The confidence that is flowing in the Notre Dame men’s basketball program these days under 18th-year head coach Mike Brey is palpable.
• The seven NCAA Tournament victories the past three years are the most in school history in that length of time.
• The Fighting Irish nearly won their second ACC title in three years last March before a late surge by Duke.
• The 12-man roster remains old with five seniors, including former walk-on Matt Gregory now placed on scholarship as a senior.
• The recruiting has developed the best momentum ever under Brey. The Irish currently have three Top-100 prospects (in at least three of the four major recruiting services) committed in the Class of 2018, a first since 2005 when Luke Zeller, Kyle McAlarney and current assistant Ryan Ayers came aboard.
Plus, sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs was the No. 62 player on Rivals.com’s board, while freshman forward D.J. Harvey was No. 48 and sophomore Connecticut transfer Juwan Durham, all 6-11 ½ of him, was No. 47. One has to go back to the 1980s to find such a high volume of individual ratings on the team.
• Next year at this time, the Irish are projected to be working out on their new practice facility courts.
This program used to be more about having an underdog mentality while overachieving. Now it’s about staying hungry to accomplish even more than it has the past three years. Brey put his troops on display to the media during an open workout late Thursday afternoon (it was the third of six allowed this summer with coaches).
“The biggest challenge for me is keeping them loose when we have disappointment, we don’t play well, we lose,” Brey said. “This is a group that is really hard on themselves, so I have to hopefully help them think the big picture.
“We have a lot of high-strung guys. Now, I don’t want to take anybody’s edge away. V.J. [Beachem] and Steve [Vasturia] last year were sometimes the settling forces. We’ve got a lot of guys playing [high strung] all the time, and 90 percent of that is good, but I wonder who’s going to be our smooth-it-out guy. Maybe I have to do that.”
Duke’s rally from an eight-point second-half deficit in the ACC Championship, plus forward Bonzie Colson’s ankle injury late in the game where he had 29 points and nine rebounds, drained the Irish, who were eliminated in round 2 of the NCAA Tournament after barely edging Princeton in the first round.
“We left a lot on the court that night,” said Brey of the ACC title game. “We played our best basketball in Brooklyn. We couldn’t recreate that the next weekend. Our Princeton win was a great win because we were playing on fumes and Bonzie really wasn’t back (with the ankle).
“When I was walking to the locker after the Duke game, I was thinking to myself ‘It’s going to be really hard to get us back to this level.’ … We used a lot there — and we should have because we were trying to win a championship. They’re going to be really hard on themselves. I’m going to have to pace us through it mentally.”
Like Jerian Grant/Pat Connaughton in 2014-15, Zach Auguste/Demetrius Jackson in 2015-16 and Vasturia/Beachem last year, Brey is leaning on the senior tandem of 2017 third-team AP All-America forward Colson and point guard Matt Farrell to set the tone.
Colson averaged team highs of 17.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, while Farrell, one of the nation’s most improved players, was third in scoring (14.1) and handed out a team high 196 assists.
Joining them as probable starters are 6-6 junior Rex Pflueger and 6-3 guard Gibbs. Where the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth… players will fit in will evolve as practices and the season evolves.
The hour-long session in “The Pit” at the Joyce Center had about a half-hour’s worth of scrimmaging. Most of the session saw the roster divided into two six-man teams with these fairly evenly-balanced lineups:
White Team: 6-3 sophomore Gibbs, 6-5 senior Colson, 6-10 senior Martinas Geben, 6-9 sophomore John Mooney and 6-5 freshman Harvey, plus the 6-8 Gregory.
Blue Team: 6-1 senior Farrell, 6-6 junior Pflueger, 6-7 fifth-year senior Austin Torres, 6-11 sophomore Durham, 6-7 sophomore Nikola Djogo and 6-8 junior Elijah Burns.
• Gibbs was conspicuously slimmer and quicker in the backcourt. He said he lost 15 pounds since the end of the season and is down to 190 pounds.
• Although Durham has to sit out this season because of the undergraduate transfer rule, he has the long, lean body type seldom seen at Notre Dame. He reminds one of a Kentucky-type player with his length and athletic skills, and in his ability to run the floor.
Brey said he deliberately does not have Durham and Harvey — the two new faces in the program this year — practicing on the same sides because he wants them to “learn how to play our basketball” from the four veteran teammates on the floor with them on each side.
Despite two ACL surgeries, Durham did not have any knee braces, and Brey said “the wheels checked out very well” per the Irish medical staff that evaluated him.
• Based on the hour-long practice we saw, the standout for potentially most improved is Pflueger. Known mainly for his defensive prowess his first two seasons, the California native and former top-100 recruit displayed a wide array of skills on offense while scoring on aggressive drives, pull-up jumpers and from three-point range. He also is highly vocal with teammates and fits the high-strung persona Brey describes.
Gibbs and Pflueger, both of whom averaged 4.7 points per game last season, are the top figures now to replace the scoring that Beachem and Vasturia have vacated with their combined 27.6 points per contest from last year.
Finding a consistent third scoring option, and hopefully a fourth too, is a top storyline for Brey this season.
“Then you look at what does D.J. Harvey do as a young guy, because he has ability to score,” Brey said. “…“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.
“We have to get D.J. Harvey going. He has a knack for scoring, and I think playing off some veteran guys and maybe being that fifth option, people will forget about him and he can maybe capitalize for us.”
• Harvey made several good passes in the flow of the offense while also displaying natural scoring skills. He will fit in well to the traditionally highly efficient offenses under Brey.
“He’s learning to slow down a little bit,” Brey said. “He’s getting crushed by screens. It’s a new area of development when you come from high school to college and how to avoid screens — and our big guys really screen well. So he’s a little sore after every practice, but he competes, and our old guys are helping him. That’s part of the culture here, the old guys helping the new guys.
“We’re going to need him in the rotation. It’s clear we have to get him ready.”
• Mooney has a bit of a hitch in his shot, but it works for him. He appears more comfortable as a stretch 4 along the wing on offense but also was not timid about mixing it up on the boards. Like Gibbs, he’s streamlined his body after a year in the program, dropping his body fat from 13 percent to eight percent.
• Redshirted last year, Djogo will vie for minutes this year too along the wing. The southpaw displays a smooth shot and good enough ball-handling skills to work at the point some, although Brey said it’s not likely he would have that role in games. He needs to improve at protecting the ball better.
“He’s really athletic,” Brey said. “He plays better defense than we realized. He’s learning how to get an edge playing around a bunch of edgy guys.”