An afternoon of fun and focus allows Notre Dame to again look like Notre Dame

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Jan 28, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard JJ Starling (1) reacts after a dunk against the Louisville Cardinals at the end of the first half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

SOUTH BEND — Learning to survive and eventually thrive across the ups and downs and makes and misses and soul-challenging swings of a college basketball season has been a process for Notre Dame freshman guard J.J. Starling. 

As good as he might be in a practice one afternoon, he better be better the next. Same goes for games, when it matters none what you did the previous night out or even the previous half because another opponent, another opportunity, is closing quickly. 

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for Starling, a gifted five-star recruit and former McDonald’s All-American who was expected to pick up where he left off as a heralded/coveted high school senior and separate himself from many of his peers this winter. 

More:At a time when he often pondered his team's basketball future, Mike Brey instead decided his

Instead, it’s been a chore for Starling a lot of nights just to be average. 

Saturday, in a game that the Irish absolutely had to have success in, Starling made it look easy. Made it look like he belonged. Made it look like his well of potential still has the possibility of being tapped over this season’s final six weeks. Starling busted loose for a game-high 22 points to go with six rebounds in 35 minutes as Notre Dame (10-12; 2-9 ACC) led from nearly start to finish in a 76-62 victory lover equally as disappointing Louisville (2-19; 0-10). 

“Honestly, I was just having fun,” Starling said. “Tonight, just happened to be the night. We needed it and shots were falling.” 

Finding a consistent gear at this level has been a challenge for Starling, who’s as talented offensively as anyone on the Irish roster, but hasn’t always been able to show it. That, for myriad reasons. 

Jan 28, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Nate Laszewski (14) controls the ball against the Louisville Cardinals in the second half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe it’s because he’s playing with so many old guys that he’s too often OK with deferring to them, with following their lead as the Irish ventured deeper through Atlantic Coast Conference play. Starling also tweaked his left shoulder early December loss to Syracuse. He later then tweaked his right shoulder, and only recently stopped wearing the protective strips across both in games. 

Freed from that, he played free. Played easy. Played. He was really good, especially in the first half when he erupted for a game-high 16 while making seven of his eight shots from the floor. He capped that half with a steal at midcourt and a slam as the horn expired. 

That’s your McDonald’s All-American. Who can J.J. Starling still be? We’re not sure, though those 18 electrifying/exciting minutes in the first half was a good indication that he can be special. It’s something we’ve seen him do too few times, but something he believes he can do more of. Next week. Next month. 

More:Five questions the next Notre Dame men's basketball coach should ask about the program

Give him the ball and just let him go. He's too gifted to be a fit-in guy. Let someone else work in that role.

“He’s really sharp; he’s pure; he wants to be coached,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “I thought to myself about a month ago, you know, there is a process here with him. I think maybe the lightbulb’s going on for him at a lot of ends and he’s just kind of playing.” 

In some ways, it’s about becoming a man, on and off the court. Brey saw Starling headed that way about a month ago. We saw it Saturday. Maybe that boy in him is gone. He gets it.

Jan 28, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Louisville Cardinals guard Mike James (1) and guard Zan Payne (23) fight for the ball against Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Marcus Hammond (10)  in the second half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

This one was about more than just Starling starring for Notre Dame, which had lost four straight and seven of eight. This one was about flushing all the bad that’s happened to this program this month — on and off the floor. Like the losing. Like Brey deciding that he’s leaving at season’s end. Like the program seeing two (Brady Dunlap, Parker Friedrichsen) of its three prospects from the three-man recruiting class bolt after both asked out last week of their national letters of intent to explore their future options. Like the Irish playing nothing like they could and should play. 

Like the Irish who, honestly, maybe were feeling a bit too sorry for themselves and where they stood midway through league play. 

Saturday was about letting go of all that and just having some fun on their home court against an opponent that was woefully overmatched. Notre Dame led for a whopping 37:39 and at once by as many as 30. Observers of this program this season must have looked the scoreboard once, twice, three times and wondered if that score was right. A 30-point lead? These Irish? This season? 

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Even Brey wondered if the score was right. Not the Irish.

“We looked at the scoreboard and it wasn’t like, we’re happy to be here,” said guard Cormac Ryan. “This is where we should be and this is where we can be.” 

Notre Dame scored it and led easily, but more importantly, Notre Dame shared it. It had double-digit assists (and finished with 16) before it committed its first turnover. It got a career high eight assists from Ryan, who added 11 points and four rebounds. 

“We were just confident with it,” Ryan said. "We were flowing and taking care of the ball and that really helped us.” 

As for that career high for assists, C-Mac? 

“I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve,” he said. “I can throw it around a little bit. Look, in order to get an assist, guys make shots and I got it to guys and we were knocking down shots. 

“I’m happy to do my part.” 

Jan 28, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Louisville Cardinals guard El Ellis (3) shoots the ball against Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Trey Wertz (3) in the second half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

As did everyone else, which allowed Notre Dame to head into its week away from game action feeling good about itself, feeling as good as it has since those short-lived we’re-good feels after the Nov. 30 victory over then-No. 20 Michigan State. There hasn’t been much to like since for this group this season. But why not run off an NBA-like win streak (six, seven, eight, 10 straight) over the next month? 

“Those swings are crazy, and you never when they’re going to happen,” Brey said. “Let’s see if we can get into one of those.” 

However long it might go, the Irish will ride it. As will Brey, who promised to go with the same suit combination next time out (Feb. 4 at home against Wake Forest) because for a team that rides karma like few others, no use messing with that now. Suits and sneakers and success Saturday? Suits and sneakers and hopefully more success the next Saturday. 

That means Brey's suit stays. Will his team's winning? To be determined, but at least the Irish got one when they really needed one. A few more, with Starling showing what he showed Saturday, sure would be nice to see. And savor. 

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


LOUISVILLE (62): Curry 1-4 1-2 3, Traynor 2-7 0-0 4, Withers 4-10 0-0 10, Ellis 4-12 0-0 8, James 6-8 0-0 14, Lands 3-3 0-0 8, Okorafor 3-5 2-3 8, Basili 2-3 0-0 6, Ree 0-2 0-0 0, Payne 0-0 0-0 0, Wheeler 0-0 1-2 1, Miller 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-54 4-7 62.

NOTRE DAME (76): Laszewski 5-9 4-5 17, Goodwin 5-16 0-0 10, Hammond 3-6 0-0 8, Ryan 4-8 1-1 11, Starling 9-16 2-2 22, Wertz 2-7 1-2 6, Campbell 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 29-64 8-10 76.

Halftime: Notre Dame 46-24. 3-Point Goals: Louisville 8-23 (Lands 2-2, Basili 2-3, James 2-3, Withers 2-5, Ree 0-2, Ellis 0-4, Traynor 0-4), Notre Dame 10-28 (Laszewski 3-4, Hammond 2-4, Starling 2-4, Ryan 2-5, Wertz 1-5, Goodwin 0-6). Rebounds: Louisville 32 (Okorafor 5), Notre Dame 28 (Goodwin 10). Assists: Louisville 13 (Ellis 6), Notre Dame 16 (Ryan 8). Total Fouls: Louisville 14, Notre Dame 13. A: 6,531 (9,149).