It seems like a century ago that Notre Dame men’s basketball was coming off back-to-back Elite Eight runs and recruiting under head coach Mike Brey was at an all-time high.
The 2017-18 squad seemed destined for another deep run after winning the Maui Invitational and seniors Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell leading the charge. We all know how the story ended. Colson, a preseason college basketball player of the year candidate, would miss a huge chunk of the season with an injury, and Farrell played hobbled as well.
Digging deeper, that team on the surface was certainly talented enough to make some noise in March, but they couldn’t overcome the injury bug. Talented freshman D.J. Harvey would also miss significant time with a knee injury.
Fast forward to the past two seasons and it isn’t hard to figure out why the program has fallen on hard times. While the 2018 class came in with a great deal of fanfare, the group has struggled to make an impact in year one. Brey likes and trusts an older roster and a shorter bench, but too much has been thrust upon the 2018 recruiting class without any security blanket.
Harvey, the only 2017 signee, never fully recovered from his significant knee injury while at Notre Dame, and also proved to not be much of a fit in the Brey system, playing more of an iso game. While that might have worked without his knee injury, he clearly lost a step and his natural athleticism suffered. He would end up transferring to Vanderbilt.
Unfortunately, Harvey was not the only transfer and player that didn’t work out as originally planned. Forward Matt Ryan transferred to Vanderbilt a year prior, and forward Elijah Burns left for Siena College. Both were supposed to help ease the transition of the young guys in the 2018 class.
During the 2018-2019 season, guard T.J. Gibbs regressed significantly, especially on the offensive end, going from 40% from beyond the arc in 2017-2018 to just under 32%. His field goal percentage as a whole was just 34.%.
Backcourt mate Rex Pflueger also never became the offensive threat many people expected when Notre Dame signed him out of Southern California in 2015. He would only participate in 10 games during the 2018-2019 season due to a torn ACL.
The basketball team would finish with the worst record as a program under Brey’s tutelage.
2019-2020 was a stepping stone in the right direction. While the roster didn’t bring on any new blood, the heralded 2018 class was in their sophomore season and the roster was bringing back three seniors in Gibbs, Pflueger and forward John Mooney.
It didn’t start out well, but as the season went on growth on the roster continued to show. Gibbs had a nice bounce back season and Mooney was one of the top players in the entire country - probably deserving of more praise than he received.
Sophomore guards Prentiss Hubb, Dane Goodwin and sophomore forward Nate Laszewski would all have their moments, but at times also showed why they weren’t poised for a long run in the NCAA Tournament.
With that said, they were playing their best ball late in the season. The team went from three conference wins to ten during the regular season and won six more games overall despite not being able to finish the ACC Tournament or play in either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.
A significant improvement indeed.
So what’s the reason for both concern and optimism going forward? Let’s start with the concern first.
The Loss of the Seniors
After completely whiffing in the 2019 recruiting class, Notre Dame has nothing but inexperience behind the 2018 class that returns for two more seasons. While strides have been made, no one on the current roster has shown they can make up for the loss of Mooney, Gibbs and Pflueger with a combined 260 starts under their belts.
Fifth-year senior Juwan Durham is a valuable rim protector and rebounder, but outside of a few instances here and there he has yet to prove he can consistently be a threat on offense and play big minutes that will be needed of him next winter. Durability is a concern with him, and while technically a starter last year he averaged under 18 minutes per game.
Gibbs improved his play dramatically during his senior season, leading the ACC in three-point shooting at 47% in league play. He knocked down 42% of his shots on the season. Gibbs started 101 career games, and that experience can’t be discounted. Pflueger wasn’t an offensive threat, but his leadership, defense and basketball IQ were second to none on last year’s roster and fans will quickly realize how valuable he was to the program.
No Proven Superstar
Last year it was obvious who the best player on the roster was, and that was Mooney. He was the saving grace for Notre Dame in many games and it is hard to picture where the team would have finished without him around. Going into the 2020-2021 season there is no clear star on the team that can be counted on to take over games and someone the coaches will want with the ball in their hands when a big shot is needed.
Obviously Hubb, Goodwin and Laszewski have shown strong play in spurts, but that was with guys like Mooney and Gibbs there. They all need to make significant strides and become closer to all-conference performers. Of course, the burden could be shared a little bit if Stanford transfer guard Cormac Ryan, or oft-injured wing Robby Carmody can provide some scoring ability as well.
Lack of Recruiting
Brey and his staff have been criticized for their recruiting success over the last several years. The 2018 class was great on paper and has shown promise, but the lone 2017 signee transferred and the 2019 class brought in no one.
Getting Ryan from Stanford was a big get, and his redshirt season essentially makes him a 2019 player. The staff is bringing in three new freshmen to compete for playing time in the Class of 2020, but it was one of the weakest classes from a recruiting rankings standpoint in the Brey era.
