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Notre Dame Basketball: Illinois-Chicago Flames Preview

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BASKETBALL SEASON BEGINS TONIGHT AHHHHHHH

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

With all the excitement of the Notre Dame football team’s 9-0 start, the month of November and the beginning to the college basketball season both definitely snuck up on us this year.

However, whether we are ready or not for Mike Brey and the boys to once again take to the hardwood, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball team will officially begin its season tonight against the Illinois-Chicago Flames in the first game of the Gotham Classic.

The Flames went 20-16 overall in 2017-2018 (first 20-win season since 2004), finishing 3rd in the Horizon League with a 12-6 conference record. They qualified for the CIT, where they had a very strong showing, beating St. Francis (PA), Austin Peay, and Liberty en route to making the finals, where they were ultimately bested by Northern Colorado 76-71.

The Fighting Irish, meanwhile, enter the season coming off of a rough 2017-2018 year that involved major injuries to BONZIE COLSON, Matt Farrell, and DJ Harvey, an 8-10 finish in the ACC, and a 2nd-round exit in the NIT at the hands of the Penn State Nittany Lions, finishing the season at 21-15.

Since then, the Irish have lost COLSON, Farrell, Martinas “The Bird Whisperer” Geben, Austin Torres, and walk-on Matt Gregory to graduation, and added to the rotation UConn transfer Juwan Durham and incoming freshmen Prentiss Hubb, Nate Laszewski, Robby Carmody, Dane Goodwin, and Chris Doherty.

Guys like Hubb and Laszewski will be expected to make significant contributions, and Goodwin and Carmody will play a lot as well. Durham will have to step in and at the very least be a rim protector and rebounder, despite a skinny frame.

Meanwhile, the Irish’s experienced guys will all need to take a leap forward if ND is expected to compete for a tourney bid. Gibbs will need to become a superstar, DJ Harvey will need to come back strong from his injuries and establish himself as a secondary scorer, John “John Mutton” Mooney will need to be great from deep while also carrying a heavy load on the interior, and Rex Pflueger and Elijah Burns will need to provide strong leadership, great defense and rebounding, and overall hustle considering their offensive limitations.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

So, how will the Irish, with such an influx of young, inexperienced talent, replace the 49.9 points (67% of team’s ‘17-’18 scoring), 23.1 rebounds (62%), and 8 assists (57%) that they lost with the departures of three starters, a bench piece, and Gregory?

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Duke vs Notre Dame Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

We’re about to find out this month, starting with tonight’s season opener against the Flames. Let’s dive into the matchup and what we can expect to see from UIC tonight.

Quick Facts

  • UIC is the first of four first-time opponents for Notre Dame basketball this season (Radford, Oklahoma and Jacksonville are the others)
  • Mike Brey is 44-3 (.936) at Notre Dame in games featuring first-time program meetings and 129-37 (.777) against all first-time opponents at Notre Dame
  • Notre Dame is 83-15 all-time against teams from the Horizon League
  • The Irish will be putting an eight-game in-season tournament win streak on the line Tuesday afternoon. Notre Dame won the 2016 Legends Classic and the 2017 Maui Invitational; the school-record for consecutive in-season tournament victories is nine compiled from 1952-1957
  • The freshman class of Robby Carmody, Dane Goodwin, Prentiss Hubb, Nate Laszewski and Chris Doherty was ranked 10th in the nation by ESPN — the highest-ranked recruiting class in the Mike Brey era

Where: Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center, Notre Dame, Indiana

When: Tuesday, November 6th at 7:00 PM ET

How to Watch:

  • VIDEO BROADCAST: ACC Network Extra with Juan Jose Rodriguez (play-by-play) and Mike Lightfoot (analysis)
  • RADIO BROADCAST: Notre Dame Basketball Radio Network with Jack Nolan (play-by-play) and Zach Hillesland (analysis). Available via network affiliates, online at und.com, XM Channel 383 and via the Notre Dame app

Illinois-Chicago Flames (0-0)

The Flames enter the season having lost their leading scorer from a year ago, as F Dikembe Dixson (‘17-’18 stats: 14.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.0 amazing names) graduated along with forward Tai Odiase (9.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.1 bpg).

NCAA Basketball: Illinois-Chicago at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Besides those losses, though, UIC returns all other key players from last season, including junior guards Marcus Ottey (13.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.8 apg), Tarkus Ferguson (10.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.0 apg), and Godwin Boahen (8.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.1 apg).*

*Pat Rick Editor’s Note: I’d like to direct your attention as the reader toward the fact that their top three guards are a Marcus-Tarkus combo and a guy whose nickname could very reasonably be “God.” That’s pretty awesome.

Those three are part of a large, key junior class for UIC that also includes guard Dominique Matthews (7.8 ppg) and 6’8” Irish (as in, from Ireland) forward Jordan Blount (6.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.3 apg).

Overall, it’s hard to say how tough of a first opponent this group will be for a young Irish team still trying to figure out its rotation, but UIC was picked to finish 3rd in the Horizon League again this year in the conference’s preseason poll, and Ottey was named to the preseason All-Conference 1st Team — they’re definitely no pushover, 300+ RPI kind of team that the Irish often see early in the season.

What should be interesting is that the Flames are similar to ND in that they have very little interior talent, especially with Odiase and his rim-protecting abilities having graduated. Look for the Flames to run the floor with a lineup of mostly guards, just as ND will likely do a lot of the time — this one could be pretty high-scoring.

Flame to Watch

Marcus Ottey, Guard, Junior

With Dixson gone, Ottey is now the go-to-guard and scorer on an up-tempo, perimeter-oriented team. Look for him to be constantly hounded by Gibbs and Hubb throughout, but also don’t expect him to be completely shut down. The dude can play.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois-Chicago at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Irish X-Factor

TJ Gibbs, Guard, Junior

These first couple months of the season will answer a lot of questions about what this installment of Mike Brey’s program has, but one known factor is Gibbs’ role as the #1 scorer and the emotional leader of this team.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Irish need lots of unproven guys to step up for this team to end up with an NCAA Tournament bid at the end of the year, but they don’t have a chance of making it unless Gibbs takes another leap this season and becomes the All-ACC guard he has shown to have the potential to be. It starts tonight against a decent opponent and good opposing guard talent to square off against.

Prediction

I think this will be a rude awakening for any Irish fans expecting to see the same kind of polished, veteran team that they’ve grown accustomed to during the Brey era. Notre Dame will have struggles tonight against a solid opponent, and it may even come down to the wire if certain guys (John Mooney, DJ Harvey) aren’t helping TJ Gibbs carry the scoring load.

Ultimately, though, I think Notre Dame’s mass of talent, coupled with the leadership of Gibbs, Rex Pflueger, and Elijah Burns, will give the Irish a win to begin the season.

Notre Dame wins one that is way too close for comfort against a Horizon League opponent at home, 74-69.