23 points in the second half and 30.9 shooting, 28.6 percent from 3 overall. … Virginia has won three in a row and has held those opponents to an average of 55.6 points since a 98-75 loss to No. 1 Gonzaga. … Kihei Clark scored 19 points and Huff added 15 in a 66-57 victory at Notre Dame on Dec. 30. The Irish never led and trailed by as many as 11. Nate Laszewski scored 28 points for the Irish. Juwan Durham added 19 points and five rebounds off the bench. … Virginia leads the all-time series 15-2, including the last five and 5-0 all-time in Charlottesville. … The Cavaliers are one of six repeat opponents for the Irish. … Virginia is 4-0 at home; Notre Dame is 0-2 on the road in league play, 1-3 overall. … Attendance for Virginia home games is capped at 250. … The Cavaliers have had 17 different players appear in a game this season. The Irish have had 10. … The Irish look to avoid going 0-5 for the first time in conference history. … Irish guard Prentiss Hubb is shooting 32.3 percent (11-for-34) from the field and is 1-of-19 from 3 his last three games. … After leading the nation in assist/turnover ratio last season (1.68), the Irish opened the week ranked 53rd (1.28). … National leaders in team defense the previous three seasons, the Cavaliers are ranked 10th nationally in scoring defense (59.4). … This is the third different start time for this game, which has moved from 8:30 p.m. to 2:30 to 4:30 because of coronavirus protocols/issues. … Virginia has had five games affected by coronavirus; Notre Dame has had six.

QUOTING: “We have a chance to go on a run every night we have an opportunity to play. You never know when the tide’s going to turn for us.”

—Notre Dame graduate student guard Nik Djogo.