Notre Dame Newcomers Looking For Growth Spurt In ACC Play
Three freshmen and another newcomer with one sparse year of college basketball competition now help comprise the nucleus of the 2018-19 Notre Dame basketball team.
The 10-4 Fighting Irish lost their Atlantic Coast Conference opener 81-66 at No. 10 Virginia Tech on Tuesday. Still ahead in league play are the likes of No. 1 Duke, No. 4 Virginia (twice), No. 9 Florida State, No. 15 North Carolina and No. 18 North Carolina State — plus the Hokies again at Notre Dame on Feb. 23.
It speaks volume to the strength of the 15-team conference when Saturday’s opponent, 9-4 Syracuse (noon tip-off, Raycom Network), is not even in the top 25 despite advancing to the Sweet 16 last year and having a preseason ACC ranking of No. 4, behind only Duke, Virginia and North Carolina, yet ahead of the aforementioned No. 5 Virginia Tech team that conquered the Irish by 15 points.
Notre Dame has won the last two meetings against Naismith Hall of Fame head coach Jim Boeheim’s Orange, most recently a 51-49 victory last Jan. 6 at the Carrier Dome on a put-back basket by Rex Pflueger in the closing seconds when Irish All-American Bonzie Colson was sidelined with an injury. Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey referred to it this week as “one of the ugly games in the history of college basketball” — but aesthetics take a back seat to wins in the cutthroat world of conference play.
Against Syracuse, the Irish will attempt to avoid their first 0-2 start in their six-year affiliation with the ACC.
The immediate word association with Syracuse basketball is its vaunted 2-3 zone, which is where Irish freshman point guard Prentiss Hubb comes in.
During a sloppy 69-56 win on Dec. 18 versus 3-8 Binghamton, the Irish struggled versus the zone employed, shooting 25 of 65 from the floor (38.5 percent), including 5 of 21 (23.8 percent) from three-point range. Hubb was 0-for-6 shooting while getting held scoreless, but did hand out a game high seven assists (compared to four turnovers) and played stout defense.
For freshman guards, zone defenses often are a new dimension to tackle, and the length of Syracuse players is especially bothersome.
“He’s got to attack,” said Brey of Hubb. “He’s got to try to get in the lane and try to make some plays for us. If he turns it over a little bit, then he turns it over a little bit.”
Here is an overview of the four newcomers through 14 games:
The Positive: Ranks sixth in the ACC in assist/turnover ratio at 2.19, while junior teammate T.J. Gibbs is second. Typical of a Brey team, the Irish rank fourth nationally in fewest turnovers per game (9.3).
Hubb also provides a committed and competent defensive presence up top, and an explosiveness to the basket the program seldom attracts. That is why his playing time of 30.9 minutes is third-best on the team. Plus, it allows leading scorer Gibbs to be more effective playing off him.
Next Steps: Hubb won’t be defined by his scoring this season (6.6 points per game), but shot selection and accuracy have been issues. He is shooting a woeful .286 from the field (32 of 112), but compounding the problem is more than half of his shots have come beyond the arc, where he is 12 of 58 for a .207 percentage.
“His shot selection can be a little better,” Brey said. “In his defense, a lot of times he’s had the ball at the end of a clock and he’s had to force something or make a play.”
The Irish head coach also noted that through 50 practices Hubb was converting a far more respectable 38 percent of his three-point shots.
“It’s an ebb and flow of shooting, especially for a young guy. I love the fact that he’s taking care of the ball, he’s defending, he’s getting into a stance and making plays,” Brey said. “His energy is contagious to his teammates.”
Going to more of an inside-out approach, including a drive-and-kick-out, likely would better serve Hubb and the team.
“I’ve been talking to a lot of close people who mentor me a lot … focusing more on starting the game off shooting less threes, getting to the basket, mid-range shots and just play that way and see the ball go in first,” Hubb said.
Unfortunately, the mid-range game has become somewhat of a lost art in basketball. Hubb admitted seeing the zone that Binghamton threw at Notre Dame was “tricky,” and realizes Syracuse will have far more talent to implement it effectively.
“The hardest part is basically not shooting too many threes, and trying to get into the paint more,” he said.
As for the personal shooting maladies…
“I’m not really worried about that too much,” Hubb said. “It’s going to come to me. If I’m helping my other teammates out, motivating them, finding them open shots, I’m happy.”
“He’s going to be a force, whether people see it or not,” said Gibbs of Hubb. “It’s a process that we have to keep trusting. He’s a young guy, too, that’s getting major minutes.”
The Positive: The 6-10 sharp-shooter has been living up to his billing as “instant offense” off the bench. He is 11 of 18 (57.9 percent) from three-point range the last four games, and especially impressive was in his ACC debut on the road versus a top foe. He bounced back from missing his first three beyond the arc to convert four of his last five.
“Nate is starting to find a rhythm, and we’re finding him,” Brey said.
There will be the typical “0-for” shooting games that come with rookies, but his 7.2 scoring average in 16.8 minutes game bodes well, as does his 14 of 23 shooting (60.9 percent) inside the three-point line.
Next Steps: Despite his height, Laszewski totaled only three rebounds in 42 minutes of action the past two games. The physicality of the league is a new dimension.
“I’ve challenged him to be a better defensive rebounder,” Brey said. “He’s been a good offensive rebounder.”
The Positive: Earmarked as a Steve Vasturia clone from the outset, the 6-6 Goodwin actually is ahead of pace while posting the same scoring average as Laszewski (7.2). His versatility has been evident as a handler up top or on occasion even down-shifting as the second big (3.7 rebounds per game) while averaging 21.4 minutes of playing time.
Next Steps: Brey wants Goodwin to be less deferential on occasion, although that is natural for a first-year player. His 1-of-5 debut at Virginia Tech was rougher than Laszewski’s, but there will be times when those roles are reversed.
“I like where Dane is,” Brey said. “He’s got to score for us. He’s got to be aggressive. He couldn’t get stuff as much the other day, but he had been scoring for us. I think he can be a better individual defender. He can sit down in a stance and keep guys in front of him. Some guys have gotten by him — he’s better than that. That would be the area where I’ve challenged him.”
The Positive: Leads the ACC in blocked shots (43, 3.13 per game), and is fourth nationally — despite only averaging 14.5 minutes per game. He played 14 minutes at Virginia Tech, mainly because of foul trouble before eventually fouling out. He also is shooting .614 from the floor (35 of 57) for a 6.7 scoring average.
Next Steps: Learning how to play in a team flow again after overcoming three major surgeries that sidelined the former top 50 recruit most of the previous three years, including high school. He started the last three games for the Irish, and the staff is bullish on how he is trending.
"I just want him to keep being confident, defending and rebounding,” Brey said. “The shot blocking he’s given us really saves us sometimes. And when we throw it to him in the post, he’s been really good with the ball.
“What I’ve talked to him about is don’t worry about maybe scoring early. Can you block some shots and rebound early to kind of get a feel of things?”
Durham has been outstanding as a help-side shot blocker but has had more problems when people get into his body, and also had a tendency to get cheap fouls on reach-ins while trying to strip the ball.
In preparation for Syracuse, junior wing Nik Djogo is back after missing the Virginia Tech with what was reported as tonsillitis. A fourth freshman, center Chris Doherty, will continue to dress for games but the plan is to redshirt him unless there is an extreme emergency.
“I love where those guys are,” Brey summarized of the newcomers. "I think they are getting more confident every day. My job is just try to keep them really confident and moving forward.”