Florida State's Tucker Center continues to be House of Horrors for Notre Dame men

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Dec 21, 2022; Tallahassee, Florida, USA;  Notre Dame guard Cormac Ryan (5) shoots a layup at over Florida State guard Matthew Cleveland (35) at the Donald L. Tucker Center during the first half. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Back before the Notre Dame men’s basketball season went so sideways with December losses piling up like the expected snow totals from the area’s impending blizzard, a veteran group talked of doing stuff that no recent Irish teams had done. 

Like winning the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship. 

Like going to the school’s first Final Four since 1978. 

Barring a needed Christmas miracle, neither of those goals will come anywhere close to happening come March. Following what unfolded late Wednesday in Tallahassee, Fla., Notre Dame has a chance to do something no previous Irish team has done — make the NCAA tournament after starting ACC play 0-2. 

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Dare to dream, right? Yeah, good luck with that one, guys. Especially after how the closing seconds of this one unraveled. Notre Dame finds itself winless in the league after losing for the third straight time and fourth time in the last five games with a near-miss against Florida State (4-10), which held off a late surge for a 73-72 win. 

“I feel for us because we really gave ourselves a chance to win,” said Irish coach Mike Brey, whose team trailed the final 17:08 after earlier leading by 11. “We had a chance. We couldn’t finish it. 

“I thought we were a little better the two previous games.” 

It took two games for Notre Dame to shake a lingering hangover of having its soul snatched in the 15-point home loss to Marquette, but it has only two losses to show for it. Good, but nowhere near good enough. That’s been the story the first six weeks. That might be the story the next two months. 

Dec 21, 2022; Tallahassee, Florida, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Nate Laszewski (14) blocks a shot attempt by Florida State Seminoles guard Caleb Mills (4) at Donald L. Tucker Center during the second half. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Winless across a two-game Southeast road swing, Notre Dame is 7-5 overall, 0-2 in the ACC for the third time in five years. Neither of those two previous seasons (2018-19/2020-21) ended with trips to the NCAA tournament. Will this one? For this group, for this veteran group, there’s no other option. It’s either get there, or it just might be time to tear this down and start over. 

We might already be there (more on that in a minute). 

Notre Dame has lost both ACC games by a combined two points. Both occurred because a veteran team couldn’t do what a veteran team needs to do at the end of close games. Execute. Stay poised. Finish. Win. 

Happened earlier in the month back home against Syracuse. Happened again Wednesday in Tallahassee, a place where Notre Dame still hasn’t won (0-6) since joining the ACC in 2013-14. 

Seconds after this one went final, it felt a whole lot like 2005-06 again. Remember that season? Veteran Irish team that had designs on being an NCAA team. It jumps into league play — back then it was the Big East — and absorbs one close loss after another. Notre Dame went 6-10 in the Big East that season. Half the losses — five — were by three points or fewer.  So close, but still, so far away.

This conference season has the early look and feel of that one. Only this team doesn’t have a Torin Francis or a Chris Quinn. Notre Dame’s been close, but close doesn’t count when you’re one of four 0-2 teams in the league.

Game was there for the Irish, and then it wasn't

Brey likes to ride his get-old/stay-old mantra. That sounds nice and makes for good talking points on telecasts, but it only matters when your old guys deliver when they have to deliver. When you have old guys, you can't play young. 

The old guys had to deliver Wednesday, but didn’t. Super senior Trey Wertz is the Irish point guard. He's the guy that’s supposed to make it all go. He’s the guy because he’s the one Brey trusts most with the ball to make the right play. 

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For Brey, Wertz is his Chris Quinn. His Martin Ingelsby. His Ben Hansbrough. Well, maybe not Hansbrough, but Wertz is the guy that Brey insists has to be on the floor for the head coach to feel good. Wertz will make the right pass. He’ll get this team into the right set at the right time. He’s the steadying influence — an extension of the head coach — on the court. 

Wertz did something he simply cannot do in the closing seconds Wednesday. He turned it over in the open floor. His miscue meant Notre Dame didn’t get so much as a final shot in the final seconds. 

That stings. 

That stinks. 

Stings and stinks because for the first time all season in a loss, this one wasn’t about what Notre Dame couldn’t do on the defensive end. This one wasn’t about letting the other team continually drive the ball down their gut and score basket after basket in the paint at point-blank range. This one wasn’t about Notre Dame failing to get to at least 70 points because of an offensive offense. 

