Noie: Opportunity about to knock for Notre Dame in Las Vegas, but how will Irish answer?

Tom Noie
ND Insider

Why wait? 

Regardless of how this men’s college basketball season unfolds, the Notre Dame end game remains the same – make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017. Doesn’t matter if it’s as an eight seed or a 10 seed or a team that has to go to Dayton for a play-in game. 

Notre Dame's Prentiss Hubb (3) dishes out a pass during the Notre Dame vs. High Point NCAA men's basketball game Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

Just get there. 

It’s goal No. 1 – and likely 2 and 3 – on the Irish big board. It's something they think about nearly every day. Talk about it during down times. Imagine what it might be like come Selection Sunday. It will drive them through what remains of 2021 and then through the first chunk of 2022, but there are other goals for Notre Dame to chase. More that this team can do. 

Like a winning record in the Atlantic Coast Conference and an undefeated home mark. Those would be firsts for this nucleus. So would winning an early-season multi-team event (MTE), which is where Notre Dame (2-0) finds itself this week – in Las Vegas as part of the eight-team field for the annual Maui Jim Maui Invitational. 

Maui in Vegas, who knew? 

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Notre Dame hasn’t won an MTE – heck, it hasn’t played in an MTE away from Purcell Pavilion – since winning Maui in 2017. That was back before power forward Bonzie Colson experienced pain in his left foot that eventually broke twice in four months. Before lead guard Matt Farrell severely rolled his left ankle. Before that entire season, one that featured Notre Dame climbing to as high as No. 5 in the national polls, took a turn no one saw coming.

The program hasn't been the same. 

That was then. This is now, for this core group of seniors who get three games in three days starting Monday against sneaky good Saint Mary’s (4-0), which does most of its work and its winning when most of us back east are asleep. 

There’s no sleeping on the Gaels this week, and there should be no sleeping on the Irish. Winning three games in as many days would be something new and different for this group, but it’s something they want to do. It’s something they need to do. 

Get to the NCAA tournament remains the ultimate get-to goal. But win an in-season tournament would be right there. Start building out that resume this week. 

“Deep down, especially all of us seniors, we want to say we’ve won something,” said senior captain/point guard Prentiss Hubb. “We haven’t really done that in three years. If we want to make the (NCAA) tournament, we’ve got to be a winner at some type of level. 

“This is a good challenge for us to start off.” 

A challenge from the jump. Play in an early-season MTE and seldom do players feel much pressure. You’re in a nice locale for an extended stay – Notre Dame chartered out to the desert Friday – and you play a few games in front of a few somewhat interested fans. You get a better feel for who you’re going to be and then you get on out of there, get home and get on with the rest of the regular season. 

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This week is different. Monday is different. We’re not even two weeks in – the Irish have been idle the last five days after kind of, sort of, but not really being challenged the first two games – but this is a must-win scenario. Doesn’t matter if it’s an MTE. Doesn’t matter if two games remain. Doesn’t matter that the season’s still so fresh and new and energizing. 

Monday is as must-win as must-wins get. Seriously. For this group. For this season. For everything. Gotta get it. Got to. 

“If you can get that first one, then you can start to feel a little bit like you can move on,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “It’s no different than an ACC tournament or an NCAA tournament feel. If you can somehow survive the first one, it can jump-start you.” 

Like it did in 2017 before that season went sideways. Like it did in 2016 when Notre Dame won the Legends Classic by beating Colorado and Northwestern in Barclays Center. Like it did way back in 2010 when Notre Dame dismissed Georgia, California and Wisconsin in Orlando, Florida for an Old Spice championship. 

That early success lit the fuse for a 27-7 season on a team with a lot of old guys. Now light this one. For this season and for this group of a lot of old guys. 

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A win Monday is paramount because of how the rest of the tournament bracket looks. Lose to an old and experienced Saint Mary’s team – a team that looks a lot like previous Irish squads – and it only counts as one in the loss column. It may as well be two. 

Lose to Saint Mary’s, and Notre Dame staggers to the loser’s bracket. There, a likely Tuesday date with host Chaminade awaits. No offense, but Notre Dame wants no part of Chaminade. That’s Division II Chaminade. Can’t possibly lose that game. Can’t possibly play that game. If you win by five or 10 or 20 or 30 it won’t count on any possible NCAA tournament resume. It’s really like another loss, no matter what/who awaits Wednesday. 

