Noie: Notre Dame wants to get back to NCAA Tournament, right? Better find an Alpha

Tom Noie
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Seated in the first row of section 12 for a Notre Dame men’s basketball practice at Purcell Pavilion, you see and hear just about everything. 

You see the seven main guys — five returning seniors, graduate transfer Paul Atkinson and closing-hard freshman Blake Wesley — rotate through white (starter’s) jerseys in scrimmage situations. You hear the more confident voice of assistant coach Ryan Humphrey — HEY! You gotta talk! — and the quiet, respected words from associate coach Anthony Solomon. You see head coach Mike Brey observe from midcourt, watching and writing as it unfolds. 

Is there an alpha dog type of leader in this group? If so, please stand up if Notre Dame wants to break a four-year drought of no NCAA tournament appearances.

You see the fringe rotation guys — freshman J.R. Konieczny and sophomores Tony Sanders and Elijah Taylor and Matt Zona — do what they can to earn trust. Of the coaches. From their teammates. You hear the emphasis everyone now has on defense. Someone out of position if only by a step in one drill? Do it again. 

You see a full coaching staff and support staff and a deeper roster. 

You see and you hear a lot during the 95-minute workout, all except for a certain something that you have to see, a certain something that you have to hear for Notre Dame to take this season where it believes it can take it. 

Who’s the true Alpha dog? Make that, dawg. Someone whose actions and words and leadership speak loudest. Command respect. Hold everyone to a standard higher than they’ve been held the previous four years. 

Who’s the Alpha? Could be point guard/captain Prentiss Hubb, who’s done plenty to warrant that role. Could be guard Cormac Ryan, now in his second season as a captain after being named one before he even played his first Irish game. Could be fellow captains Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski, who’ve learned their share of hard lessons the previous three seasons. 

Notre Dame's Nate Laszewski (14) Cormac Ryan (5) and Blake Wesley (0) fight for positioning during men's basketball media day Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

Somebody’s got to take absolute ownership of this group. Who will take it? 

“That’s a good one,” Brey said. “When you think of our returning guys, Prentiss is probably the guy that has the most presence and voice and he’s probably also been the guy that’s made the most big plays in big situations.” 

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As far as lead guards go, Hubb remains more of a lead-by-example/fit-in-guy than the way former guards Ben Hansbrough and Tory Jackson led. Those guys were awesome Alphas. They ran the summers. They organized pickup games, the group get-togethers. They had a voice, a presence that pulled everyone along. 

They had a standard that was expected to be met — and exceeded — every day. Don’t meet it? Watch out. 

As the point guard, senior Prentiss Hubb would be the natural choice of an alpha dog, but he's good with sharing that responsibility.

Brey has said how Hansbrough’s energy was enough to either heat up the arena or burn it down. Sometimes, it did both, but it also produced a 27-7 overall record and 14-4 in the Big East mark in 2010-11. 

As far as Alphas go, B-Hans was the best. 

“I don’t know if there’s anybody here that will just be like that,” Brey said. “That was a unique Alpha.” 

Who's it going to be this season?

Two weeks into preseason workouts, the Irish operate with Alpha by committee. Four, maybe five, sometimes as many as six guys can have a say. That’s too many. You need the best two — max. Like 2014-15 when small forward Pat Connaughton and guard Jerian Grant pushed and pulled and prodded Notre Dame to a 32-6 record and a spot in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight. 

They were the tightest of tag-team captains. In January 2015, an academic issue forced starting power forward Zach Auguste to miss a key trip to Georgia Tech. Then-freshman Bonzie Colson stepped in and flashed the first true sign of being Bonzie Colson in an Irish win, but having to adjust on the fly at a key time didn’t sit well with the Alphas. 

Connaughton and Grant sat Auguste down and told him in no uncertain terms that A) he was a needed guy and B) to max out that season, Auguste had better be on point from that point forward. He was, and so were the Irish. 

“Grant and Connaughton,” Brey said, “were kind of unique Alphas.” 

As was Jackson, who was that way as a freshman. When he and fellow classmate Luke Harangody joined the program, the vibe was different. An edge that had previously been dull was sharpened. A lot of that by Jackson. 

Like with Jackson, maybe the Alpha of this group is someone still a month out from playing his first regular-season game. Wesley has been really good in workouts, but has looked at times like, well, a freshman. What if he works through that and becomes a main guy? Keep an eye on his Alpha arc. 

