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Notre Dame Men’s Basketball 2018-2019 Season Review: It Sucked, So Let’s Look Anywhere But Backward

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Pat Rick decided to ramble for 7,000+ words about what went wrong this year and why you should stop whining about how next year will suck too, you cowards

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not breaking any new ground here when I say that the 2018-2019 Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball season was, in three words, a disgusting dumpster fire.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Irish finished the season 14-19 overall, were last place in the ACC with a 3-15 conference record, and have NEVER shot this poorly in Mike Brey’s 18 prior seasons as head coach. The team’s 31.5% mark from long range was especially bad, considering there has been just one other season — 2011-2012 at 33.2% — in which a Brey team has ever shot below 35% from 3-point land.

Oh, and that 3-15 ACC record (0.167 winning percentage) is the worst conference winning percentage the Irish have ever had, with only their first season ever in a conference coming close, when in 1995-1996 John MacLeod’s team ended their inaugural Big East season at 4-14.

Aside from a December victory over the Purdue Boilermakers, who have advanced to this year’s Elite Eight, and a few somewhat close losses to other top teams like the Virginia Cavaliers, North Carolina Tar Heels, and Florida State Seminoles, the Irish did not even look competitive this season.

The horrifying, tough-to-watch run included:

So with all that said, Irish fans are hungry to know two things: why did this team struggle so much, and is there any hope for the future?

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Notre Dame vs Louisville Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

I’d like to try to quickly explain the shortfalls of this squad and talk you all off the ledge a bit, and then from there I want us all to douse our memories of this season with gasoline, light a match, turn around, toss that lit match over our collective shoulder like we’re at the Trevi freakin’ Fountain, and walk away without turning back as we kill it forever with fire.

There is still hope for the future of this program, despite what it feels like right now. I promise.

And even if I’m wrong, BELIEVE IN SOMETHING, COWARDS.

First, Let’s Talk About What Was Completely Wrong This Season

There were a few major reasons for a down year in 2018-2019, so let’s just quickly tear through those and move on. They all sucked and I want them to leave me alone, forever.

Injuries Stink

The injury bug hit the Irish for the second year in a row, making Irish fans feel a little cursed after having to watch Bonzie Colson’s should-have-been National Player of the Year season in 2017-2018 transform into Colson watching from the bench for the majority of conference play with a broken foot (and joined by Matt Farrell for a chunk of games with his own leg injury, and eventually talented freshman D.J. Harvey for even more games with a season-ending knee injury).

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

This year, the Irish had to deal with the ACL tear of Rex Pflueger, the only senior on the team after the transfers of Matt Ryan* (to Vanderbilt in 2017) and Elijah Burns (to Siena this past December).

*Pat Rick Note: Matt Ryan has announced, once again, his intentions to transfer, hot on the heels of Vanderbilt’s firing of head coach Bryce Drew

Pflueger was playing some of the best basketball of his career before going down in the Irish’s win against Purdue in December, earning career-best averages in points, rebounds, assists, and blocks. Losing him was certainly not akin to losing someone like Colson, but as the only scholarship senior on a team featuring 6 guys who had never played a minute for Notre Dame prior to the season, Pflueger’s presence on the court would have been CRITICAL for even the moderate success of this year’s team (i.e. competing for an NIT bid). Add in that Pflueger was the team’s best perimeter defender and played with a much-needed fire that the rest of the team lacked at times, and it’s clear how much his loss hurt, even if he wasn’t a Colson/Farrell-caliber guy.

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

True freshman Robby Carmody went down early on with a shoulder injury that required surgery, taking perhaps the most aggressive freshman — and perhaps the most athletically-gifted of the bunch, as well — out of commission.

