Notre Dame basketball had a chance to sniff the upper echelon of the college game. The Fighting Irish had a week to celebrate their triumph in the Pacific. Success in Maui delivered a number five ranking to Mike Brey’s doorstep. The schedule, however, gave Notre Dame little time to bask in the glow of their highest ranking in seven years. A date with the third-ranked Michigan State Spartans loomed in the marquee ACC/BigTen Challenge matchup.

Every Irish fan knew this was going to be a tough game. Traveling to the Breslin Center to face Tom Izzo’s squad is never easy. This particular edition of the Spartans is impressive. They’re loaded and playing outstanding basketball. Izzo’s team was fresh off an evisceration of UNC. Ask most Irish basketball fans about consecutive November games against top 10 teams, and nine out of ten will take a split. The tenth probably needs their head checked. Notre Dame rolled in to East Lansing with a fat roll of house money.

Taking Care of “The List”

To cash in, Mike Brey had a checklist in his mind. Notre Dame needed to get off to a better start on offense. Against MSU, the Irish couldn’t afford another out-of-rhythm start. Defensively, Brey’s team had to limit transition baskets. Not only are the Spartans tough to stop, but the highlight reel athleticism would whip up the Breslin Center atmosphere. Finally, Brey’s team had to finish enough defensive possessions with defensive rebounds to keep things close. The Spartans are a bruising group in relentless pursuit of offensive boards. Notre Dame had to find enough one-and-done possessions to keep shot attempts close.

By the first media stoppage, the Irish were already down six. Notre Dame was forcing difficult looks on offense. Jaren Jackson was blocking and disrupting everything inside. Concerns about an out-of-rhythm offensive performance were confirmed. Struggles on the offensive end led to transition defensive issues as well. As Matt Farrell and T.J. Gibbs tried to penetrate MSU’s stout defense, Notre Dame found themselves out of balance and without enough cover in transition. Even when the Spartans weren’t scoring in transition, they were making absolutely everything in the half court. The Spartans shot over 50% from the floor and 100% from the FT strip in the first half. The few times MSU missed, they managed to collect over half of them, racking up nine offensive boards in the half.

Check, check and check. It as if the team somehow misinterpreted Brey’s list of concern as a honey-do list. The result was allowing MSU 46 first half points and digging a 20 point halftime hole. Izzo’s Spartans had the Breslin Center jumping and the Irish looked like they weren’t ready for the national spotlight.

Matt Farrell struggled through the first half, going 0-3 from the field. Bonzie Colson also struggled, going just 3-9 and having several attempts blocked. When Notre Dame’s two senior leaders struggle, the team is going to struggle. The lone bright spot was Rex Pflueger’s 3-3 performance. He and Gibbs kept the Irish ship somewhat afloat, combining for 18 of ND’s 26.

Once again, Notre Dame took a top team’s best shot to open a big game. Once again, Notre Dame was sent reeling. The big halftime question was whether Brey’s team could come back swinging as they did in Maui, or would this get even worse? Thankfully, the Irish answered the 2nd half bell.

Trying to Find an Answer

Notre Dame started to find a little rhythm out of the gate in the second half. By the first media stoppage, Notre Dame cut the Spartan lead to ten. The man and ball movement was outstanding. The offensive balance was back. Most importantly, made shots let Notre Dame get back and defend 5v5. Notre Dame allowed only four points in that first segment, versus fourteen in the first segment of the first half.

The Irish managed to cut the Spartan lead to eight, and they made a big three. ND got it to seven on a big shot from Farrell, and Sparty gets an offensive board put-back. Rex Pflueger made a big 3 at the midpoint of the second half to make it a 49-57 game. Irish fans had to be thinking, “here we come.” Sadly, every time the Irish got the game into a pressure situation, the Spartans responded. Less than a minute later Jaren Jackson clanged in a three point basket, and the lead was back to eleven. That was as close as it would get the rest of the way. Notre Dame clearly wore down as Izzo sent waves of fresh bodies onto the floor. The Spartans pulled away in the end and prevailed 81-63.