How a veteran group goes for that will be worth watching. What veteran can be the Alpha? Someone? Anyone? No one? The four who were asked about that Wednesday all offered similar answers. Who’s the Alpha? Well, everybody. Kind of. 

“We’ve got a good group of leaders,” Hubb said. “I wouldn’t say it’s any one guy because it can be any guy any particular night.” 

“We all do it together,” Atkinson said. 

“Honestly, I think we’ve got a bunch of Alphas who are all on the same page,” Ryan said. “We’ve got a good group of old guys who have been here and are ready to lead.” 

“We’ve taken that kind of as a group,” said Goodwin. “The past three years, we really haven’t had it.” 

One of six seniors on the team, guard Trey Wertz (blue jersey) could be even more vocal in his second season in South Bend.

Didn’t have it then, need to have it now. Someone has to be the unquestioned/clear Alpha. Having more than one in college basketball is like having more than one starting quarterback in college football — you have that, you really don’t have that. Closest the Irish have to an Alpha with this group right now might be Ryan, whose voice stands out from pre-practice drills to stretching to group work. 

“Talk! Yessir!” 

“Let’s go!” 

“Big-time talk!” 

“My voice is a big part of what I do,” Ryan said. “A point of emphasis this year is for everyone to use their voices and talk and communicate and be loud and aggressive.” 

The deeper the Irish dived into Wednesday’s workout, the quieter everyone became. Hubb would say something now and then, which was more than what Goodwin and Laszewski did. They’re just so quiet by nature. All of them are good guys. Nice guys. Maybe too nice. 

Too quiet too, something they’re reminded of by Solomon during drills. Especially, on defense. 

“Can’t whisper it!” Solomon said Wednesday. 

When it’s time to get everyone on the same page away from the practice court, it’s historically been one or maybe two guys to start the needed come-together text chain. Now, it might be Hubb one day and Ryan the next. Maybe Atkinson the following week. Or Goodwin then Laszewski. That’s too crowded an Alpha room. 

Maybe that works.

“It’s got to come from everybody,” Goodwin said. “It can’t come from one person. We’re going to go as one; we’re going to play as one.” 

Having that one Alpha would be nice. And needed. What direction all this goes may depend on it. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI

2021-22 ND MEN’S BASKETBALL SCHEDULE 

(Purcell Pavilion home games in all caps, all times eastern) 

OCTOBER 

29: NAZARETH COLLEGE (Exhibition), 7 p.m. 

NOVEMBER 

5: ST. NORBERT COLLEGE (Exhibition), 7 p.m. 

13: CALL STATE NORTHRIDGE, TBA 

16: HIGH POINT, 8 p.m. 

22-24: Maui Invitational (Las Vegas) vs. Saint Mary’s (Calif.), 11:30 p.m.  Other games TBD 

29: ACC/Big Ten Challenge at Illinois, 9 p.m. 

DECEMBER 

3: At Boston College, 6 p.m. 

11: KENTUCKY, 5:15 p.m. 

18: Crossroads Classic vs. Indiana at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, 2:30 p.m. 

20: WESTERN MICHIGAN, 8 p.m. 

22: TEXAS A&M CORPUS CHRISTI, 1 p.m. 

28: At Pittsburgh, 8 p.m. 

JANUARY 

1: DUKE, 6 p.m. 

5: NORTH CAROLINA, 9 p.m. 

8: At Georgia Tech, 6 p.m. 

12: CLEMSON, 7 p.m. 

15: At Virginia Tech, 6 p.m. 

17: At Howard, TBA 

22: At Louisville, 4 p.m. 

26: N.C. STATE, 9 p.m. 

29: VIRGINIA, 6 p.m. 

FEBRUARY 

2: At Miami (Fla.), 7 p.m. 

5: At N.C. State, 3 p.m. 

9: LOUISVILLE, TBA 

12: At Clemson, 7 p.m. 

16: BOSTON COLLEGE, 7 p.m. 

19: At Wake Forest, 1 p.m. 

22: SYRACUSE, 9 p.m. 

26: GEORGIA TECH, 5 p.m. 

MARCH 

2: At Florida State, 7 p.m. 

5: PITTSBURGH, 8 p.m.