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Notre Dame Bye Week Q&A Part 2: Taking a Basketball Break with Tom Noie

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Bye Week means I’m out here interviewing lots of people: Jessica Smetana (SB Nation/OFD), Ty Hildenbrandt (The Solid Verbal podcast), Pat Kuntz (former ND DL), Tom Noie (Notre Dame Insider)...here’s Part 2 with Tom, talking a little ND basketball to get prepared for the upcoming season

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament Final-Notre Dame vs Duke Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team doesn’t play anyone this weekend, which means there are no rules and I can do absolutely anything I want.

So, for my weekly Q&A, I wanted to do something special and review the season so far with multiple great interviewees, while additionally asking some ridiculous questions along the way.

Here’s the ragtag crew I set out to interview:

  • Jessica Smetana (Video Producer and occasional writer for SB Nation; One Foot Down contributor)
  • Ty Hildenbrandt (The Solid Verbal podcast)
  • Pat Kuntz (former ND DL, current IU football graduate assistant)
  • Tom Noie (ND Insider)
  • Pete Sampson (guy who refuses to answer my amazing questions...also Irish Illustrated)
  • Mark Proksch (Nate Nickerson in The Office)*
  • Pope Francis (the bishop of Rome)*

*did not return requests for comment

So, today, in Part 2 of this Q&A series, we have my interview of Tom Noie, writer at ND Insider who’s been covering the Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball team since 1998.

That’s right. In the dead middle of the football season, I want to shine the spotlight on the basketball team. We gotta do it now while we have a chance, folks — the first exhibition game for Notre Dame is November 3rd, just 3 weeks away!

I asked Tom about the upcoming season, pressing him on where ND fans should expect the team to finish in the ACC and in the NCAA Tournament, where BONZIE ranks among the best Brey-era players, which players will take a big leap this season, what it’s like covering Mike Brey and his program, etc.

On top of all of that, Tom also shares an absolutely amazing Digger Phelps story that deserves your attention (and laughter).

So, let’s all take a break from football during this Bye Week Friday and get absolutely pumped as hell for what looks to be another fantastic Fighting Irish basketball season.

Additionally, stay tuned in the next couple days for more analysis and hard-hitting answers on the ND football team from SI.com’s Ty Hildenbrandt, former ND DL Pat Kuntz, and Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson (who I forced to answer a bunch of inane questions unrelated to football).

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How good will ND be this season? What's their ceiling in both the ACC and in the big dance?

Really good. But that should be no surprise given what this team has accomplished the last three seasons. Twice, they’ve played for an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship.

Think about that. It’s staggering.

There are schools that have been in the ACC for a half-century (Clemson) that have never A) Won a league tournament championship and B) Played in a tournament championship game.

Notre Dame has been in the league four years and done it twice. Won it once. Should have won it last year had it not been for Bonzie Colson’s sprained ankle.

The Irish are old, experienced and hungry to take it a step or two further this season. Motivation will not be a problem. Throw four teams – maybe Louisville before Rick Pitino was shoved away – and they all could finish any combination of 1-2-3-4 in Duke, Miami, North Carolina and Notre Dame.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Notre Dame vs West Virginia Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

This program fell short last season of advancing to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament a third-straight season. That will drive these guys to be better this year. Like, a Sweet 16 now is the baseline MINIMUM for postseason success for a program that not too long ago went 16 seasons between Sweet 16s.

Ceiling in the league? At the very least, be in contention for one of the four double-byes in the league tournament, get to the league tourney semifinals for a fourth-straight year, and chase another championship.

Ceiling in the NCAA Tournament? Second weekend at minimum, then see how the bracket unfolds and take it a step or two or three further. Get to an Elite 8. Get to the Final Four for the first time since 1978.

I still believe that had Notre Dame beaten Kentucky in 2015 it would have won a national championship. Easy to say now, but it also was easy to see then. The Irish were the best team in the country that year, and playing their best at the right time. That’s what wins national championships. That and a little bracket luck.

Last time this program talked of getting to Final Fours was 2008-09 and 2010-11. It didn’t happen either year for myriad reasons. One of which was that nobody on those teams had a reference point as to what it takes to have a lot of league success and play deep into March.

This group does. That’s gotta pay off eventually.

BONZIE COLSON - where does he rank among Brey's best players? What about among all-time ND players? Is he a Ring of Honor guy, and who else from Brey's time should be inducted?

Bonzie Colson is the latest in a long line of success stories of guys whose careers have just skyrocketed under Brey. Remember his freshman year? The Hall of Fame tip-off tournament in Uncasville, Conn., and games against Massachusetts and Providence? Colson logs a DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision) in each game. How does that happen???

