I haven’t had a chance to pick up Mike Brey’s book yet. I’m willing to wager the line “Get old. Stay old,” appears in the text somewhere. Good coaches have a philosophy that brings success. Great coaches sustain success by adjusting to the realities around them. Indeed, Mike Brey oversaw a golden era of Notre Dame basketball. In a tremendous three year stretch, four and five-year players led the team with aplomb. The success of the ACC championship and consecutive Elite Eight appearances led to Brey’s opportunity to become a published author.
The reality of the 2018-19 Fighting Irish is substantially different than those teams. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fun bunch to watch. Like those teams, this group appears to be a very versatile, skilled basketball team. They seem to be likable bunch of guys who play hard and play smart. The 2018-19 team has one critical difference: youth.
Mike Brey’s roster has five freshmen. Only one of them figures to go on a five year plan. Throw in transfer Juwan Durham, and you have a very young team. The new motto might be, “Get older. Fast.”
Youth was served Tuesday evening in the opener vs. UIC. Notre Dame comfortably beat the Flames 84-67. Freshman Nate Laszewski led the Irish in scoring and rebounding with 12 points and nine boards in 19 minutes. Classmate Robby Carmody got the start and chipped in 10 points in 20 minutes. Of course, veteran leaders Rex Pflueger and TJ Gibbs led the Irish with 27 minutes played each, but it was the new guys stealing headlines.
Carmody looked completely at home on the floor and contributed early and often on both ends. He complimented a solid offensive contribution with sound footwork on the defensive end. Among our 18S writers, he quickly drew comparisons to Steve Vasturia. Carmody went 3-5 from the floor (0-1 from three) and 5-6 from the stripe. He had four rebounds to go with his 11 points. A very encouraging debut.
Laszewski quickly destroyed concerns that he would camp behind the arc. He showed great aggression around the rim and got to the line for six FT’s (made five). It would have been great to see more than just one of his three attempts from deep fall, but the stroke looks solid and the selection wise. The most pleasant part of Nate’s 19 minutes were the nine boards. That’s the dream contribution for a team who just lost a double-double machine.
Dane Goodwin and Prentiss Hubb logged 20 and 19 minutes respectively. Again, both looked fully at home on the floor. Goodwin will have more efficient nights in his future. He was 3-10 from the floor and 1-5 from deep. The highlight for Dane had to be the lovely three he drained coming off a John Mooney ball screen in the second half. The stroke looked good and he was aggressive going to the rim. Hubb played an incredibly efficient game with 5 points on 3 shots and no turnovers. Hubb’s defensive skills were evident in both man to man defense and atop the 2-3 zone.
Juwan Durham also made his Irish debut Tuesday. He won over the crowd quickly with six(!) blocks. Notre Dame hasn’t had this sort of rim protection in recent history. He looks very at home anchoring the back line of the 2-3 zone. On the offensive end, there was some expected rust, but Durham made all four FT attempts. Durham’s fitness also looked good. His 14 minutes came in long stretches.
On an evening where youth was served, if Irish fans were to have any concerns, it would be with the veterans. Team leaders TJ Gibbs and Rex Pflueger each played 27 minutes Tuesday. They combined for a worrisome 3-18 from the floor. Pflueger, in particular, seemed out of sync. The senior is counted on for efficient performances, but coughed up a team-high four turnovers. Rex looked choppy and out of sync on the offensive end and a step slow defensively. Gibbs just couldn’t get anything to drop. He had clean looks, but was only 1-8 from deep.
DJ Harvey’s accelerated return from season-ending knee injuries last year has been a bright spot early in the season. Irish fans collectively held their breath when he took a hard fall in the second half. Thankfully, Harvey shook it off and seemed no worse for wear. Harvey was a perfect 6-6 from the line and put up a solid 10 points in 24 minutes. Harvey’s defense left much to be desired, but most of his errors came with the Irish on cruise control in the second half.
Veterans John Mooney and Elijah Burns were solid on the evening, combining for eleven points and fifteen rebounds. Both look to be excellent evidence of Brey’s ability to bring players along.
That was the big theme of the night. If Brey is as goods we believe him to be at developing talent, the raw materials of this freshman class are top-notch. All four looked entirely comfortable and ready from the jump.
This game was typically sloppy and choppy for an opener. There were 49 fouls called and the teams combined for 29 turnovers. Both of these things are entirely expected. With the number of combinations Brey is experimenting with, Irish fans are going to be asked to show some patience to start this season. The offense lacked the movement and polish fans have been spoiled by. Defensively, Notre Dame looked very good. In particular, Durham expertly anchored the back of the 2-3 with Gibbs and Hubb pressuring the perimeter. The Irish were at their best Tuesday when they were able to get out and run. This team looks much more comfortable in the open floor than in static half-court sets. That’s good news on several fronts. First, they have the bodies to run 10 (or even 11) deep. Second, the chemistry and flow ND is showing in transition will eventually show up in the half court. It just takes a little more time to work through motion against a set defense. Notre Dame’s shooting was far more worrisome than the lack of half-court cohesiveness. A single data point can’t be a trend, but Notre Dame is going to have to significantly improve on 18% three point shooting if they want to finish in the top half of the ACC this year.
Statistically, this wasn’t your typical ND win. UIC actually outshot the Irish. ND shot 39% eFG to UIC’s 42%. UIC also won the turnover battle. ND turned it over on 21% of possessions to UIC’s 17%. Where the Irish dominated was on the boards and getting to the stripe. Notre Dame collected 43% of their (frequent) misses, while UIC got only 25% of their own caroms. Notre Dame’s FTA/FGA was 61%, nearly double UIC’s 31%. Considering ND made a scorching 95% of their free throws, they made maximum advantage of the FT disparity.
This was a very encouraging start. UIC sat at 198 in KenPom’s rankings and moved up to 191 in the loss. They’ll compete in the Horizon League this year. While it wasn’t ACC level competition, it was a great way to get started. The Irish “covered” the statistical prediction for the game and were comfortable throughout. The biggest thing to watch down the line will be how Brey manages minutes. Yes Bonzie, Matt and Marty are gone, but you’re replacing them with four very capable freshmen. They need to play. How will Brey balance the need for youthful contribution vs. his “Get old. Stay old” program philosophy? Will he go nine or ten deep for the first time in recent history? He’s got six more home games in the friendly confines of the Joyce Center to figure it out. Tune in Thursday and see.