Noie: Can we trust Notre Dame men's basketball to go and win another big/gotta-get game?

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Notre Dame's Dane Goodwin (23) passes to teammate Prentiss Hubb (3) during an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

INDIANAPOLIS – Welcome to a week where trust often is put to a test. 

Can you trust your kids to not peek early at their presents? Of course. Can you trust that the one person in your family who gets a little sideways around the Holidays won’t turn the gathering into a Jerry Springer show? Not a chance. 

As for college basketball, can we trust Notre Dame to slingshot off one really big/needed/overdue win and go get another, which just might get its season back on track? 

Well … maybe. 

For one night seven days ago, the stars aligned within the Irish basketball universe. Notre Dame played the way everyone believed it could from the season’s start. Back before it went to Las Vegas during Thanksgiving week and returned with two losses to one win, that over a Division II program that might as well not even count – in the end, it won’t. Back before it went to Illinois and offered a good, but not good enough effort against a Big Ten behemoth. Back before it dipped its toe into Atlantic Coast Conference waters and was boat-raced by a Boston College team picked to finish last in the league. 

Back before a kind-of, sort-of come-to-Jesus meeting between coach Mike Brey and his team, which then secured its first home win over a Top 10 team (Kentucky was ranked 10th when it arrived last week) in nearly five years. 

The effort that Saturday evening left everyone feeling quite festive. Players jumped around and the student body rushed the floor. The Irish competed for 40 minutes. The Irish believed for 40 minutes. The Irish were on the right side of the scoreboard after 40 minutes. Rarely has that been the case with this cast. 

For that night and for that win to mean anything, Notre Dame (4-4) has, has, has to go and do something it hasn’t done in too long. It has to go do it all again. That opportunity surfaces Saturday in Indianapolis against Indiana (8-2) in the final installment (Thank, God) of the Crossroads Classic at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. 

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Beating Kentucky was nice, but beating Indiana would be a heck of an early, one-size-fits-perfectly Christmas present. The Irish know it. 

“We’ve got to validate it,” senior guard Dane Goodwin said of beating Kentucky. “It’s one thing to do it on your homecourt in front of all your fans (but) it’s another to go down there in a hostile environment like that and play together and pull out a ‘W.’” 

Play together. Seems so simple. Put five on the floor who move and think and operate as one. It’s been a staple of Brey’s previous teams. It’s a concept that this group has struggled with this season. Couple days after the no-show at Boston College, Brey challenged his guys. He sent them back to the locker room before a scheduled practice to figure out some tough stuff. Decide what they want and who they want to be. Talk it through, Brey said, and when they’re through, he’d be on the practice court ready to work. 

If it took an hour to dissect, take the hour. The Irish were back in 30 minutes. 

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Days later, they delivered the victory over Kentucky. Does a team that features a rotation of five seniors and a graduate student among its top seven really need to be challenged the way the Irish were challenged? Shouldn’t they be beyond staring at a crossroads barely a month into a regular season that they insisted would be way different? 

Yes, and yes. 

In Brey’s eyes, no and no. 

“When things aren’t going well on the offensive end, I don’t think you can assume with a veteran team you’re going to be completely there,” Brey said Thursday. “I don’t know if it has to do with veterans, youth, whatever. I’m not sure. It’s a matter of addressing it and your leadership helping you kind of take control of things.” 

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Notre Dame players celebrate on the court following their win over Kentucky in an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

A new Irish resolve evident 

What needed to be addressed was the bad body language exhibition last month in Nevada and earlier this month in New England. Couple shots don’t fall, shoulders droop. Couple turnovers happen, defensive intensity dropped. It became five guys playing as five individuals. Everything goes in the tank, and then, so did the Irish. That can’t happen. Not with this group and not with so much at stake this season. 

Against Saint Mary’s, it happened. Second half of Texas A&M, it happened. From the jump against Boston College, it happened. It went from bad (Saint Mary’s) to worse (Texas A&M) to can’t-watch awful (Boston College). 

It didn’t happen last Saturday. It can’t happen this Saturday. 

An already old group still had some growing up to do. They say they've grown up.

“We addressed it,” said Goodwin, one of four team captains. “We all agreed that we need to get better at everything, including the little things. That stuff really showed (against Kentucky). We played together. We played well as a group.” 

Another test against another blue blood also brings a ridiculously easy prep. The basketball blueprint for Indiana is exactly the same as it was for Kentucky. 

Notre Dame needs to gang rebound the way it did against Kentucky. It needs to dig in and defend the way it did against Kentucky. It needs to weather the work of a really good power forward. Last week, it was Oscar Tshiebwe (25 points, seven rebounds). Saturday, it’s Trayce Jackson-Davis (19.3 ppg., 8.4 rpg., .612 field goal percentage). 

It needs to swing the ball and share it and keep it simple on offense the way it did against Kentucky. It needs to embrace that the Hoosiers are going to try and smother them defensively, so if the game needs to be played in the 60s to succeed, then be mature enough to play it in the 60s. 

It needs to play together. It needs to believe that they’re a good group that still can do so much good. 

“We just gotta be out there and want to do it,” said graduate student power forward Paul Atkinson, Jr. “We need to execute and go out there and play. We have that now. I think it’s big.” 

Could be huge. But can we really trust these Irish to deliver for a second straight Saturday? In that atmosphere? Against that program? 

You want to believe they can and they will, but we’ve been down this road before with this core. Notre Dame beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena last December for the first time in school history, then lost two straight and six of seven. Notre Dame went to Cameron Indoor in the middle of league play and beat Duke, came home and beat Miami (Fla.), then lost four in a row. 

Mustering momentum after big wins has been a monumental hurdle. Each time the Irish are on the verge of something special, all of it disintegrates into something suspect.

The win over Kentucky matters only if Indiana is added to that hit list. Beating Kentucky erased not beating Saint Mary’s. Beating Indiana can negate not taking Texas A&M. 

Even with a short work week, Goodwin sensed something different about the Irish since last week’s win. 

“There’s a certain energy about us,” he said. “It almost validated what we’re trying to do. We’ve got to carry that forward. It can’t just be one game.” 

It just can’t. Trust him. 

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