Engel: Notre Dame Basketball, Mike Brey Remain Stuck In Neutral Without Clear Fixes After Latest Loss To Ranked Team
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Engel: Notre Dame Remains Stuck In Neutral Without Clear Fixes

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The instructions from Virginia Tech assistant coach Kevin Giltner pierced through the otherwise empty Purcell Pavilion air.

“Pressure on the catch!” he barked toward his defense early in Wednesday’s game between the Hokies and Notre Dame.

Virginia Tech’s players obeyed. All night. And for the second time in three weeks, Notre Dame had no counter. The Hokies were a boa constrictor, and Notre Dame their prey. In a 62-51 loss, the Irish led for a mere 19 seconds, averaged .73 points per possession, shot 35.7 percent and had assists on just eight of their 20 field goals. Their performance was a continuation of a Jan. 10 defeat in which the Irish were stifled in the second half.

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Notre Dame led for just 19 seconds in a 62-51 loss to Virginia Tech
Notre Dame led for just 19 seconds in a 62-51 loss to Virginia Tech (ACC)

It was much more, too.

Consecutive loss against a ranked team No. 28. ACC loss No. 6, against two wins. A ninth loss to the ninth KenPom top-50 team on the schedule this year. A deflating loss that underscored the uncomfortable status the program occupies: Stuck in neutral, running in mud and unable to punch above its weight class for three-plus seasons now, with no clear path out.

“I may be running out of buttons,” a defeated Mike Brey said afterward. “We haven’t had any answers.”

The Irish aren’t the ACC’s worst team. Maybe not even bottom-three. But when matched up against its better units, they’re consistently coming up short. On made shots, stops, overall athleticism. And as Brey mentioned again, short on relative toughness. Asked what has made Virginia Tech (12-3, 6-2 ACC) so tough for Notre Dame to crack, Brey blinked and rested his head on his left fist, offering a defeated admission.

“They’re tougher,” he said. “They have tougher guys. I love my guys. But they’re really tough and physical defensively. It’s exhausting playing against and wears you out.

“We tried everything offensively to help our group. I couldn’t help them at all.”

Notre Dame trailed by only nine at halftime, but it never felt like the Irish had a punch powerful enough to threaten. They were stuffed inside straightjackets. The ball rarely swung side to side – as it often did in their two-game win streak – to put Virginia Tech into a defensive rotation they could eventually crack. Finding open layups was laborious.

Anytime a Notre Dame player caught a pass on the perimeter, a Virginia Tech defender was in his face. Leading scorer Nate Laszewski took one shot in the first half, once again slowed by the Hokies’ switch-everything defense. Despite frequent matchups with small guards in the paint, Notre Dame couldn’t get him the ball. Point guard Prentiss Hubb scored or assisted on 19 of his team’s 22 first-half points. They came mostly via his own shot creation off the dribble.

“They can get up and pressure us,” Hubb said. “We kind of beat ourselves a little bit, not being able to make shots we usually make. But [it’s] their ball pressure and physicality.”

Elsewhere, Notre Dame’s other guards didn’t awaken until the second half, but even then, it wasn’t enough or at the needed efficiency levels to come back. Hubb slowed down too, going 2 of 10 in the second half. When Notre Dame did create a transition opportunity, Virginia Tech often recovered to snuff it out. Hubb and backcourt mate Trey Wertz each had a fast-break layup blocked in the second half. Hubb also had a transition three-pointer rejected.

“What was demoralizing, we had a couple layups where we beat a guy, and some of the recovery blocks they made” Brey said. “That’s a whole ‘nother level. Whole ‘nother level.”

In breaking it all down, Brey juggled his disappointment of the loss and envy of Virginia Tech’s skill level and identity. Seeing the same thing play out over and over ought to evoke not only lamentations, but jealousy of foes with identities, with the ability to dictate an opposing offense or defense, with reliable go-to options or tactics.

RELATED: Mike Brey & Notre Dame Basketball: At The Crossroads

“Anytime you had any bit of life, boy, did they make a play at your throat,” Brey said, some marvel in his tone. “Assassins. This Virginia Tech group, they’re assassins.”

Notre Dame’s place as target practice is a script that’s too familiar and predictable. Any time it tries to push upward, the needed oomph is lacking. When asked how to break through, Hubb offered nine fast words.

“We just have to play hard and make shots,” he said.

On that, Hubb is correct. But it’s the continued inability to do so– mainly the shot-making – against top teams that has put Notre Dame in its current residence in purgatory. The door out is still locked and sealed as firmly as it has been since sometime in 2018.

How to find the key and break out, even for one measly evening, remains a confounding problem on which Brey admits he and the program are stumped. He has tried most everything in recent weeks, from benching the starters to intense defensive drills in practice. It didn’t move the needle in this type of game. What will?

“I don’t know,” Brey said. “That’s a great question. We’ve not really been able to do that. I don’t know. That has frustrated all of us, our players included, that we haven’t been able the last two years to get anybody above us. It’s kind of where we are. We’re kind of pigeon-holed in this league right now.”

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