Junior Juwan Durham — after sitting out in 2017-2018 with his transfer from Connecticut — suffered an ankle injury in the first game of ACC play and missed significant time throughout the rest of the year, removing the Irish’s elite rim protector (top-10 in the country in blocks per game prior to his injury) for what turned out to be a nightmare January wherein the Irish went 1-7.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Notre Dame vs Louisville Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

All of this, combined with Burns’ untimely transfer in December (subtracting a team captain), forced freshman forward Chris Doherty to burn what would have otherwise been a redshirt season, and forced the Irish to lean even more than planned on a young, inexperienced rotation against an absolute gauntlet in ACC play. Unless you’ve got a handful of 5-star freshmen like Duke, no one who has to play that many freshmen is going to do well against that slate, period.

T.J. Gibbs’ Slump

He turned in a few good performances late in the season, but guard T.J. Gibbs had a very disappointing junior year overall.

After being forced into the #1 guy role for much of 2017-2018 with all the injuries that occurred (and playing pretty damn well in doing so — 15.3 ppg on 41% shooting and 40% 3FG, with 3 apg), Gibbs took major steps back in 2018-2019.

His shooting percentage was down nearly 7 percentage points, his three-point percentage was down roughly 8 percentage points, and his scoring average dropped about 2 points despite a lot more shots to go around with the Irish losing 55% of their scoring from last season with the departures of Colson, Farrell, Martinas Geben, and Burns (64% if you throw in Pflueger for good measure, considering his injury before ACC play began).

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Gibbs sat out the first Boston College game due to an illness that came on during warmups, and for the next 7 games after that, he shot 29% from the field and 19% from long range. Most basketball teams won’t look good or compete very well when one of their two best scorers simply can’t make shots — especially teams with so much youth among the guys who would be needed to step up in such a scenario.

Many of us expected Gibbs — a guy who has been contributing since his freshman season and who did look good last year as a scorer — to assume a key leadership role on this squad and take the reins as “the man,” bringing the young guys along while playing a polished, composed, and efficient brand of basketball.

Instead, Gibbs’ struggles made that difficult, as he became more and more frustrated as the ACC season progressed. Only late in the conference slate, after a late night 1-on-1 session in the gym with Mike Brey, did Gibbs begin to look at all like the Gibbs everyone was so high on last year, having some fun and displaying confidence and swagger as he showed flashes of the guy we all expected to see.

For the purposes of saving the 2018-2019 season, though, it was certainly way too little, way too late. T.J. Gibbs’ junior season was nowhere near as good as it needed to be — whether that request of him was fair or not, considering the circumstances.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Freshmen Reliance + Lack of Senior Contribution

Injuries to guys like Pflueger and Durham and the slumping of Gibbs in the heart of ACC play were certainly key factors in the Irish’s poor showing this year, but we all know there’s likely a much bigger reason Notre Dame was such a bad team this season.

Mike Brey has been preaching for years that he likes to grow his teams old with 4- and 5-year players, and then for his teams to stay old by continuing to develop classes that learn in the first few years in the system and then contribute strongly as upperclassmen. This isn’t anything groundbreaking for me to tell you, and it’s been the biggest reason over the past 20 years that Brey has been able to compete with blue blood programs who bring in much more upper-echelon talent than he’s able to in South Bend.

So, when a team of his features...

  • a rotation that needs to play all 5 true freshmen throughout the year (Prentiss Hubb, Dane Goodwin, Nate Laszewski, Robby Carmody before he was hurt, and Chris Doherty)
  • a redshirt sophomore who might as well have been a freshman based on the amount of live NCAA action he’d seen (Juwan Durham)
  • a true sophomore who missed significant time in his freshman year and was out for the entire offseason rehabbing his major knee injury (D.J. Harvey)
  • the one senior contributor on the roster tearing his ACL (Rex Pflueger)

...he’s working with a much more inexperienced, raw, immature team than he’s used to wielding against the Dukes and North Carolinas of the world. In a system that works because its players are old and smart and poised from having been in said system for years, it’s tough to execute that same strategy.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Now, I’m not using this as an excuse for Mike Brey. I love the guy to death and will believe in him as a coach until the day I die, but the team didn’t just become young of its own accord. His recruiting the past few years has been...uneven.

