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Notre Dame vs. Syracuse: Three Things We Learned

The short-handed Notre Dame men’s basketball team once again found a way to win, this time on the road and in gritty, gutsy, dramatic fashion. What can we take away from that?

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Well you guys, Mike “Certifiable Wizard-Person” Brey has done it again, coaching a Notre Dame Fighting Irish squad that was without BONZIE COLSON and Matt Farrell to a gutsy victory over the Syracuse Orange AT THE CARRIER DOME, winning 51-49 in dramatic fashion on a Rex Pflueger last-second putback.

It wasn’t a pretty win, but it improved the Irish to 3-0 in ACC play (making them tied for first in the conference with the Clemson Tigers and Virginia Cavaliers) and 13-3 overall as the team tries to stay afloat without its two best players.

Earlier in the season when this squad was playing not-great but winning against bad non-conference opponents, there wasn’t much to glean from those games.

Thankfully, ACC play is different, and a game like this one taught us A LOT about this team, especially without COLSON and Farrell healthy. Here are the three biggest takeaways I pulled out of this big road win.

This is a Notre Dame Team That Can Win Games with Defense and Rebounding!!!!!

Notre Dame shot 30% from the field and 24% from 3-point range yesterday.

They shot 14% (!!!) in the first half.

If I told you those stats at any point in time during Brey’s tenure at Notre Dame, and specified those stats are from an ACC conference game, you’d tell me the Irish probably lost by about 50. The best defensive teams under Mike Brey have been okay at best, and the team has always been built with passing, cutting, and shooting as the means by which they win games.

So, what the team did yesterday in a game where they were making almost none of their shots is downright spectacular, at least relative to what we are used to from this program.

The Irish out-rebounded a taller, longer, more athletic Syracuse team 42 to 27 yesterday, including TWENTY-ONE OFFENSIVE REBOUNDS.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

BONZIE COLSON has been this team’s rebounding heart and soul the past two seasons, and yet with him out, it appears the team has stopped waiting for BONZIE to clean up the boards and they’ve all gotten in on the act.

Yesterday Martinas “The Bird Whisperer” Geben snagged 14 boards, DJ Harvey grabbed 9, Rex Pflueger snared 7, TJ Gibbs chipped in 4, and Elijah Burns and John Mooney each pulled in a couple off the bench. It was a team effort, with guys chasing down loose balls and putting forth the extra effort to tip rebound opportunities away from opponents and to available teammates. ND made very little use of all the opportunities considering how poorly they shot, but it was effective enough to win the game.

Defensively, it was a similar story. Yes, Syracuse shot 44% from deep, but everything inside the arc — which is the Orange’s game, mind you, considering on the season they shoot 30% from long range and thus their offense is mostly focused on attacking the hoop — was shut down by this new 8-man rotation Mike Brey is employing.

Taking away the 3s, Syracuse was able to muster just 10-of-28 shooting (36%), and because they were limited to just 8 offensive rebounds, Notre Dame’s ability to make stop after stop after stop yesterday was the absolute biggest reason the Irish hung around until the end, when the Pflueger heroics kicked in.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

I won’t babble on about this any further, but it’s clear that losing the two most talented players on the roster has made the rest of the team double down on effort, hustle, tenacity, etc., and it’s showing in the way they get after it on defense and on the glass.

This Rotation of Bigs Is Working

When COLSON went down, things looked admittedly bleak down low for ND. COLSON and sometimes Geben were the only consistent presences down low, and considering Geben can only play so many minutes, losing COLSON appeared to be a blow that would make the Irish go 4-around-1 and essentially surrender the paint and glass to bigger opponents.

Instead, Mike Brey has stuck with the big men he has, and the results have been surprisingly good. With the rotation of Geben, Mooney, Burns, and Austin Torres, Brey has 4 guys who all play EXTREMELY hard, despite limitations for each. With that kind of rotation, the Irish really just need two of the four to have a strong game each night, and if that happens, it pays huge dividends.

Yesterday, it was Geben and Burns.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Geben was a rebounding machine, and chipped in some really nice assists, a few steals, and a couple big buckets.

Burns, meanwhile, came into the game as the only big man who was still a bit of a mystery, as it’s been unclear if he could really help the team this year or not, and how so.

Yesterday he removed all doubt that he can be a key piece on the big stage. Burns scored a career-high-tying 7 points, grabbed a couple big offensive boards, had a critical blocked shot on what would have been an easy Syracuse layup, and hit 5-of-6 free throws (including two very important ones to put the Irish up 3 with a minute remaining).

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

If this rotation of bigs can consistently get two of those four big guys to have great days rebounding, defending, and chipping in just enough points to make a difference, it will be HUGE for the Irish in filling that BONZIE-sized void in the paint.

Rex Pflueger and TJ Gibbs Are Now the Leaders on the Court and That Is Changing the Team’s Style of Play in a Great Way

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Let me preface this by saying this is in no way meant as a knock on BONZIE and Farrell as leaders. Those guys are firecrackers who work as hard as anyone on the floor, and they lead by experience and in the locker room, without question.

But the mentality this team appears to have taken on since the BONZIE and Farrell injuries seems different. And I truly believe it’s because everyone on the floor now looks to Rex and TJ as the leaders on the court.

Those two guys have always been tough, gritty, balls-to-the-wall players who play fantastic defense and put forth the effort to get rebounds, grab loose balls, etc., and I think that’s rubbed off on everyone else.

DJ Harvey is a prime example, as the freshman looks like a completely different player on defense and on the boards these past couple games. He’s been active, aggressive, and much more confident in everything he does. Yesterday he shot 1-for-14, but the defense and rebounding he provided were absolutely critical to ND pulling out that W.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Pflueger was just named as a captain, and I think that was a fantastic move by Brey, as he is clearly admired, respected, and appreciated by the rest of the team. His hustle and intensity and fun personality make him the ideal leader for a basketball team, and coupled with Gibbs’ equal drive to be excellent in all aspects of the game (especially defense), it just seems to be pushing everyone else to step up their effort so as to not disappoint those guys or detract from what they’re doing.

In my opinion, these injuries to COLSON and Farrell, although awful for those guys and for this season, are potentially the best thing that could happen for the future of this program. Pflueger and Gibbs are elevating their games and learning how to lead, which will allow them to captain a 2018-2019 team with TONS of young talent and a lot more returning experience thanks to the expanded time everyone is getting.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

2019-2020 is probably the year ND fans should really be excited for in terms of a potential Final Four run (Gibbs as a senior leading a team with Harvey, Durham, Hubb, Carmody, Goodwin, Laszewski, and probably a couple highly-rated freshmen...I am salivating thinking about it) but with the forced, accelerated growth of most of these young guys into leaders and contributors alike, next year is about to be very interesting as well, despite the huge losses of COLSON, Farrell, and Geben to graduation.

I haven’t given up on this season at all (I’d be a fool to do so, at this point), and am incredibly excited to see how much this team can accomplish with Brey’s steady hand at the helm and when Farrell comes back to give the team a shooting/scoring boost.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

But the foundation being laid for the future is almost more exciting, and it’s all been led by Pflueger and Gibbs stepping into leadership roles when COLSON and Farrell went down and engendering a change in attitude and mentality for the entire team.