The Downside…

If you’re prone to pessimism, this was a moment where Notre Dame was exposed. The Irish had the ESPN spotlight to themselves on Thursday and didn’t answer the bell. Taking down the third ranked team in the country would have certainly propelled Brey’s squad to the second or third place in the national polls. The Irish could have retained that high ranking through a fairly light December and early January. Notre Dame had it all in front of them and didn’t deliver. D.J. Harvey looked like a struggling freshman. The Irish got virtually nothing from John Mooney or Elijah Burns. Farrell and Colson both struggled to produce on the big stage. Recency bias (and football hangovers) could let you get down on this team.

I see it quite differently.

The Upside…

Outside of 14th year senior TumTum Narin, the Spartans are a young team. Coming off the high of throttling UNC and playing in front of their home crowd, they came out like a house afire. The basket looked huge to them and the defensive intensity was dialed up to eleven. The Spartans are easily the most talented defensive squad Mike Brey’s team will see this year. No one other than Duke has managed a point per possession against them, and we were close.

NCAA Tournament games aren’t played on campus home courts in November. This Irish squad isn’t looking to spend a few weeks atop the rankings, they’re looking to punch a ticket to San Antonio. No great team is complete in November. This was a hard game. The ACC regular season and tournament will involve hard games. Getting to the promised land will take hard games. The Irish needed tonight to learn and build from. In his press conference, Mike Brey said as much. His team needed to face the adversity of the charged atmosphere and hulking opponent. The fact they dug their way back to a seven point game proved they have heart and the ability to play with the best. The hole they dug themselves in the first half proved they need that intensity from the jump to be competitive. The margin for effort at this level is razor thin. Sometimes, particularly when a team is feeling really good about themselves, they need a moment where the coach can say, “See! Told ya so.” Thursday night was exactly that.

To get to where they want to go, the Irish need better transition defense. That improved dramatically in the second half. Notre Dame only allowed MSU 35 second half points. The Irish need to start the game with better spacing, movement and patience on the offensive end. They needed to take care of the ball better. They improved from six turnovers at halftime to only four in the second. They improved from allowing nine offensive rebounds to only six in the second half. All the signs were pointing north.

Had the Irish managed to dig this out, we’d all be fist pumping our way through the weekend. We’d frame pictures of the 2nd or 3rd spot in the polls next week. Several of us here were ready to book flights to San Antonio had Notre Dame won. We’re not there – yet.

Brey and the staff now have valuable teaching tools. They have the film and the experience to reinforce their message to the team. The leaders of this squad experienced first-hand what it is going to take to reach their goals. The last three years have indicated that Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson love a challenge, and now they know what they’re aiming for. This was a difficult experience, but an incredibly valuable one.

Good Precedent For Optimism

There’s precedent for optimism in this situation. In 2015, the Irish got pantsed by 30 in Durham. It was a “not-ready-for-prime-time” loss on the national stage. Notre Dame ran in to a hot shooting, intense defending, young, athletic squad on their home floor. It happened to be the Duke team that went on to win the NCAA title that year. After that 30 point loss, the Irish went on a magical run to the ACC title. On a neutral floor, they went on to beat that young Duke squad. At the end of that season, ND was playing some of the best basketball in the country. There’s every reason to believe this year’s squad can take the hard lessons of this MSU game and use them as a similar springboard.

As Brey noted in his press conference. These slow starts are concerns. Of course, facing the 11th and 2nd rated defenses in the country might have something to do with those struggles. Notre Dame faced consecutive dog fights with top 15 teams away from home and they earned a split. Now, they get to lick their wounds a bit. Notre Dame won’t face another top-50 KenPom team until welcoming UNC to the Joyce Center in January. They won’t see another defense like this until the last game of the ACC season March 3rd.

Thursday night did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for this Notre Dame team. They showed some grit getting back in the game, but they wore down in a buzz saw environment against a fellow Final Four contender. Give me that young MSU team on a neutral floor with a healthier Matt Farrell, and I like our chances. Get D.J. Harvey and John Mooney some more confidence and minutes over this stretch, and I like them even better. Final Four’s aren’t earned in East Lansing in November. Hopefully, the lessons that lead to Final Four’s are.