Notre Dame Fighting Irish men's basketball exits Maui Invitational saddled with familiar questions, problems
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Irish exit Maui Invitational saddled with familiar questions, problems

The script was familiar. Too familiar. Disappointingly familiar.

And alarming when it’s unfolding with a senior-laden team and veteran coaching staff.

Notre Dame’s offseason retooling was supposed to rid this program of games where its offense evaporated and ran out of answers. The Irish were supposed to have an edge, the ability to ward off punches and deliver a counter.

Instead, they left the relocated Maui Invitational in Las Vegas with two losses, a win over a Division II team and more questions that can fit in their charter plane’s cargo hold. Chief among them: Why did this supposedly reinvigorated team lose a game in a manner it did too often the prior three years?

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball head coach Mike Brey
Mike Brey and Notre Dame leave the Maui Invitational with a 1-2 record after losing to Texas A&M (Rick Scuteri/AP)

Notre Dame (3-2) dropped its Maui Invitational finale to Texas A&M, 73-67, after a second-half collapse. The Irish led 32-22 at halftime and 41-27 with 16:20 left. They were handling a bottom-tier SEC team as they should.

Then, like too many times in recent seasons, they hit a pothole and blew a tire.

Notre Dame couldn’t handle Texas A&M’s heightened ball pressure that stretched well beyond half-court. The Irish committed 12 turnovers in the second half and made one field goal in the final nine minutes – a meaningless dunk with four seconds left. They were 6-of-26 on three-pointers, despite generating ample open looks.

All told, it was another bumpy game for an offense that can’t seem to shed a tendency to endure such outings.

“We had four guards on the floor and still couldn’t get to spots,” head coach Mike Brey said. “They were tougher.”

A seven-man rotation grew tired, committed too many fouls and lost any edge it had. Senior point guard Prentiss Hubb, an unquestioned team leader, committed eight turnovers. Two of them came in the backcourt in a span of 68 seconds.

“When they really heated it up on us defensively, we just didn’t handle the pressure and it frazzled us,” Brey said. “That’s what’s disappointing. We pride ourselves on being good with the ball. They took us a little bit out of everything.”

It all leads to another pressing question: Shouldn’t this team be past this kind of meltdown?

Notre Dame’s trip out west turned into a waste in the win column. It wasted more evidence of improved defense and rebounding this season. The Irish can’t let it turn the season into a waste by maintaining status quo of a team Brey admitted wasn’t tough enough. The seven-man rotation isn’t tenable. Somehow, an offense with six seniors lacks role definition.

“I think we have to stay with these defensive principles and try to figure out how to help us offensively,” Brey said.

It’s hard to spot obvious comfort on offense, starting with the head of the snake. Through five games, Hubb is shooting 25 percent from the field, 15 percent from three-point range and has a 17-to-14 assist-turnover ratio.

“We need Prentiss Hubb to be good for us,” Brey said. “I have to figure out a way to help him over the next couple days to get him ready for Monday [at Illinois].”

Perhaps the third game in three days wore Notre Dame down, but if so, all that does is illustrate the need for a deeper bench. Texas A&M scored 60 bench points and gave 10 players double-digit minutes. Notre Dame has only gone outside its seven-man rotation in the final minutes of two blowout wins.

“You’re always trying to look for another guy,” Brey said. “Those seven have kind of earned it.

“That group is going to have to do it.”

If adding sophomore forward Elijah Taylor or freshman wing J.R. Konieczny isn’t feasible right now — a separate conversation itself — it’s at least worth examining a shakeup in the rotation. A good place to start would be freshman guard Blake Wesley, an explosive scorer who will go through some first-year bumps but has already displayed his intriguing ceiling.

“I’m thrilled with how Blake Wesley is coming along,” Brey said. “This was the first Power Five game for him and he had 22-year-old guards after him. Overall, he was pretty good. It was our older guards who struggled.”

Wesley had 10 points on 3-of-6 shooting in 15 minutes against Texas A&M. He is at least worthy of a minutes increase, if not an elevation into the starting five. Notre Dame will have to ride the freshman wave with him. At the same time, its current setup is prone to vacillations.

Notre Dame has 25 regular season games left. The Irish have time to get right and reach their goals. It appears, though, some tough conversations and decisions might have to happen first.

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