Colson’s the first to admit that he was overweight and out of shape as a freshman. He didn’t understand the commitment level needed at this level. He was adjusting to wearing contact lenses for the first time.

Now three years later, he’s poised to stand right alongside the likes of Troy Murphy and Luke Harangody and Ben Hansbrough and Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant as the best to have ever played for Brey.

Lead the ACC in rebounding again? One of the best in program history. That’s some heavy stuff.

Colson’s on track to be a Ring of Honor guy, right there with guys like Matt Carroll and Chris Thomas and Hansbrough, Grant, Connaughton. And Chris Quinn. There are a lot of guys that deserve Ring recognition. Colson’s No. 35 will hang from the east end of Purcell Pavilion one day.

Most important piece to his game now is that he needs to finish off his career more like Hansbrough and Connaughton and Grant did. All were playing their best basketball right up until the end. Not like Murphy and Harangody and Thomas, whose careers limped to somewhat disappointing conclusions. Murphy was tired of college basketball at the end, Harangody was hurt and Thomas was a shell of his former self with a knee that robbed him of his explosiveness.

Losing Vasturia, Beachem, and Ryan means a lot of shooting/scoring left. Will this team still shoot as well as it has, or will it be even more about attacking the rim with Colson, Farrell, Gibbs, Harvey, etc. leading the charge?

A little bit of both.

Notre Dame went 43-of-92 from 3 over the first four practices. I know Brey has talked about this team being more of a defensive/attacking group, but don’t sleep on what the head coach says. He knows how to best maximize his offense. And he will.

There will be nights when they get to 75-80 points easily. Some nights, those will come with 3’s. Others, dribble drives and kick-outs and getting to the foul line.

They’ll still shoot a high percentage – maybe just not from as deep as seasons past. But they have the potential to move and cut and pass and score it with some of Brey’s better teams.

Geben appears to have played well this summer at the World University Games - what can ND fans expect from a senior Martinas?

His best season. Geben wants it. He’s confident enough now to chase it. Even before he left for Taiwan, Geben talked about not wanting to have any regrets when he graduates in the spring. That he HAS to have his best season. To stay in the starting lineup and be a factor from Day One.

What does that mean? Twenty-point games? Steady stream of double-doubles for points and rebounds? Probably not. That’s not who he is.*

But if he can give them a consistent interior presence, and relieve Colson from the heavy rebounding lifting, going for nine points and eight rebounds a game would be a good way for Geben to close out his collegiate career.

*Editor’s note: Martinas is the Bird Whisperer. That’s who he is.

How much do you think DJ Harvey can contribute as a true frosh - will he be a key piece in the rotation come ACC play?

D.J. Harvey’s going to play. A lot.

Maybe not much early as he eases into everything while he adjusts to the speed of the game. But he’s a talent who can score it from all three levels. How does he fit with this group? When he gets that feel and doesn’t have to think so much, watch out. He’s going to be a lot of fun to watch. He just has it.

The best part is that this team can afford for Harvey to take his time and figure out where he fits. He’s not needed right from the opening jump, but he is needed. And he’ll deliver. He’s too talented not to.

Djogo, Burns, Mooney - will any of those guys be major contributors, especially considering the opportunity presented by Torres' injury? Who do you see as most likely to step up?

History tells us no. That’s not to say that Nik Djogo, Elijah Burns and John Mooney can’t play. They can. But the operative word in your question is “major.” They’re going to be good, but maybe just not “major” good this year.

Djogo’s never played, and he’s part of a veteran perimeter that’s going to eat up a lot of minutes. Farrell’s going to play heavy minutes. Same with Pflueger. And Gibbs. Harvey needs time. Where does Djogo fit? Are there enough perimeter minutes to go around? Major minutes? Probably not.

Burns has been in the program for three years now and is still a relative unknown. What’s he do really well — well enough to be a “major” contributor? I don’t know. He’s shown flashes, but needs to show it consistently to the point where the coaches are like, OK, we can count on him.

Of the three, Mooney has a chance to take the biggest leap in terms of immediate playing time. He’s what Brey has coveted since Rob Kurz – a stretch-four power forward with a big body who can step out and hit a shot. He was close to cracking the rotation code last year, but Brey didn’t want to take that gamble. This year might now be the time.

Notre Dame v Washington St. Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Guys in this program don’t generally make a huge jump from non-contributors to main guys right away. It’s a process…one or two years at a time of learning and earning Brey’s trust.

Along those same lines, who's going to really surprise Irish fans this year and be a MAJOR contributor/make a HUGE jump?

Take your pick – Rex Pflueger or T.J. Gibbs. One or the other, and maybe both given that they each rotate into the roles of V.J. Beachem (Pflueger) and Steve Vasturia (Gibbs).

