Noie: Back at home, Notre Dame gets back to happy Holiday hoops feelings

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Dec 20, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish starters (left to right) guard Blake Wesley (0) forward Nate Laszewski (14) guard Prentiss Hubb (3) guard Dane Goodwin (23) and forward Paul Atkinson Jr. (20) take the court for the game against the Western Michigan Broncos at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

SOUTH BEND – Following are NDI beat writer/columnist Tom Noie’s top three storylines/observations and other odds and ends/notes and quotes from Monday’s non-conference contest between Western Michigan and Notre Dame, won by the Irish, 85-52. 

► The book on this Notre Dame (5-5) team often is that it’s a nice collection of kids. Maybe too nice. 

It was nice to see the Irish not be so nice Monday against an overmatched opponent. The home team jumped to a quick 10-0 lead and except for one lull, kept the hammer down for much of a first half that saw them never trail and lead by as many as 21 points.

"It was great we were ready to play, man," said coach Mike Brey. 

Two nights after getting only 56 total points in Saturday’s loss to Indiana, Notre Dame lit out for 44 in the first half Monday, and did so by going and getting them in bunches. Notre Dame ran off scoring spurts of 10-0, 7-0, 8-2 and 13-0 in the opening 20 minutes. Who were those guys?

How else were the Irish cruel? Cue freshman guard Blake Wesley’s steal and score with 3:22 remaining. He busted loose in the open court and could’ve dropped a pass to Prentiss Hubb for an easy layup. Instead, Wesley took it strong and finished with a one-handed tomahawk dunk that got a quiet crowd to make a little noise. 

The Irish shot 51.6 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from 3 in the first half. That’s the team we expected to see at the start of the season. Monday was really the first time we’ve seen it. 

It was nice. 

Game by game:Journey through the 2021-22 season

► If it’s true that sharing is indeed caring, the Irish cared a little more about one another and about sharing Monday than they did the last time out. 

Notre Dame finished with a season low five assists in Saturday’s loss. That’s simply unacceptable for a team that has long shared it at a higher clip. Notre Dame opened the week ranked 12th in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference for assists at 11.7 per game. No Irish ranked among the league’s top 15 for assists, 

On Monday, making the extra pass wasn't a rumor but routine. 

The first half was barely half over when Notre Dame tallied its fifth assist when Dane Goodwin made the extra pass to find Hubb for a corner 3. Goodwin had the favor returned to him minutes later when Wesley found him for a 3. So it went through the first half as Notre Dame finished with nine assists. 

That’s Irish basketball.

Notre Dame had a season high 19 assists Monday. That's also Irish basketball.

"Still working on our identity," Brey said. "That's a step in the right direction. We ran our stuff and stayed disciplined moving that ball around."

►That's what it looks like when the Irish get some better balance in the scoring column. 

Too many times this season, Notre Dame has relied on usually one and sometimes two but rarely three guys to handle the scoring heavy lifting. The rest of the offense kind of suffers, and kind of gets caught standing around watching guys like Paul Atkinson, Jr., or Goodwin or Wesley work. 

The first half Monday was different. Sure, only five Irish scored the team’s 44 points, but four of the five had at least eight points. Two had nine. Atkinson had a half-high 13. That balance allowed the Irish to work the entire half with a comfortable margin, and concentrate more on what they were doing than what the opponent was doing. 

That hasn’t often been the case this season. It was a nice change of pace Monday. 

Dec 20, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Paul Atkinson Jr. (20) dunks in the first half against the Western Michigan Broncos at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s hot? 

See what happens when Atkinson doesn’t have to play against such size (two 7-footers at Boston College) or skill (Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois) in the low post? Monday happens, when the Irish can easily establish Atkinson around the rim and he can deliver a whole bunch of points (13 in the first half) on not a lot of shots (he was 4-of-6 from the field). 

Atkinson hasn’t been able to work as freely as he did Monday while facing better competition. Facing NBA bodies like Kofi Cockburn (Illinois) and Oscar Tshiebwe (Kentucky) and Trayce Jackson-Davis (Indiana). He took advantage of lesser-skilled guys in this one.

"It was just good to be out there," said Atkinson, who finished with 17 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes.

Dec 18, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Cormac Ryan (5) looks to pass the ball in the second half against the Indiana Hoosiers at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s not? 

Anyone not in the top seven of the Irish rotation. This game got lopsided in a hurry, but Brey kept running his core seven through. No Elijah Taylor. No Tony Sanders, Jr. No J.R. Konieczny. No nobody. Even when the Irish lead hit 32 in the second half, the back half of the bench remained on the back half of the bench.

Brey refuses to subscribe to the theory of everyone plays. It's not Little League. Not everyone gets to eat. If Taylor or Konieczny or Sanders or sophomore Matt Zona could help, they'd be in the game. Just gotta keep working, keep growing their game. Maybe they'll get a call when it matters.

Maybe.

The back half of the bench closed out the final 2:56.

Just getting a game to go Monday against Western Michigan was a small victory for Notre Dame, which tried multiple times to schedule the Broncos last season.

History lesson 

That Monday’s game actually was played was newsworthy, as much as a game where the home team was favored so one-sidedly (20.5 points) could make news. Notre Dame tried not once, not twice, but three times (and thought about a fourth) to schedule Western Michigan last season, including its home opener, only to be denied each time by pandemic protocol issues, all involving the WMU program. 

You kind of figured that would happen again before this one tipped a little after 8. At the start of this week, more than 30 men’s college basketball teams were in some sort of pause because of coronavirus issues. 

Notre Dame was the lone ACC men’s program last season not to have any games postponed because of pandemic issues within its program. It had eight scheduled games affected by coronavirus issues in 2020-21. 