The current senior class had 23 of its members transfer, the current sophomore class was one solitary guy, and after bringing in his highest-rated class ever with this year’s 5-man group of freshmen, Brey looks like he will completely whiff on next year’s freshman class, barring either a late signing of a 5-year project guy or a miracle commitment from 5-star point guard Cole Anthony, who will likely instead pick North Carolina, or maybe Oregon, or probably anyone else.

You can give Brey some credit for bringing Durham in as a transfer and thus essentially adding him to D.J. Harvey’s class with his 2 years of ND eligibility remaining, but overall it’s a tough look for the tenured coach, as someone who preaches staying old, to have classes that nearly entirely miss (or do, in fact, entirely miss), giving the Irish seasons like this one with very little or no strong senior leadership to lean on on the court.

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

And, make no mistake, strong senior leadership has mattered for Brey teams during his Notre Dame tenure. Excluding 2000-2001 (because sports-reference.com has incomplete minutes-played data for ND that season), the 2018-2019 team’s percentage of total minutes played by seniors/redshirt seniors/grad students, at 13%, was the lowest of any Mike Brey season.

All of Brey’s tournament teams had at least 29% of their minutes coming from seniors except for two: 2015-2016 (16%) and 2007-2008 (14%). In both of those seasons, the teams featured very strong junior classes — ‘15-’16 saw juniors and redshirt juniors playing 48% of the team’s minutes, while ‘07-’08 had total junior minutes at 45%.

Compare that to this year, where the super-light senior class (13%) is propped up less by juniors (30% of minutes played) and relies much more heavily on first-year players — freshmen and redshirt freshmen amounted to 36% of this season’s minutes, while ‘15-’16 and ‘07-’08 saw 13% and 6% of their minutes, respectively, coming from first year players.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-North Carolina vs Notre Dame Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Even if you want to broaden this view and look at how much of a team’s minutes are contributed by all underclassmen (frosh, RS frosh, sophs, RS sophs), only one Mike Brey season has had a higher portion of its minutes come from underclassmen than this season. That year, 2006-2007, also had nearly 30% of its minutes coming from seniors Russell Carter and Colin Falls, who also happened to be the team’s two leading scorers and excellent outside shooters.

I could keep making little observations like these for a while, but my main point is clear and can be summarized redundantly — because I think it needs to be repeated over and over — as follows: no good Mike Brey team has ever had to rely this much on first year players — or even underclassmen, for that matter — while having so little senior leadership on the court.

Also, keep in mind that all of ND’s numbers for this year are including Rex Pflueger’s per-game minutes average he had before getting injured. Remove him from the equation and just look at games post-Rex-injury, and the 2018-2019 team relied on first year players — especially true freshmen who hadn’t even had a year in a college weight training program — way more than any other team in the Mike Brey era, and without any senior leadership on the court to help guide and develop those young guys.

So before you sit there and bash Prentiss Hubb or Dane Goodwin or Nate Laszewski and claim the team is bad because those guys are busts, remember that they are true freshmen who haven’t even had a full year on campus, and who are also being asked to carry way more of the burden and contribute way more — with less help from experienced guys than others who’ve been in something close to their position — than any other freshman class before them.

This issue was created by Mike Brey’s inconsistent recruiting and some horribly-timed bad luck, and the team, predictably, paid for it.

No Red Panda

Look, it’s no coincidence that the Irish haven’t managed to have Red Panda perform at a Purcell Pavilion halftime show in the past two years, and the Notre Dame men’s team has failed to reach the NCAA Tournament in the past two years as well. The stats make it very clear that there is a correlation — nay — a clear causation here. Not having a Red Panda performance KILLS the team’s chances.

In 2017-2018, the Irish failed to even schedule Red Panda for a halftime show. This past year, they tried, but she couldn’t make it to the Monday night game against Duke due to bad winter weather.

So, I think we just have to hope that next season’s Red Panda show is able to go on — the Irish NEED her presence to empower their NCAA Tournament dreams.