They’re going to start. They’re going to get shots. They’re going to play heavy minutes. They both understand the pressure that comes with that, but both also believe that it’s time to go. Time to play.

Pflueger talked mere minutes after the West Virginia loss in the locker room back in Buffalo about being better with every aspect of his game. He’s lived in the gym and it shows.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament Final-Notre Dame vs Duke Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Gibbs looks like a totally different player, having shed 17 pounds of really bad cargo from last year. He was sluggish. He was slow. No longer.

Mike Brey has been crushing it recruiting-wise, and that was even before all these scandals hit. What have been the biggest factors in his newfound success, and how is he able to compete with coaches like Pitino who were literally arranging huge paydays for players?

Several factors – the recent run of Atlantic Coast Conference success. The success in the NCAA Tournament. The additions of Ryan Ayers and Ryan Humphrey as assistant coaches with fresh recruiting perspectives. The on-schedule practice facility that’s decades overdue.

And last but not least, the fact that Brey and his staff were backed into a recruiting corner before the recruiting pieces to this class fell into place. The Irish have only six scholarship players returning for 2018-19. They really needed a big haul of talent. They got it.

What's it like covering a coach like Mike Brey and a program like Notre Dame's?

One of the nation’s best-kept secrets (and hopefully it stays that way). Mike Brey just gets it from a media standpoint. His players get it. The sports information director gets it.

The access you get compared to Notre Dame football is ridiculous. Who do want to speak with? Freshmen? Seniors? Assistants? Head coach? They’re always available.

And available, win or lose. There have been times after tough losses when I figured Brey would close the locker room. Like in 2013 when Notre Dame lost to Ohio State at Madison Square Garden after blowing an eight-point lead in the final minute.

I figured the players would be off-limits. Nope. The one guy Brey takes afterward to the interview room? Jerian Grant, who was 24 hours away from being thrown out of school for his “academic misstep.”

Brey expects his guys to handle their business — which includes media — like men. He does the same. He doesn’t always like or agree with what I write (and he shouldn’t) but it doesn’t affect the working relationship. Can’t say that for a lot of high-major coaches who’ve had similar success.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Notre Dame vs West Virginia Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

What's the funniest moment you've witnessed in all your time covering ND -- watching practices, games, press conferences, interviewing players, etc.?

There are too many to remember with 19 seasons and counting already down. So many moments.

Here’s one of the more recent ones…..

I was standing on press row talking with a few fellow writers before a game at Purcell Pavilion when I hear someone yelling my name…”Noie!....Hey, Noie!”

I know who it is and know what’s coming but go along with it anyway, so I turn to see someone standing in the front row of press row right near where Notre Dame is warming up and he’s flipping me his two middle fingers.

It was Digger Phelps.

Virginia Tech v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

I turned to my fellow writers and said, yep, I know I’ve finally arrived on the Notre Dame beat when the program’s all-time winningest coach (but not for long) gives me two middle fingers as his way of saying hello.

But that’s Digger. Our relationship dates back now nearly 35 years – back when I used to throw rolls of toilet paper at his head and chanted “Sit Down Digger!” as an undergraduate at the University of Dayton. I’m fortunate enough to call him a friend today. He’s got a good heart, even though he sometimes shows it in odd ways.

After returning home from every single Notre Dame road game, my cell phone will invariably ring. And it’s Digger. He calls to make sure I traveled home safely.

You have to trade one ND basketball starter for one ND football starter to fill each other's spots. Who do you choose and why?

If it’s just one, I’m subbing Martinas Geben for left tackle Mike McGlinchey, who was a standout basketball player in high school. His size could fit in well going against some of the ACC’s front lines. He could hold his own.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

And, win or lose, he’s one of the best quotes I’ve ever come across in my career.

I may also like to sub Geben for Shaun Crawford. He’d always be around the ball and make something happen.

Also, one bonus that my site manager insists I ask everyone: burrito vs. taco. Make your choice and give a reason why

Taco, and it’s not even close. Burrito? Too heavy. Too messy. Tried one at Chipotle one time. Felt like I was going to burst. No thanks.

Just give me a shell with some steak, onion, cilantro, pico de gallo, and a shot of lime and I’m good to go. Every single time.

Now I’m hungry…..

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I want to give Tom a HUGE shout out for his fantastic and comprehensive answers to all the questions I peppered him with this week. The man is fantastic and is a must-follow for any and all Notre Dame basketball news and analysis.

As I said above, stay vigilant for my Q&As with Ty Hildenbrandt, Pat Kuntz, and Pete Sampson — there’s plenty more to come during these last couple days of Notre Dame football Bye Week.