basketball Edit

Notre Dame Pushes Forward To Cusp Of Season With Hope And Intrigue

Instead of a shotgun start, everyone is off and running at the same time on a five-month marathon. This college basketball season’s launching point arrives with some trepidation, as if the sport is looking over its collective shoulder as it takes the first step of the race.

Ready or not, college basketball is here, and the hurdles have already presented themselves. In some cases, they have tripped up a few contestants. Wednesday’s opening day had 17 percent of its scheduled games canceled or postponed due to COVID-19 constraints.

Following all the moving parts and sudden changes is a daunting task. And even if the majority of teams and high-major programs are operating on any given day, the section that is taking the hits gets the attention and creates the feeling the walls are closing in.

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The Irish begin play Saturday at Michigan State. Mike Brey is glad it's finally here, for his team and for the sport.
The Irish begin play Saturday at Michigan State. Mike Brey is glad it's finally here, for his team and for the sport. (USA Today Sports)

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is already used to it. One game, a Dec. 4 home date against Tennessee, is already off the Irish’s schedule before the season started. But in his eyes, the season must push onward. Football has made this far despite all its roadblocks and cancelations. Basketball owes itself the attempt.

Games will look different, from empty arenas to masked, golf shirt- or quarter zip-wearing coaches to spread-out benches. Brey has even wondered if there’s a need to be in the locker room pregame or at halftime, aside from changing. Put games in any form, and he will take them.

“We need to keep moving and try this,” Brey said. “I’m hopeful we can play one game Saturday against a really good team, then we’ll see where we are and move forward.”

Never has the take it one day at a time trope been more applicable and less hollow. Instead of setting an internal expectation of navigating a tough December slate, Brey just hopes to play as many games as possible, starting with Saturday at No. 13 Michigan State (8 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network), winners of the last three Big Ten regular-season titles. It appears to be a go. Notre Dame's Saturday test results all came back negative.

The last time Notre Dame visited the Breslin Center, it was run off the floor, 81-63 by a top-five Spartans team on Nov. 30, 2017. The Irish, owners of a top-five ranking at the time and coming off a Maui Invitational title, went reeling the rest of the year. Injuries hit. Puzzling losses occurred. The NCAA tournament didn’t call. The next year and a half was spent taking lumps.

“That’s kind of where some karma really started to change for us,” Brey said. “We couldn’t have been riding any higher in Maui.”

Brey and his now upperclass-heavy team are heading back to East Lansing with more moxie and swagger than they’ve had at any point since their last visit. A 9-4 finish to last season, as long ago as that feels, upped the belief. He discusses the outlook for this year’s with clear gusto, enthusiasm and faith.

All five of Notre Dame’s starters – Prentiss Hubb, Cormac Ryan, Dane Goodwin, Nate Laszewski and Juwan Durham – are academic juniors or higher. All were with the team a year ago, in major roles or sitting out, as Ryan was after transferring from Stanford. Brey loaded up the non-conference slate with five KenPom preseason top-30 teams because he figured they could handle it.

Preseason practices only confirmed his hunch. November is a time of optimism to the point of delusion in college hoops, but Brey’s actions (i.e. the schedule) suggest there’s some reason to believe him.

“I’m banking on that this is a nucleus, at least those five starters – and I’d add (Nik) Djogo coming off the bench – these guys have played a lot of college basketball,” Brey said. “They’ve been around, been in big games. I know it has been a while, but I think poise and handling tough stretches, those are the areas we’re going to talk about.

“We have to be calm and understand there are going to be tough stretches that our leadership must get us through.”

Early in the season may be the ideal time to catch Michigan State. The Spartans are an established program with a proven system, but they’re losing two players who made the program theirs over the last two seasons.

Guard Cassius Winston was the country’s most dangerous ball-screen playmaker who lulled defenses to sleep with his casual, rope-a-dope style before unloading mystifying passes and sneaking past defenders. Forward Xavier Tillman was perhaps the standard for big-man defense and passing. Both were picked in this year’s NBA Draft.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has no one like them at his disposal, but his team is still not shy on talent. Marquette transfer Joey Hauser (9.7 PPG, 42.5 3PT% in 2018-19). Sophomore guard Rocket Watts (9.0 PPG, 38.9 FG%, 16.6 turnover rate), while enigmatic on offense, is full of upside and is a tenacious defender. Junior wing Aaron Henry (10.0 PPG, 2.9 APG, 34.4 FG%) will be asked to assume a more central role.

Whatever the personnel, Michigan State has its program staples. It runs and pushes the ball in transition. The Spartans rebound on both ends and set loads of screens.

“They do what they do. They do it annually,” Brey said. “When I think about them, when I talked to the team, can we stop transition and can we keep it to one-and-done so they don’t play volleyball on the backboard?”

Notre Dame, though, has played at its own increased pace. Last season’s 68.1 possessions per game was its highest under Brey since 2008. The Irish took 27.9 percent of their initial shots in transition last year, their highest rate since at least 2011-12. They’ll head in thinking they can match one of Michigan State’s strengths with their own proficiency in the same area.

“We’re really good when we run,” Brey said. “We’re trying to play faster. We’ve played quicker, really starting last year. Can we get some rebounds and get out and get some buckets?”

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