Up by nine points on the defending national champions and current AP number one Villanova Wildcats at the under-eight minute timeout. That’s where the Irish found themselves on Saturday.
The game was considered the first “true test” of an undefeated team that had looked great in their first nine games, but were yet to really play a great team in a tough environment. It was a quasi-road game for the Irish, played one and a half hours away from Villanova, leading to a loud, pro-Villanova crowd. Many of us tuned in to see what a seasoned and mature Notre Dame team could prove.
What transpired was a POY performance from Villanova’s star, a good offensive and decent defensive effort by the Irish, but a bit of a meltdown in the last seven minutes, leading to a 74-66 loss. Here’s what we learned.
The Irish Can Erase Some Perceived Question Marks
Make no mistake, these sort of games are not “happy to be here and acquit ourselves well” type of games for the Notre Dame basketball program. Even before Brey’s squad found consistent success in March, Notre Dame often notched marquee wins in the regular season, both in and out of conference. In the early 2000s, guys like Chris Thomas and Matt Carroll were going to Marquette and beating the snot out of Dwyane Wade and company, or stringing together wins over top-five squads such as Texas and Maryland in early-season tournaments. In the heyday of the “old” Big East, the Irish were good for knocking off the likes of UConn, Villanova, Pittsburgh, Louisville and so on, on any given night. Noted this week was Mike Brey’s outstanding record against defending national champions, with wins over teams like Duke, UConn and Kentucky in recent years.
Fast forward to Saturday, and an interesting and somewhat contrasting perception surrounds the current team. At 23 in the AP poll, The Irish were the second-lowest ranked undefeated team in the nation, ahead of unranked Southern Cal. Even without a win over a ranked team on the schedule, the Irish still beat Colorado, Iowa, Northwestern and IPFW. That would lead one to believe that the Irish were completely underrated, especially coming off back-to-back Elite Eights.
However, the Irish were ranked where they were and perceived as they were because of an interesting bit of evolution in the program. Key members of those Elite Eight teams still suit up for the Irish (Colson, Beachem, Vasturia), but what’s missing in the eye of the media is the talent Notre Dame has sent to the NBA. The lack of a Jerian Grant, Demetrius Jackson, Pat Connaughton or Zach Auguste, along with the fact that there is no five-star, surefire one-and-done future NBA star anywhere on campus, and you won’t see a whole lot of love for the Irish this early in the season. Though the Irish often find themselves underrated, it’s not usually for this reason.
In fact, most optimism in terms of future NBA talent circled around VJ Beachem this year. However, question marks abound for the rest of the roster. If we learned anything on Saturday, it’s that we can erase a lot of those question marks.
Coming into the year, I pegged Matt Farrell as potential early hole in the roster, hoping that he would simply act as a stop gap with future star TJ Gibbs in holding. My hope was that Farrell would be just fine while Gibbs had a chance to learn the ropes, sort of like Demetrius Jackson did his freshman year.
How unwise of me. All Matt Farrell did on Saturday, in his homecoming to New Jersey, is put up 18 points and six assists, basically building an early double-digit lead by himself. We’re 10 games in, and this is no surprise. Farrell has been one of the most-improved players in the nation this year, in my opinion. The patented Mike Brey junior-year jump lives on.
Speaking of TJ Gibbs: he isn’t afraid, either. It was also somewhat of a homecoming for the freshman point guard, who is from Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Though he only played 10 minutes and contributed five points, his drive and foul in the second half was key to stopping one of Villanova’s many runs. Aside from just this game, Gibbs has been rock solid all year long, surpassing my expectations thus far.
As for most of the rest of the Irish, it was par for the course. Steve Vasturia continues to be stellar with the ball. Bonzie Colson was oustanding early on, but was bottled up down the stretch. Even Martin Geben looked competent early on, which is very encouraging. Perhaps he can take a Zach Auguste-like leap just before ACC play starts, a la 2015, and eliminate the head-scratching turnovers, missed layups and fouls.
Then there’s VJ Beachem.
The Irish Lack a Closer (and Maybe Shouldn’t Look For One)
But, so have other early iterations of successful Notre Dame basketball teams. It was hoped this year the aforementioned Beachem would continue his stellar play from last postseason, and for stretches he has. But he was a complete no-show on Saturday against Villanova. He was two of eleven from the floor, missed all five of his three pointers, and ended some key possessions late in the game by missing shots.
Brey may want to consider starting the Farrell-Gibbs-Vasturia lineup in an upcoming game, just to send a wake up call to the senior. I would probably wait until after the Crossroads Classic, with the matchup against Purdue acting as an opportunity for Beachem to reestablish himself as this team’s leading scorer and playmaker. He is needed on that end, as evidenced by the way yesterday’s game ended.
However, I’ve never felt Beachem had the ability to be the type of closer that Jerian Grant was. In truth, Grant is the only guy I’ve ever felt comfortable with the ball in his hands, close game, clock winding down. In those instances sure, the ball would stick and anything could happen, but Grant could be a hero. No questioning that. Last year, Jackson played that role a few times, to varying degrees of success.
I don’t think the Irish need that this year. Farrell had his moments early on in the season of acting as the floor leader and closer for the team, but I still think philosophy around those situations should shift slightly. In some of Notre Dame’s biggest wins (especially in the postseason), they didn’t need a closer. They simply ran the offense and got the best shot to extend the lead. Notre Dame’s offensive efficiency is routinely off the charts, and it needs to be trusted late in games.
We May Have Seen This Year’s POY
The Irish made their share of mistakes down the stretch, and things may have gone differently had Beachem’s shot been falling. However, the Irish went up against a player who simply put his team on his back and turned in a player-of-the-year type of performance.
As I stated in the opening, the Irish were decent on defense all night. If you take away Josh Hart’s ridiculously good stat line (10-14 from the field, three of four from three point land, 11 rebounds, and 36 points), Villanova didn’t play all that well. The Irish held Kris Jenkins to two of nine from the floor for seven points, and Jalen Brunson was only three of eight with eight points. When a guy goes off the way that Josh Hart did in this one, you simply have to give that man his due and move on.
It wasn’t a matter of bad continuation calls or no-calls when the Irish were on offense. Hart is an outstanding driver who creates fouls, and the performance there was about on par for any college basketball game.
With all of this being said, it was good to see this year’s version of the Irish compete on a big stage against a very good basketball team. As I stated before, other early iterations of successful Notre Dame basketball teams didn’t really find that extra gear in the second half on offense, and the killer instinct to take teams out when they are up, until later in the year. If that’s the trajectory Mike Brey has this squad on, then the rest of the season could be fun.