NCAA Basketball: Alabama State at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Okay Pat, You’ve Drilled Home Why This Year Sucked. We All Get It. But Why in the World Should Next Year Be Any Better?

Keep your pants on, I’m getting there.

Returning Experience

As discussed above, Notre Dame has never, under Brey, had a group of first year players play a higher percentage of the team’s total minutes than we saw this season.

However, under Brey, there HAVE been teams with at least 15% of their total minutes being played by first year guys — this has happened 7 other times besides this season (2001-2002, 2002-2003, 2005-2006, 2006-2007, 2011-2012, 2013-2014, and 2014-2015).

In the seasons that followed years that gave such a decent chunk of PT to first year guys, the Irish made the NCAA Tournament 6 of 7 times, only failing in 2003-2004, when the team lost seniors Matt Carroll and Dan Miller to graduation and star junior guard Chris Thomas began having knee issues that would eventually derail what appeared to otherwise be a potential NBA career.

The Irish will have roughly 42% of last season’s total minutes returning as rising seniors or 5th-year seniors next season as well. In terms of combinations, this means more than 75% of the returning minutes will come from seniors and experienced sophomores.

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

Mike Brey has never had a team with that much young, experienced talent coupled with a substantial amount of senior leadership before, but he has had some teams who had 60+% of their minutes coming from seniors and sophomores, with 5 out of 8 having made the NCAA Tournament, and one of the three that fell short was last year’s team that would have absolutely earned an at-large bid if not for all the injuries to the best players on the team.

Furthermore, of those three that failed to make the tourney, only one (2003-2004) had sophomores who even came close to picking up as much experience in the year prior as next season’s 36%-sophomores had this season (2002-2003, when freshmen played 23% of the minutes).

Now, obviously I am cherry-picking numbers a little bit here to make myself feel better about next season. There are always exception seasons that prove none of this means next year’s team is a sure-fire tourney squad. Just look at 2008-2009, which had a shocking 91% of its minutes go to upperclassmen, but who failed to make the big dance anyway. Senior leadership meant nothing in that extremely disappointing NIT season.

Big East Tournament: Notre Dame Fighting Irish v West Virginia Mountaineers Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

My point, though, is that next year’s team, unlike this season, has a very promising combination of experienced, talented seniors who have been doing this for a while now (Pflueger, Mooney, Gibbs) and talented sophomores (Hubb, Laszewski, Goodwin) who cut their teeth by being tossed to the conference wolves in their rookie campaigns way more than they probably should have been.

That’s a recipe for success, assuming the group can get healthy and have a strong off-season of development and strength training (somewhat-large assumptions, I know...but ya gotta believe in SOMETHING, folks).

Healthy Off-Seasons

I don’t want to spend a ton of time on this, but just consider what an extended period of rest, recuperation, strength/endurance training, and just general healing can do for each and every member of this Notre Dame team:

Rex Pflueger will be fully healed from his ACL tear.

Robby Carmody will have his shoulder ready to go.

Prentiss Hubb will be another 6+ months removed from his high school ACL tear and able to focus on improving his jumpshot.

D.J. Harvey will have another offseason to build strength back into his legs and hopefully grow more confident in doing the athletic things he used to do without a conscience, pre-injury.

Juwan Durham can let his ankle heal and focus on putting on some muscle and continuing to develop his low-post defense and his offensive moves on the block.

Nik Djogo will return from his torn labrum and continue his gradual development into a steady wing contributor.

John Mooney can catch a Goddamn breather, which he DESPERATELY needs.

And the rest of the team (Laszewski, Goodwin, Doherty) can work on making themselves much more physically ready to battle with ACC men, and will now have the confidence and knowledge from playing this year to make improvements, now that they have seen what ACC competition is like.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

ND probably has a ways to go in terms of making their strength training program something to be proud of, like the football team’s is now with Balis, but even just the extended time to get healthy and continue to develop pieces of their individual games should pay major dividends next season.

