Noie: A quick look at what happened in Monday's game between Notre Dame and Illinois

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Illinois' Alfonso Plummer (11) attempts a layup as Notre Dame's Paul Atkinson Jr. (20) and Blake Wesley defend during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Michael Allio)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Following are NDI beat writer/columnist Tom Noie’s top four storylines/observations and other odds and ends/notes and quotes following Monday’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge game between Notre Dame and Illinois, won 82-72 by the Illini.

►This one felt like a true college basketball environment Monday with a lot of fans, a lot of noise and a lot of energy.

And a lot of what Notre Dame (3-3) just couldn't match. Not with the group they have. Not yet.

Illinois played at seemingly another gear, especially on offense where it had Notre Dame chasing time and again, to the point where it looked like there were six and seven Illini on the floor and fewer than five for the Irish.

Illinois shot 53 percent from the field, 41 percent from 3. So much for an improved Irish defense, which looked invisible against bigger and better competition.

This was a big-time atmosphere, as big as Notre Dame will see in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Irish just weren't ready to answer it. Question is, will they in January and February?

► It's time to start freshman guard Blake Wesley. That's it. When a freshman is your best player in that atmosphere with a career high 24 points, it's just time.

Everyone around the program knows it.

► At least the Notre Dame rotation went deeper than seven. 

Somebody else had to join that mix on a regular basis. On Monday, against the power-five frontline of Illinois, it was sophomore Elijah Taylor, really playing the first meaningful minutes of his career. 

Taylor played five minutes in the first half, and made both his shots from the field. At 6-foot-8, 242 pounds, Taylor has the body type to bang with all of them he saw Monday.

Just have to keep growing his game. Monday wasn't much, but it was a start. 

Brian Kelly news steals the show

If a Notre Dame men’s basketball game unfolds at the same time the school's football coach is said to be finalizing a deal to take another job, did the hoops game really happen?

We found out Monday night. 

News of football coach Brian Kelly’s departure, or imminent departure at that point, broke about 60 minutes before Monday’s game tipped. Radio play-by-play announcer Tony Simeone saw the news on social media, and turned to athletic department spokesperson Alan Wasielewski and asked, “Did you see it?”

It referred to Kelly's departure. He saw it. Everyone saw it. Stunned is a good way to put it for the mood around Irish athletics in Illinois on Monday night.

Irish coach Mike Brey found out from Illinois coach Brad Underwood just before tip. A team manager told the Irish players about Kelly leaving also during pre-game.

A member of the Irish traveling party, when informed by a reporter of the Kelly news asked if it was true, then couldn't or wouldn't believe it when told it looked like it was true.

Another member of the Irish staff approached the Tribune about 20 minutes before tip to talk football — and who the next head coach might be. He also wondered if coordinators Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees would be interviewed. He was talking football right before a basketball game. 

The Illinois student section behind the Irish bench chanted "Brian Kelly" and "L-S-U" during the game.

It was one weird night. 

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick after ND's 27-13 victory over Purdue, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

Who’s hot? 

Obviously, Brian Kelly. And, while we're at it, probably Jack Swarbrick as well. For different reasons.

The struggles continue for Irish guard Prentiss Hubb.

Who’s not? 

Senior guard Prentiss Hubb just can’t shake whatever funk is affecting him. He played  28 scoreless minutes and spent extended stretches on the bench.

Say what you want about his body language or shot selection or overall lack of leadership, but this season's not going anywhere if Hubb’s nowhere close to being what he was the last three years. It just isn’t. 

Notre Dame guard Dan Miller (21) and power forward Jordan Cornette were keys to a 2003 NCAA tournament game against Illinois

History lesson 

Anytime Illinois and Notre Dame are mentioned in the same college basketball sentence, let alone play, you can’t help but reminded about a very special day — and one of the first Irish high points under Brey — that unfolded in the former RCA Dome in Indianapolis in the second round of the 2003 NCAA tournament. 

Two nights earlier, Notre Dame came within a missed layup at the buzzer of losing to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, then coached by Bruce Pearl. But the Irish responded by playing one of their best games that Sunday afternoon in the second round. Notre Dame led from start to finish and got a career high 23 points from swingman Dan Miller to beat Illinois, 68-60. 

The win helped slingshot Notre Dame into its first Sweet 16 in 16 seasons. That day, in Indianapolis, was the first real postseason sign that Irish basketball just might be back. What a fun/exciting time. 

Worth noting 

Monday marked the ninth time that Notre Dame has appeared in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, but it has only played five different teams – Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State and Ohio State – from a league that carries 14. 

Notre Dame has played home-and-homes against Michigan State and Iowa and has played Illinois now three times. The games against Maryland and Ohio State were one-shot deals to date. 

How about a little more variety? Please? 

The league missed an opportunity to pit Notre Dame and Ohio State in a rematch of last season’s game, won by Ohio State in Purcell Pavilion, 90-85. That game was a high-octane, high-scoring, high-energy contest. A rematch this week also would’ve sent Irish guard Dane Goodwin back to his hometown (Upper Arlington is a Columbus suburb) against a team he’d originally committed to under former coach Thad Matta. 

Instead, we got Illinois-Notre Dame, part III. 

Yawn. Come on conference guys, do better. Maybe they soon will. 

The final Crossroads Classic next month means an opportunity opens for Indiana and Purdue to become future Big Ten/ACC Challenge opponents for Notre Dame. Brey also has had talks with coach Mike Woodson about rekindling an annual game with the Hoosiers, only this time, on the teams’ respective campuses. 

The Irish are 4-5 all-time in the Challenge.

Notre Dame's coach Mike Brey signals during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Michael Allio)

Worth quoting

"That was awesome, wasn't it? Like, we missed that last year. I went in the locker room and said, 'Fellas, this is cool.' The band is echoing down the tunnel, the students are going off. I thought we were pretty darn good in that, because we haven't played in that for over a year. We had our moments."

-Irish coach Mike Brey on Monday's road atmosphere

By the numbers 

► 0: Monday was expected to be the first game this season for Notre Dame against a ranked team. Illinois opened the season ranked 11th and was at 14 last week, but tumbled out of the Top 25 when the latest poll was released Monday afternoon. 

Notre Dame’s first test against a ranked team will have to wait until Dec. 11 at home against Kentucky, currently No. 9. 

► 2:02: Total game time Notre Dame led Monday. The Irish did not lead for the final 35:34.

► 5: Consecutive losses to Big Team teams from Notre Dame, which went 0-3 last season (Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue) against the conference and 0-1 (Indiana) the previous year. Last time Notre Dame beat a Big Ten team was Dec. 15, 2018 (Purdue) in the annual Crossroads Classic. 

► 14.2: Graduate student Paul Atkinson's scoring average coming in, second on the squad. He was limited to a s3. 

37: Number of minutes it took Notre Dame to fly via charter airplane to Monday’s game. The Irish also chartered over when they played here in 2016. It’s the shortest charter flight of the season for Notre Dame. 

Notre Dame has had plenty of success against Boston College - but not as much recently.

Next up 

Don’t look now, but here comes conference play. Having to play two league games in December is the cost for league teams doing business of a 20-game regular season schedule. 

Notre Dame remains on the road with a Friday game at Boston College, one of six repeat opponents this season and one of two (Georgia Tech) repeat opponents for Notre Dame since it joined the league in 2013. 

Prior to a home loss to Boston College on Dec. 7, 2019, Notre Dame had won 13 straight and 17 of 18 in the series. The Eagles have won two of the last five. 

Notre Dame went 7-11 and finished 11th in the ACC last season. The Irish were picked this preseason to finish eighth in the 15-team league. 

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