This one was about finding an early offensive flow and then getting not one but two — TWO! — stops inside the final 36 seconds to give a veteran team a chance to act and play like a veteran team and go and get its first league win. 

Dec 21, 2022; Athens, Georgia, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Trey Wertz (3) passes the ball over Georgia Bulldogs guard Kario Oquendo (3) during the second half at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

How do they respond? They respond with Wertz eyeing Cormac Ryan racing down the middle of the floor and then overthrowing him. If Wertz was the quarterback and Ryan the wide receiver, the screen pass would’ve missed by five yards. It wasn’t close. As the final seconds ran off the ball bounced harmlessly away.

Wertz feels like the men’s basketball version of former Irish quarterback Drew Pyne. Good kid, good player, but not elite at a spot where elite is the expectation. The football team was going to go only so far with Pyne. This basketball season feels the same with Wertz. 

What stings even more is that the one guy who should’ve had the ball in his hands, who could’ve made the one play that needed to be made, never even so much as touched it in the final 6.5 seconds. 

Brey’s got to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Moving forward, we’re moving closer to freshman J.J. Starling sliding into that lead guard spot. Run everything through him. Turn him loose and see where it leads. While you’re at it, start fellow freshman Ven-Allen Lubin at power forward. Bring Wertz and fellow super senior Dane Goodwin off the bench. Start Marcus Hammond. Maybe that will get their games in gear. 

This get-old/stay-old stuff isn’t working. These pieces aren't producing where they're currently placed. And played. 

Starling was special in scoring a game-high 20 points on 7-of-11 from the field. He’s simply too talented, too gifted, too everything to be a decoy in a game where one play can decide it. Take the training wheels off and let him ride. Notre Dame did it last year at this time with Blake Wesley. Time to do it with Starling.

Dec 21, 2022; Tallahassee, Florida, USA; Notre Dame guard JJ Starling (1) looks to pass the ball during the first half against the Florida State Seminoles at Donald L. Tucker Center. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

“He just keeps getting better,” Brey said. “He is playing really well, playing within himself. I’m thoroughly impressed with him. He's got a great poise about him.” 

With the Irish down by seven and 2:11 remaining, Starling single-handedly put the visitors in position to grab this one. He scored on a drive. He made two free throws, and made all four on a night when he came in shooting 66.7 percent at the line. He finished an excellent Irish defensive possession on one end with another score on the other. That brought the Irish within one. 

Notre Dame then forced Florida State into a shot-clock violation to set up the final sequence. Two timeouts followed. Starling could only watch as Ryan inbounded to Wertz, who sailed it over Ryan before time expired. At worst, Ryan gets fouled on a layup attempt and has two free throws to go and win it. At best, it's a buzzer-beating bucket. 

“I thought Trey’s read on the cut by Cormac was great,” Brey said. “He just threw it a little long.” 

A young guy got the game to the closing seconds. 

An old guy let it get away. 

Can’t happen. Not now. Not next month. Not this season. Now that it did, Notre Dame has to go and try to make history the hard way. 

It won’t be easy. Why should it be? Nothing has been all season. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.


At Tallahassee, Fla.

NOTRE DAME (72): Laszewski 5-7 0-0 12, Goodwin 1-4 0-0 2, Ryan 6-13 2-3 17, Starling 7-11 4-4 20, Wertz 4-9 1-2 10, Lubin 3-6 0-0 6, Hammond 2-5 0-0 5. Totals 28-55 7-9 72.

FLORIDA ST. (73): Corhen 8-13 2-2 18, Cleveland 6-14 4-5 19, Da.Green 3-11 0-0 8, Mills 6-13 4-4 18, Warley 4-5 1-1 9, House 0-1 1-2 1, De.Green 0-0 0-0 0, Jackson 0-0 0-0 0, Adebisi 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-57 12-14 73.

Halftime: Notre Dame 39-38. 3-Point Goals: Notre Dame 9-19 (Ryan 3-6, Starling 2-3, Laszewski 2-4, Wertz 1-2, Hammond 1-3, Goodwin 0-1), Florida St. 7-22 (Cleveland 3-4, Mills 2-7, Da.Green 2-8, House 0-1, Corhen 0-2). Rebounds: Notre Dame 27 (Laszewski, Ryan, Lubin 6), Florida St. 27 (Cleveland 12). Assists: Notre Dame 12 (Wertz 4), Florida St. 15 (Warley 5). Total Fouls: Notre Dame 9, Florida St. 9. A: 6,394 (12,100).