John Mooney & Juwan Durham Ascending In Irish Frontcourt
There were no shortage of question marks with the Notre Dame men’s basketball program entering the 2018-2019 season. None, however, may have been bigger however than replacing the frontcourt talent that departed.
Double-double machine and All-American Bonzie Colson, Martinas Geben and Austin Torres all exited the Irish program, taking their combined 33.2 points and 20.5 rebounds with them.
The Irish brought back junior forward John Mooney, who averaged 5.6 points and 3.9 rebounds last year in just more than 15 minutes per game last year, and senior forward Elijah Burns (2.3 PPG, 2.3 RPG) to provide the experience and leadership.
An influx of talent — though inexperienced — was added with freshmen Nate Laszewski and Chris Doherty. In addition, junior Juwan Durham became eligible after transferring from Connecticut during the summer of 2017.
With the overall lack of experience, there were plenty of unknowns, but the Irish staff expected Mooney and Burns to hold down the fort while the others gained valuable reps on the court in game action.
However, Burns decided to transfer from Notre Dame to Siena just four games into the season because the youth movement with six new faces kept his minutes lower than expected.
Mooney immediately became the de facto leader of the frontcourt, and Durham earned more minutes. Both have taken advantage of the opportunity.
In the five games following a 73-64 win over William & Mary (Burns’ last contest), Mooney averaged 10.0 points and 10.4 rebounds while shooting 51.4 percent from the field. Durham notched 7.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per contest during that span, and had a team-high 22 blocks in eight games played.
The duo’s impact was felt the most in a two-game stretch against Illinois and Oklahoma where the Irish split the contests.
Mooney struggled with foul trouble in the 76-74 win over the Illini, which paved the way for Durham to take over.
The 6-foot-11 junior scored 10 points in the second half of the victory, while blocking five shots to keep the Irish ahead. Durham recorded key blocks during the final minutes while recording a thunderous dunk in transition to put the Irish up five.
Durham followed it with 15 points in 15 minutes in a close loss to the Sooners (85-80) at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“That’s just repetition, trying to stay consistent working out, putting in extra work and having confidence in myself having that ability,” Durham said of his play. “My confidence is pretty high. It’s going to get higher if I continue to stay consistent with my workouts and getting in the gym with coach Ryan Humphrey.”
Since he suffered two knee injuries in high school, it has been a tough road for Durham back to the court. He played 28 games at Connecticut as a freshman before transferring to South Bend, but did not see extended minutes.
The year off was another bump in the road, but it allowed more time to heal and get comfortable to the college game.
“It really was,” Durham said when asked if it was difficult to have confidence during the injuries and his experience in Storrs. “I felt I went five steps forward then 10 steps back. I try to stay focused on the task at hand and what’s going to come next instead of dwelling on the past.”
So, what’s next for the athletic big man? He’s not sure, but he looks forward to the process.
“We’ll see,” Durham began. “I don’t know so far, but hopefully it’s good things … That’s the highlight of my day coming to practice and preparing for the games. Coming to the gym and getting the extra work.”
Though Mooney found early foul trouble, he was able to add four points and six rebounds in just 10 minutes against the Illini. He avoided the bench against Oklahoma and had 11 points and 11 rebounds in his first 11 minutes of action before finishing with 15 points and 14 boards.
Mooney notched his fifth double-double of the season this past Saturday in a loss to the UCLA Bruins going for 12 points and 11 rebounds.
For the junior, he spent much of his first two seasons roaming the perimeter filling the “stretch-four” role. So far this year, he is more in the post playing the traditional ‘five’ position while finding chances to shoot from deep when necessary.
“It’s certainly growing,” Mooney said of his confidence in his post-game. “The bigs have put a lot of work in with Coach Humphrey beginning of the year working on our move. We’re definitely a confident group. We know that to kind of get our offense going we may have to throw it down there and be a threat. Just keep the defense guessing and get them to flatten. We’re getting better at that.”
Turning into more of a post player on the collegiate level has been a fairly smooth process so far for Mooney.
“It’s a transition from setting screens and rolling instead of setting and popping,” Mooney explained. “I’m developing myself into a post threat and just doing whatever I need to help us get wins.
“It’s good to be able to do both with shooting it or going down low if there is a mismatch. I’m confident in my game right now. It’s a testament to my teammates getting me to involved and the guards throwing it down to myself and Juwan. Just letting us going to work.”
Though he will let the coaches make the decision, Mooney wouldn’t mind playing more minutes on the court with Durham.
“I think having both of us on the floor we can both rebound, run the floor, go down low and Juwan can also shoot it,” Mooney said. “I think that could be great.
“I’ve known Juwan since I was in like fifth grade. We used to play against each other down in Florida. We’re close and workout together. We’re always in each other’s ear to make each of us better on and off the court with technique and going at each other. He’s huge for us."
“Big” developments are still ahead.