No Irish was affected by any coronavirus issues for Monday’s game. 

Worth quoting 

"It's not my first rodeo with a group that's not shooting well. I'm not saying anything to you. We don't go look at film – 'Oh, look at your stroke, where's your elbow?' We don't overcoach that. Like, shoot it, if it's a good shot. Or I'm going to take you out of the game."

— Brey after he watched his team shoot 51.8 percent from the field and 45.2 percent from 3.

Dec 20, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; In an aerial view, Soldier Field is seen before a game between the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Worth noting 

Notre Dame learned long ago to steer clear of scheduling home games on Sunday afternoons in November and December. If area basketball fans had to make a choice between watching Irish hoops or the NFL, odds were pretty good they’d stay home and watch the Bears or the Colts or the Lions or the Packers instead of non-league hoops. 

Notre Dame’s home game against Western Michigan went up against the Monday Night Football game between the Bears and Vikings barely 100 miles away at Soldier Field. It was tough enough with students home on break, which meant no Legion or band in the west stands. All the more reason to play this one earlier. 

But what the ACC Network wants, the ACC Network gets, so if the league power-brokers say Notre Dame is playing a home game at 8 p.m. up against MNF, it’s playing a home game at 8. 

Dec 20, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Dane Goodwin (23) reacts after a basket in the first half against the Western Michigan Broncos at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

By the numbers 

► 0:00: Amount of time Western Michigan led Monday. Notre Dame scored the first 10 points, and it was basically just a scrimmage the rest of the way. 

► 3: With 15 points Monday, Wesley became the third freshman under Brey (Luke Harangody, Chris Thomas) to score double figures in eight of his first 10 collegiate games. Wesley also grabbed a career best eight rebounds.

► 4:06: Time remaining when someone outside the main seven of the Irish rotation got into the game. Konieczny checked in to a smattering of applause. Gotta keep the locals happy, right? At least the ones that didn't head for home early.

► 26:03: Total number of combined minutes the five Irish on the back end of the rotation had logged the first nine games. On Monday, they combined to play exactly zero minutes in the first half, even though the Irish never trailed and led by as many as 21 the first 20 minutes. The end of the bench logged a combined 14 minutes in the second half, all in the final four-plus minutes.  

► 27.9: The combined point total last season between senior captains Hubb and Nate Laszewski. Heading into Monday’s game, the two had combined to average 14.2 points per game the first nine games. On Monday, they combined for 17. 

► 33: Monday’s game marked the start of two home games within three days for the Irish, who played just once at Purcell Pavilion the previous 33 days. 

► 66: When Goodwin converted an easy look in the post not even midway through the first half for his fifth point, he became the 66th player in program history – and the 25th recruited by Brey – to hit for 1,000 career points. He’s the first Irish to make it to the milestone since Hubb went over 1,000 last season. Next up, Laszewski, who entered Monday’s game with 881 career points. 

► 75: Miles separating the two campuses of Notre Dame and Western Michigan, which requires a quick hour and 21 minute ride to cover. It’s unofficially the second closest Division I school to the South Bend campus behind the 56 miles that separate Notre Dame and Valparaiso. 

► 132: Notre Dame opened the week with an NCAA Tournament Evaluation Tool (NET) ranking of 132. What does it mean? It means it’s going to be really, really, really difficult for the Irish to climb back into Selection Sunday contention. 

Notre Dame closes its non-conference portion of the schedule Wednesday against first time opponent Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

Next up 

A rare mid-week matinee against a first-time opponent to close out Notre Dame’s non-conference home schedule when Texas A&M Corpus Christi visits Wednesday for a 1 p.m. tip. Good sections likely available for that one. 

Who is Texas A&M Corpus Christi? More on that in our game preview info box Wednesday, but the Islanders have one distinction – they’re the first Irish opponent this season that has double-digit wins. Corpus Christi comes (a long way) to town 10-2. 

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

► NOTRE DAME 85, WESTERN MICHIGAN 52

At Purcell Pavilion

W. MICHIGAN (52): Hastings 4-9 2-3 10, Kolp 0-1 0-0 0, Martin 1-3 0-0 2, Norman 6-16 1-2 15, Smith 2-7 0-0 5, Etchison 3-7 0-0 8, McMillan 4-8 0-0 8, Wright 0-2 1-3 1, Artis White 1-3 0-0 3, Kimble 0-2 0-2 0, Lobsinger 0-0 0-0 0, Freeman 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 21-59 4-10 52.

NOTRE DAME (85): Atkinson 5-10 7-9 17, Laszewski 3-5 0-0 8, Goodwin 6-10 2-2 18, Hubb 3-6 0-0 9, Wesley 6-13 0-0 15, Ryan 4-6 3-3 13, Wertz 1-4 0-0 2, Konieczny 0-0 0-0 0, Morgan 0-0 0-0 0, Sanders 0-1 0-0 0, Zona 1-1 1-1 3. Totals 29-56 13-15 85.

Halftime: Notre Dame 44-23. 3-Point Goals: W. Michigan 6-25 (Etchison 2-3, Norman 2-9, Artis White 1-2, Smith 1-4, Freeman 0-1, Martin 0-1, McMillan 0-1, Hastings 0-2, Kimble 0-2), Notre Dame 14-31 (Goodwin 4-6, Hubb 3-5, Wesley 3-9, Laszewski 2-3, Ryan 2-4, Sanders 0-1, Wertz 0-3). Rebounds: W. Michigan 32 (Hastings 8), Notre Dame 33 (Wesley 8). Assists: W. Michigan 7 (Smith 2), Notre Dame 19 (Wertz 5). Total Fouls: W. Michigan 11, Notre Dame 9. A: 4,903 (9,149).