The Emergence of John Mooney and the Potential for Someone Else to Do the Same Next Year, As Is Mike Brey Tradition

The 2018-2019 season was a catastrophe, but don’t let that horrible overall effort overshadow the leaps and bounds by which John “John Mutton” Mooney grew from his sophomore to his junior year.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Notre Dame vs Louisville Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s Mooney’s stat line from 2017-2018, a year in which he saw plenty of playing time due to Colson’s injury and in which he looked like a slightly more athletic Luke Zeller (not necessarily a compliment):

  • 5.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 42% 3FG on 2 attempts per game, 48% shooting overall on 4 total attempts per game, PER of 19.0, Box Plus/Minus of 5.2

Now, here’s what he managed to do this year, one year removed from that okay-but-definitely-not-special season:

  • 14.1 ppg, 11.2 rpg (led the ACC), 37% 3FG on 3 attempts per game, 46% shooting overall on 11 attempts per game, PER of 25.8, Box Plus/Minus of 6.6...and oh yeah, he was Third Team All-ACC

Mooney went from a guy who most had written off as a role player to the best player on the team in one off-season, and he significantly improved his game in a number of areas — particularly in his rebounding and in his ability to score in ways that aren’t spot-up three point shots. To put what he did in 2018-2019 into context:

  • He’s one of just six guys in the Mike Brey era to ever average a double-double
  • He’s one of just three to do it as a non-senior. The other two were Luke Harangody and Bonzie Colson — pretty decent company. Two-time Big East Player of the YearTroy Murphy NEVER averaged a double-double in his time with the Irish
  • His total rebound and defensive rebound per-game averages were the 2nd-best in the Mike Brey era
  • Per 40 minutes, his rebounding numbers were the best in Brey’s time at Notre Dame

Mooney isn’t the only guy who’s made huge leaps from one year to the next, either. If you have followed Notre Dame under Mike Brey at all, you’ve noticed that his grow-old, stay-old mantra has succeeded because of his players’ incredible ability to go from afterthoughts early on in their careers to absolute studs as upperclassmen.

Here are just a few of many examples:

  • Matt Farrell was a 2-star recruit who, even during his sophomore season as a contributor on an Elite 8 team, averaged just 2.6 points and 1.6 assists per game while shooting 32% from 3. He even thought about transferring during his first couple years at Notre Dame. During his junior season, Farrell averaged 14 points, 5 assists, and 42% 3-point shooting, and as a senior he went for 16.3, 5.5, and 38%
NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Virginia Tech vs Notre Dame Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
  • Martinas “The Bird Whisperer” Geben was a 3-star big man deemed too slow and not skilled enough to do anything except provide fouls and heft down low. As a JUNIOR he averaged a meager 3 points and 3 rebounds per game and couldn’t be trusted to play more than 12 minutes per contest. However, as a senior in ‘17-’18, Geben exploded to average 11 points and 8 boards and 25 minutes played per game, and finished tied for 2nd in voting for the ACC’s Most Improved Player award
  • Tim Abromaitis came to ND as a completely unheralded recruit. He chose the Irish over Bucknell, Princeton, Northwestern, Penn, and Rice — none of which appear to have actually offered him a scholarship, based on his recruiting profiles on ESPN and 247sports. He couldn’t earn more than 3 minutes of playing time on the 2007-2008 team his freshman year, but proceeded to emerge as a sophomore to the tune of 16 points, 5 rebounds, and 43% three-point shooting. He would go on to be named to some All-Big East teams and was one of the better players to ever come through Brey’s program by the time his career had ended
Progressive CBE Classic-Notre Dame v Georgia Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images
  • Jack Cooley played 10 minutes a game as a sophomore on that great 2010-2011 Irish squad, scoring 4 points and grabbing 3 rebounds in limited PT. He looked to be similar to Luke Harangody in appearance only, as he was slow, didn’t add much on offense, and wasn’t exactly a great defender (well, maybe he had some similarities to Gody). His junior year, he averaged 13 and 9 with 1.6 blocks and 63% FG shooting to go along with it, playing nearly 30 minutes per game. He followed that up with a double-double average of 13 and 10 his senior year
  • Russell Carter never saw significant playing time until his junior year, when he averaged a solid 11.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 41% three-point shooting per game. That in itself was a strong improvement from the next-to-nothing he contributed in game action in his first two years, but his senior season was somehow another vast improvement, as he upped his game tremendously, averaging 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 39% three-point shooting
  • Zach Auguste averaged 6.7 and 4.3 as a sophomore on a very bad team in 2013-2014, and looked like a guy with not much of an offensive game and a knack for mental lapses on the court. As an upperclassman, he transformed his game to a level most never thought he would get to. He averaged 12.9 and 6.5 as a junior and was the best ND player on the floor against the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein in that 2015 Elite Eight classic that the team just barely lost. His 20-and-10 performance that night was clearly a harbinger of things to come, as he spent his senior year averaging a double-double (14 and 11)
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Wisconsin vs Notre Dame Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Now, let me stop there. You get the picture — guys improve and develop under Brey.