While I do like the class more than the rankings would suggest, it is hard to predict an immediate impact from any of Matt Zona, Elijah Taylor and Tony Sanders Jr. But the Notre Dame staff is extremely high on this class and the traits it brings to the roster.
The staff also is bringing in Santa Clara transfer guard Trey Wertz, but as of now he is not eligible to play until 2021-2022.
Let’s focus on the optimistic side of things now.
Experience of the Junior Class
Brey has a history of his players showing vast improvement and dominant play as upperclassmen. In some cases, the players were role players without much playing experience and in other cases the players finally had the seasoning and maturity required to take that next step.
The talent of the 2018 class is undeniable. We saw Hubb take over games at times last year, while also showing improved athleticism and a more consistent shot another year removed from an ACL tear he suffered as a senior in high school. If the mental aspect of the game can catch up to the talent level, we are looking at one of the best guards in the ACC.
Goodwin has a nice all-around game that resembles that of a Steve Vasturia, and his mid-range jump shot is one of better strokes I’ve seen during Brey’s tenure. Goodwin plays more of an old man’s game, and you can tell he is the son of a coach with his calm demeanor and low-key swagger. He isn’t as flashy and loud as a Hubb, but their games mesh well.
Laszewski’s game didn’t improve much on the stat sheet during his sophomore campaign, but he has shown he isn’t afraid to take and hit the last shot - see Toledo and North Carolina. Heralded as a sharp shooter coming out of high school, we haven’t seen that materialize consistently yet, but his all-around game improved considerably as the year went on.
Another year in the weight room and working on his craft could really let his upside shine during his junior year. He is the guy I’m looking at the most to take that giant leap.
Cormac Ryan Impact
Ryan had to sit out this past year due to the NCAA transfer rules, but he was a big time add to the Notre Dame team. While he didn’t partake in a college game last season, the buzz around him was enormous.
If Notre Dame wants someone to replace what Gibbs is leaving behind, Ryan is the best hope. During his freshman year at Stanford, the growing pains of big time college basketball were felt, but he did start 17 of the 24 games he appeared in prior to injury, scoring 8.9 points per contest.
Rumblings during practices this year is that at times he was the best player on the court, and Brey would have the younger players scrimmage against the veterans - essentially creating next year’s lineup to see how it stacked up.
I wasn’t at any of these practices, but from what I heard from sources it was impressive. Ryan should slide in next to Hubb as a second primary ball-handler, and if he is as good as advertised Notre Dame is fortunate he chose them the second time around.
Fresh Faces and the Return of Robby Carmody
I am including Carmody in here because it feels like we don’t truly know him yet, and while Notre Dame didn’t technically sign anyone in 2019, Carmody, Ryan and Wertz will hopefully cover that gap with their remaining eligibility.
In the limited amount of time Carmody has been on the court, his tenacity on defense and overall aggressive style of play has been felt. He plays bigger than his listed 6’4 size and has the feel of a Pat Connaughton in the sense that he can defend bigger players because of his overall athleticism and effort. Keeping him healthy will be the most important part, because the roster really needs the depth.
Moving on to the incoming freshman, I mentioned my concerns over the lack of star power from a rankings standpoint with this group, but I also feel the class as a whole is underrated. Irish Breakdown publisher Bryan Driskell is even higher on the class than I am.
With Mooney gone to graduation, the team really needs a big or two to provide quality minutes, and the 6’9 Zona and 6’8 Taylor have college ready body types and complement each other well.
Zona is a traditional Brey big man. He isn’t overly athletic, in fact he is probably a below average athlete right now, but he has a nice stroke from beyond the arc and can force defenders to the perimeter. Zona also has a strong game around the rim, showing the ability to score with both hands near the basket.
That would play well with Durham.
In Taylor’s case, I’ve heard he is likely shorter than his listed height, but he is a really good athlete that can play both on the block and hit the 15-foot jumper. I could see both players providing the team with at least 10-15 minutes per game as freshman.
Sanders Jr. will likely redshirt with the logjam on the wing, but he brings height and athleticism to the perimeter that the roster doesn’t currently possess. In his 247Sports profile, he is listed at 6’7 and if that is true, he would actually be one of the taller players on the roster.
However, he is also only 190 pounds and has some rawness to his game that will likely keep off the court this coming season.
Wrapping Things Up
The roster heading into the upcoming season is a talented one, but the key is for proper development and health. Outside of the true college basketball blue bloods, it is hard to lose three starters and expect better results right away. However, the 2018 class was a huge recruiting win for the staff and now that they are upperclassmen, it is time for the consistent, quality play to show.
If it all comes together, and the program is blessed with a little luck they haven’t received in recent years, there is a good chance the three-year NCAA Tournament drought will end and the Irish will get back to their winning ways.
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