Which is why getting Monday is paramount. Not only to this week and this month but this season for Notre Dame. Saint Mary’s is a veteran group that knows how to win, but it’s beyond time to start saying that about these Irish. They’re old on the perimeter. They’re old in the frontcourt. They have a nice blend of shooters and inside dudes and a firecracker of a freshman off the bench in Blake Wesley. 

Notre Dame's Prentiss Hubb (3) drives against High Point's Zack Austin (55) during the Notre Dame vs. High Point NCAA men's basketball game Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

Why not these guys? Why not this tournament? It’s time to look at Notre Dame and see more than untapped potential. 

“We need all these games,” Hubb said. “We need to come out of the gate jumping and running. If we do that, we’ll have some success.” 

Jump and run and shoot it better and continue to defend and do something else starting Monday and carrying into Tuesday and Wednesday. 

Believe. 

Believe that Notre Dame belongs, not only in this field but the eventual field of 68. Play old. Play with the belief that no matter what the Gaels do, and they do a lot really well, the Irish can do it better. In every phase. 

Do that and maybe Hubb has his Vegas wish come true sometime Wednesday. What does he want out of this trip to the Strip? How about a repeat of Brey’s post-2017 Maui celebration? Lei on, shirt nowhere to be seen. 

“Shoot, I can’t wait to see us win a championship,” Hubb said. “I’m trying to see Coach Brey with his shirt off.” 

Seems a good time and a good place for some early madness. 

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

MEN’S BASKETBALL 

2021 MAUI JIM MAUI INVITATIONAL 

FIRST ROUND 

WHO: Notre Dame (2-0) vs. Saint Mary’s (4-0). 

WHERE: Michelob Ultra Arena (12,000) at Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas 

WHEN: Monday at 11:30 p.m. ET (South Bend time) 

TV: ESPN2 

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com/tnoieNDI 

NOTING:  Matthias Tass led three players in double figures with 25 points and six rebounds in Wednesday’s 73-64 victory over Bellarmine. Former walk-on Tommy Kuhse added 15 points and six assists and Logan Johnson, a first team All-West Coast Conference selection this season, added 10 points and four steals. The Gaels scored 38 points in the paint and allowed 36.  … Saint Mary’s has won all four games at home this season. It also has beaten Prairie View A&M, Texas Southern and Southern Utah. … Five Gaels average double figures for points; eight average double figures for minutes. … Saint Mary’s has an enrollment of 4,000 and is located in Moraga, Calif. … The men’s basketball roster features players from Australia (two), Estonia (two), Lithuania, Turkey and New Zealand (two). … Saint Mary’s returns all five starters off last year’s team that finished 14-10, 4-6 and seventh place in the 10-team West Coast Conference. It averaged 26.7 wins the previous four seasons, including years of 29 and 30 wins. … The Gaels were picked this preseason to finish third in the WCC behind Gonzaga and Brigham Young. … Coach Randy Bennett is in his 21st season at Saint Mary’s. He’s the winningest coach in program history (458 victories) and a three-time WCC coach of the year. He has guided the Gaels to postseason each of the last 13 years. … This is the fourth time overall and third since 2008 that Notre Dame has participated in the Maui Invitational. It has played in the tournament championship each of the last two visits – 2008 and 2017 – and is one of 22 teams to win a tournament title (2017). … This is the first time that Saint Mary’s has played in the tournament. … The tournament moved to Las Vegas in October because of pandemic protocols in Maui. … Notre Dame will play Oregon or Chaminade at 8 p.m., or 10:30 p.m., South Bend time in Tuesday’s second round … The Irish are 2-0 all-time against the Gaels with the last meeting an 84-63 win Feb. 7, 1981 in South Bend.  … Notre Dame has been idle since Tuesday’s 70-61 home victory over High Point. … After two games in 13 days to start the season, Notre Dame plays five over the next 11. 

QUOTING:  "One step at a time; one game at a time. We're not really looking ahead. We can't overlook them."

-Notre Dame senior guard Prentiss Hubb on Saint Mary's.