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Notre Dame 2019-20 Men's Basketball On The Rebound

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Rex Pflueger (0), T.J. Gibbs (10) and John Mooney (33) provide the "old" look head coach Mike Brey always wants.
Rex Pflueger (0), T.J. Gibbs (10) and John Mooney (33) provide the "old" look head coach Mike Brey always wants. (Fighting Irish Media)

Part IV in our five-part series where we interviewed Mike Brey one on one.

The first time Notre Dame men’s basketball suffered a losing season under head coach Mike Brey was 2014, when the then 14th-year head coach saw his squad debut in the ACC with a 15-17 overall record, 6-12 in the league.

The following year with a returning veteran nucleus, the Fighting Irish had one of their three greatest all-around, accomplished seasons in the post-World War II era (along with 1974 and 1978), finishing 32-6, capturing the ACC Championship and advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time in 36 years.

A similar rebound in 2019-20 is not projected after last year’s 14-19 meltdown that included a 3-15 ledger for a last-place tie in the 15-team ACC, but returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017 is attainable for at least two reasons.

First, Brey notes that the league lost a bevy of alpha figures, with 10 of the top 27 picks in this year’s NBA Draft (and six of the top 11) coming from the ACC. This goes far beyond the personnel losses of the “Big 3” in reigning national champ Virginia and perennial superpowers Duke and North Carolina, but also some significant roster shifts at Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Florida State, Clemson, North Carolina State, Miami…

“You feel there is a chance to jump up,” Brey said.

Second, it’s because Notre Dame returns 10 scholarship players, nine of whom had multiple starts. That includes current sophomore guard Robby Carmody, who underwent shoulder surgery in December that enabled him to use a medical redshirt in the future if he so desires.

The Irish did lose starting junior wing D.J. Harvey, who has transferred to Vanderbilt. The break-up was cordial and even a relief to both parties because his style with that of the program’s identity did not mesh. The post-season conversation with Harvey was blunt.

“I said, ‘I’ll never take your scholarship, but your role is going to be completely different (next year),” Brey said. “It was very amicable … I told him, ‘I failed. I can’t deliver on what we talked about (during his recruitment). I just don’t think I can do it.”

Ideally, Brey would have replaced Harvey with William & Mary graduate transfer Justin Pierce, who took an official visit to the campus this spring and was highly interested in enrolling … until North Carolina swooped in at the 11th hour and eventually signed him.

Brey and his staff scan the transfer portal because “there could be some guys at other schools worried about probation with FBI investigations,” but for now the foremost objective is to maximize the skill set of the remaining 10.


The Four-Man Nucleus

The program’s modus operandi under Brey has been to “stay old,” which it was not last year with zero seniors after mid-December while the bulk of the roster was comprised of freshmen and sophomores.

This year’s nucleus will be more seasoned with fifth-year senior wing Rex Pflueger and seniors John Mooney and T.J. Gibbs at forward and guard, respectively. As has been the pattern throughout the Brey era, the 6-9, 245-pound Mooney blossomed as a junior, earning third-team All-ACC honors while averaging 14.1 points and 11.2 rebounds per game.

“He was taking on ACC front lines himself, and he’s still getting more confident … a pure team guy,” Brey praised.

Mooney is so centered on improvement that he did not even apply for any draft evaluation feedback, especially after being told by at least one scout that he probably would not get drafted and is more of an NBA G-league figure.

“He just shrugged and said, ‘Well that explains that. Let me get to the weight room,’ ” recalled Brey with a laugh.


On the flip side, Gibbs was the anomaly because his game took a step back last season as a junior — specifically after Pflueger on Dec. 15 suffered a season ending ACL tear during the 88-80 defeat of Purdue, a team that would advance to the Elite Eight. Pflueger just began to find his niche in that victory with 10 assists and only one turnover prior to his injury late in the contest. Gibbs was able to play with more freedom in that game, knocking down 3 of 5 three-pointers while also dishing out four assists and committing just one turnover.

Gibbs finished second in scoring (13.7), but he was “out of his lane” by becoming more of a slasher/drive instead of a spot-up shooter and trying too hard to compensate for the loss of Pflueger and the inexperience of freshman point guard Prentiss Hubb, who missed his senior year of high school basketball with his own torn ACL tear. Consequently, Gibbs’ shooting percentage plummeted from .411 overall as a sophomore to .347 as a junior, including dropping from .403 to .318 from three-point range.

