Despite starting their season two months later and facing a much easier schedule, the Irish basketball squad, unlike the football team, is no longer undefeated. With their loss last week to Radford and less than impressive wins over three other opponents, fans of the program are rightly concerned. One of the captains decided to transfer?!?! Why can’t we shoot? What happened to the offense? Is it time to panic? Ahead of tonight’s game against Duquesne, let’s check out what’s gone right and wrong for the Irish thus far.
What’s Up with TJ Gibbs
With injuries derailing much of Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell’s senior seasons, TJ Gibbs had to grow up quickly. His play was one of the bright spots in a “what might have been” season. Gibbs averaged over 15 points with a healthy .563 true shooting percentage aided by an over 40% clip from beyond the arc. With the graduations of Colson and Farrell, it’s now TJ’s team. Unfortunately, his jump shooting and finishing at the rim have cratered. Through four games (obvious small sample size alert), Gibbs TS% is down to .410. He’s shooting just .154 from deep. While his assist rate has ticked up a bit from last year, if Gibbs doesn’t start making shots, the team will have serious issues on the offensive end.
John Mooney Progressing Nicely
While many of the upperclassmen have disappointed thus far, John Mooney is not one of them. The stretch-big from Florida is having a solid start to the season. Mooney leads the team in rebounding, three point shooting, and has emerged as the first choice big for Mike Brey. He’s also improved his shooting at the free throw line by almost 20% from last year. His three point shot will likely cool off a bit (he’s at 50% right now), he’s finished inside the arc as well. If the junior can keep this up into conference play, it will go a long way toward taking some offensive pressure off Gibbs. With Burns apparently intending to transfer (more on that below), Mooney should play big minutes the rest of the season.
Rex Pflueger Looks Lost on Offense
For all of the good the senior captain does on defense, he gives a lot of it back on offense. While he’s never been a primary threat on that end, there was hope he could become an effective 3&D wing after nearly hitting 40% of his threes as a sophomore. Last year, his shooting took a step back (.317), and this year has been even worse (.250). He’s also turning the ball over more than previous seasons, and failing to finish at the rim despite his impressive athleticism.
There’s been possessions in every game where he’s pointlessly held the ball and allowed the defense to reset, dribbled into a long 2 instead of taking an in-rhythm corner 3, missed bunnies around the rim, or made a questionable pass to give the opponent a layup. Again, Pflueger helps the Irish immensely on the defensive end, but they likely can’t survive on offense with this version of Rex playing big minutes.
Mostly Good Things from the New Guys
While we were all excited for the new recruiting class to join the Irish, no one really knew how much they’d contribute. Brey has a history of bringing the freshmen along slowly, but he’s never had a class like this one. Through four games, all four freshmen, and incoming transfer Jujuan Durham, remain in the rotation. Prentiss Hubb leads the newcomers in minutes with Nate Laszewski, Robby Carmody, and Dane Goodwin just behind. Durham didn’t play in the game against Radford, but helped spark a run against William and Mary in the following game. While none of them have been perfect, they have the look of solid college players, not wide-eyed freshmen. Even if the Irish stumble through more of the non-conference season, it’s easy to imagine the team looking much better come February as the new players improve.
Burns, a Vocal Leader and Captain, to Transfer
Due to the timing of this story, we don’t have any details about Elijah Burns’s reasons for transferring. Regardless, it’s definitely not a good sign that a guy praised as a leader and elected captain decided to transfer three weeks into the season. While there’s a minutes crunch in the front court, it may be a sign that things are not fine behind the scenes. On the court, Burns is only playing 10 minutes each night, but is one of the top post defenders on the roster. His departure should lead to more run for Durham. It may also lead to ND playing more four and five out lineups with Mooney and/or Laz as the only bigs.
— Alan Wasielewski (@NDmbbSID) November 20, 2018
The Defense Seems Alright
For what’s probably the first time in the Brey era, the defense isn’t a huge cause of concern. While the team will never become a Virginia-style monster on the defensive end, through four games they look plenty stout. The numbers bear that out as well. KenPom has the Irish rated at 79th on D compared to 64th on offense. Most Brey teams have a much wider gap between the offense and defense. DJ Harvey has sometimes looked a step slow, and Mooney and Laz have been beat a few times inside. That said, there’s no obvious sieves defensively. With the offense struggling, the defense may help keep them above water.
With all the red flags we’ve seen, and today’s breaking news, let’s put the panic meter at 6. Duquesne is a similar team to Radford, and can absolutely beat ND if the Irish have an off night. If the Irish take care of business and then knock off Depaul, we can write off the Radford game as a blip. If not, it might be time to completely dive into wacky playoff scenarios and not look at the hoops program until mid-January.