I promised myself I wouldn’t do it. One of the fun things about writing about sports is projecting and predicting. We try to extrapolate future successes and failures out of single data points. We look for the patterns and indicators of future triumphs and tragedies. I’m not actually sure why we do it. Perhaps it is the allure of predicting the unpredictable. Here’s my advice to you this Notre Dame basketball season: Don’t.
Don’t take a single possession, four-minute block, or game and inflate it into something more. This team is what it is. They’re young. They’re volatile. They’re inconsistent. They make a ton of mistakes. They’re also deep, athletic, and fun as all hell.
With the “get old, stay old” teams of the past few years, there was a sense that you could predict what you were going to get. Brey worked his loosest coach routine and the tight rotation was mostly set by the time they tipped the first exhibition. Earlier this week, Brey was quoted by Tom Noie saying, “I said, ’My God, look who we have on the floor right now,’ It’s new territory for me, and I’m growing in that area.” After Tuesday’s 76-74 win over Illinois in the ACC/BigTen Challenge, Brey said, “I’m learning about them during the game.”
That, fellow Irish fans, is reason for hope. Brey has been at his best when his back is against the wall. When the situation makes him uncomfortable, he finds a way. When Harangody goes down, we get the burn. When he has a roster without any low-post bigs, he goes spread pick-and-roll. Without reliable veteran depth, he’s going to go young. He has to. Play 10 guys. Live with turnovers. Celebrate big runs, big wins and breakout performances. Turn the page quickly when bad losses or tough nights roll around. That’s the formula this year. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Tuesday night’s victory over a very frisky Fighting Illini squad in South Bend was a great example. If you’re looking to prognosticate, there’s plenty of raw material. For the optimist, DJ Harvey is back baby! Knee injury, what knee injury? This guy is a big time scorer! Don’t even get me started with Juwan Durham. He’s a killer on both ends! For the pessimist, WTF is with these turnovers? Did we really cough up a comfortable margin and have to sweat out a final possession? Are we ever going to shoot well?
Here’s the thing: it’s all true. Some of it will be true next week in MSG, and some of it won’t. Knowing which parts is the trick. On the one hand, I envy Mike Brey. He and his staff have a toolbox full of shinny new toys to mix and match. On the other hand, the paradox of choice starts to sit in. With so many combinations and permutations of guys, which is optimal in any given moment? How quickly can you adjust when a guy like Durham breaks out on one night and struggles another? That’s the challenge for the Irish. That’s why this year is a lot like a basketball box of chocolates – you’re just not sure what you’re going to get.
So let’s celebrate Juwan Durham’s big night. He made game-changing plays on both ends of the floor. While still raw, he flashed athleticism, skill and intensity that helped he Irish secure the win. Now he’s got to build on it. Dane Goodwin was solid on both ends and confident with the ball, even when things got a little crazy. DJ Harvey looked unstoppable at times. He waved off a ball screen and scored on a beautiful clear-out when he found a mismatch. Harvey was also seen icing down his repaired knee and seemed sore after 27 minutes. He’s still only played half a college season and is less than a year out from serious surgery.
These were fun, awesome data points. Not an entire season. Progress with this team won’t be linear. There’s a head scratching loss or two out there yet, but there are also some fun wins too.
Tuesday was a fun win. Notre Dame’s first tilt against a P5 team had a little bit of everything. The first half was a turnover fest with both teams coughing it up at alarming rates. Ticky-tack officiating saddled John Mooney with early foul trouble and limited him to 10 minutes. That opened the door for Harvey and Durham’s break out games. Harvey scored 19 on 3-4 shooting (2-4 from deep) and was 7-10 from the line. He added 3 boards and 3 assists. Durham had 10 points in 17 minutes. He chipped in 4 boards and 5 blocks.
A few days after scoring 15 on 4-6 from deep, Nate Laszewski went 0-3 from behind the arc. Same with Rex Pflueger. After making everything he looked at over the weekend, he was 0-1 from the floor and 5-8 from the line. Free throws were definitely a factor in Tuesday’s contest. Notre Dame shot over 80% from the line in the first half, but missed enough critical ones down the stretch. They ended at 62% from the charity stripe, turning a comfortable win into a nail-biter.
These are the things you learn from when you’re young. Luckily for Brey and his staff, they get to teach after a win. Enjoy this win and celebrate it as that. The “winning is hard” mantra doesn’t just apply to football. As easy as the hired guns at Duke make it look sometimes, the rest of us have to work at it. It isn’t time to exalt or damn anyone in this program. They’re a work in progress – far from finished product. Every guy has their contribution to make. Every guy has their struggles to overcome. This is going to be an incredibly fun, and occasionally frustrating ride. If you can manage to stay out of the prediction business, your nerves will thank you.