Under head coach Mike Brey, the junior year is when most of his best players have blossomed into mainstays, with All-American forward Bonzie Colson and point guard Matt Farrell the examples last year.
From that perspective, 6-9, 250-pound sophomore forward John Mooney might be the proverbial “year away,” but that doesn’t mean he can’t begin to make more inroads this upcoming season.
During Notre Dame’s 26-10 campaign last year, Mooney totaled only 46 minutes of action, with five of them coming during the 18-game ACC campaign, plus the ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament.
The low post with current senior Martin Geben and now fifth-year senior Austin Torres averaged about 20 minutes per game between them, with Geben at 12.4 and Torres at 7.3 while Notre Dame’s lineup downshifted into a smaller look. Both return this season and provide the “staying old” element in the lineup around which 18th-year head coach Brey has built his program. Where that leaves Mooney in 2017-18 is uncertain, but he’s been willing to bide his time.
“Last year was great,” said Mooney, despite his limited action. “I learned a lot on and off the court, just kind of how we do things here and how other schools do stuff. … Seeing how good the ACC is, how good the guys are, how physical they are opened my eyes on how I need to play and how I need to be ready for this year.
“You look at pretty much all the guys who came through here, no one really had a huge impact their freshman year. There is a learning curve. I trust Coach and his decisions 100 percent. It’s just a matter of continuing to work hard and when I get my opportunity make the most of it.”
Mooney’s first order of business was improving his mobility and stamina on both ends of the floor to at least give him a chance to see more action. He shed 10 pounds since the end of last season while dropping his body fat from 13 percent to approximately eight percent at the start of this summer.
Enhancing the mobility was vital in his “stretch four” role where his perimeter skills — despite having a bit of a hitch in his shooting motion — fit the archetype in Brey’s consistently efficient offense while also providing a different dimension from Geben and Torres.
“Johnny Mooney is a guy on my mind because he can make a shot and stretch the floor and score for us, and he’s really an active rebounder,” said Brey of the Orlando, Fla., native who was ranked the No. 144 player nationally as a senior by Rivals.
Most of the minutes in 2017-18 figure to be monopolized by Colson, Farrell, 6-6 junior Rex Pflueger and 6-3 guard T.J. Gibbs. From there, the fifth, sixth and seventh players — maybe even eight — will see heavy competition among 6-5 freshman D.J. Harvey, 6-6 sophomore Nikola Djogo, and the aforementioned “bigs.”
During ACC play last year, Brey opted to go small for the most part, but he’s far from married to one system. Beyond Colson and Farrell, the roster rotation is an unpainted canvas and usually doesn’t get better defined until around January.
“We’ve changed gears mid-stream many times,” Brey said. “Play big, play small. Who’s developing at a certain time? You’re always evaluating through the marathon of a college basketball season. Last year it was a ‘Big 3’ (Colson, V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia) that became a Big 4 (with Farrell). It evolves.”
At this point of his career, Mooney feels a little more comfortable along the perimeter because his shooting range could help stretch the floor for Colson and Farrell to operate. Yet his prime goal is to demonstrate he can provide energy in all facets, especially as a rebounder.
“Tall guys going to the glass — that’s how you get minutes,” said Mooney, who averaged 24 points and 14 rebounds per game at Lake Brantley High School as a senior.
“Just a guy who can bring energy, on the glass, on the defensive end. I need to stay more consistent with the shot and show Coach I’m a shooter, not just hitting a couple here and there… But staying on the glass is really important.”
With three top 100-caliber guards secured in the 2018 recruiting cycle, Brey and his staff might add a big man to the mix because Geben and Torres’ eligibility will be exhausted after this year. At the same time, the enrollment this summer of 6-11 Connecticut sophomore transfer Juwan Durham and the presence of Mooney and 6-8 junior Elijah Burns (three years of eligibility) provides a safety net to recruiting post or stretch-four players this year.
“Burns, Mooney and Juwan are really good young big guys," Brey said. "We don’t need to force a big [in recruiting] if it’s not a good fit for us.”