“He really forced stuff,” Brey said. “He felt he had to do it all. Rex was a distributor, and T.J. then could spot up more and shoot. Prentiss and others, their games were not really there yet. …And then he had the weight of the world on him when he didn’t shoot well. I actually said to him before one game if you don’t smile before the first media time out, I’m going to kick you in the crotch.

“What makes him so good is he does want it so bad, he’s a fighter, he’s a warrior, his assists to turnovers are unbelievable (third in the ACC last year) — but he’s not a guy who should be driving too much. And he felt responsible for losing … Having Rex out there will help him.”

Brey is of the opinion Pflueger will be ready by the Nov. 6 opener at North Carolina, but skeptical about whether it will be “fully” ready.

“Rex and TJ, they ride emotions,” Brey said. “My thing with them this summer is as seniors they have to be a little more even-keeled.”

As for Hubb, his 29 starts at point guard while playing 33.6 minutes per contest should serve him well this season. Only Chris Thomas in 2001-02 played more minutes as a Notre Dame true freshman. Hubb’s shooting gradually improved even though he finished at only .324 for the year, but he finished sixth in the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio (plus-2.0) while displaying remarkable poise.

“He did a fabulous job for what we asked him to do,” said Brey of Hubb.


Next In Line

Beyond that quartet, there is a lot of mixing and matching options for the staff.

The sophomore tandem of 6-10 forward Nate Laszewski (6.9 points, 3.9 rebounds per game) and 6-6 guard Dane Goodwin (6.4 points, 3.2 rebounds per game) provides flexibility in the lineup to either play big or down-shift. Brey wants both to be much more assertive as shooters because of their capabilities in that area, and he continues to envision Goodwin to bloom into one of his favorites: 2013-17 guard Steve Vasturia.

“A total-package guy, and he’s tough,” Brey said of Goodwin. “He’ll respond, he’s got an edge about him.”

The stretch-four figure Laszewski might still be a year away physically from having more of a presence inside but is displaying a better edge to him. The mandate this summer has been weight training workout four times a week instead of three, and Laszewski is progressing there as well.

“There is a weapon there that is really good,” Brey said. “What people did is switched on him in ball screens where he can’t step back and shoot, so he has a guard on him. We have to run him right into the post on a guard.”

Senior 6-11 forward Juwan Durham (5.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game), who is eligible for a fifth year in 2020-21, is up to about 230 pounds — “about as much as he can carry,” per Brey — after playing in the 217 range last year. Staying healthy is the primary goal with Durham, who was one of the league’s top shot blockers but was never quite the same after a Jan. 1 injury at Virginia Tech. The goal is to get 19 to 20 quality minutes out of him per game, because that seems to be his threshold. Getting meaner would help too, because otherwise the staff likes his basketball IQ.

“Sometimes I wonder if he’s a kid who thinks, ‘I’m playing basketball because I’m 6-11,’ ” Brey said. “You’re on egg shells with him … it is what it is. He can score a little bit around the basket so we like throwing it into him, and he’s a good passer. I still would like him to goal-tend more shots. He’s a little too conservative.”

Aiding Mooney on the boards is another prime objective.

“Can we get Nate on the defensive board like the offensive board?” Brey asked. “Rex is a heckuva defensive rebounder. Juwan has to be better there.”

Aggression is not an issue with the 6-4 Carmody, who started the season opener last year prior to his injury. If anything, he needs to let the game flow to him calmly while regaining his shooting stroke

“The one thing he has not done is shot it very well,” Brey said. “He shot it better in high school, and now the {three-point) line is out there — but he does guard, and he sticks his nose in there. Drives physically, and is a tough kid.”

Classmate and 6-8 forward Chris Doherty possesses a similar toughness and will vie for action along the front line. Meanwhile, 6-7 senior wing Nik Djogo, who started six games last season, will be sidelined potentially until around October while recovering from a torn labrum that required surgery in March.

“I think this group will still be good with the ball,” Brey summarized with the hope that it will help improve the .393 field-goal percentage that was dead last in the 15-team ACC last year. “When Rex got hurt, those three guards were in top 10 in assist-turnover. Mooney was good with the ball, and he was a liability with the ball his first two years. Juwan is good with ball, Chris Doherty … he can help us. He battles, he fights.”

Everyone will need to during a rebound campaign.

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