But maybe you’re looking for examples of guys who more closely resemble this past year’s rookies — at least in terms of the amount of playing time they got as freshmen. Because of course, many of the guys I just listed above didn’t play a ton of time early on in their careers, and thus didn’t show us early mediocre performances to make us think they couldn’t cut it, as many now think about this year’s squad.

Because of that thinking that they’ve seen enough of these freshmen to know they aren’t great, I’ve heard some people make hasty decisions on the ceilings of guys like Laszewski, Hubb, and Goodwin. They’ve said Laszewski will never be more than a skinny big guy who thinks he can shoot. They’ve said Hubb will never be an even halfway-decent shooter or a good ACC point guard at all. They’ve stated that Goodwin just doesn’t have what it takes to play at this level.

These Internet commenters clearly do not remember the improvements guys like Eric Atkins and Tory Jackson and Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia made over the course of their careers, going from meh seasons as high-PT freshmen to team leaders and All-ACC performers as upperclassmen.

Let’s take a walk down THAT memory lane...

  • Tory Jackson was forced to play 28 minutes per game as a true freshman due to Kyle McAlarney’s suspension from the school in 2006-2007. He played valiantly in McAlarney’s stead, but still only averaged 7.8 points, 4.3 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting an abysmal 24% from long range. That’s solid, but definitely not spectacular — and his shooting was horrendous. But he improved to 8, 6, and 5 in those categories as a sophomore, shooting 30% from long range. Junior year, he averaged 10.6 points, 5 assists, and 4.4 boards, and upped his long range shooting to 36%. By his senior season, Jackson was averaging a steady 9.6 points, 5.3 assists, 3 rebounds, and shot 35% from deep, all while being a senior captain at point guard, running the show. He went from a freshman forced into playing too early and who couldn’t hit a jumper to save his life, to a senior leader who improved his game all-around over his career and became an average-to-decent shooter**

**Pat Rick Note: Now look me in the eyes and tell me Prentiss Hubb can’t become a serviceable shooter by the time he’s done at Notre Dame

  • Eric Atkins played 25 minutes per game as a freshman on probably the 2nd-best team Mike Brey has ever had (2010-2011, only topped by 2014-2015). He averaged 5.8 points and 3 assists that year while shooting 35% from 3. By sophomore year, Atkins was averaging 12 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, and was shooting 38% from deep. As a junior, he averaged 11 points, 5.5 assists, 3 rebounds, 1.4 steals, and shot 42% from long range. Senior year he scored 14 a game, dished out 5 assists per as well, snared 3 rebounds per contest, and hit 37% of his threes
Clemson v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images
  • Demetrius Jackson came in as one of Brey’s most heralded recruits — he was a McDonald’s All-American and a top-25 guy in most rankings, considering his freakish athleticism and quickness and ball-handling ability. As a true freshman playing 22 minutes per game, he managed a measly 6 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 assists per game and shot 42% from the field. He was more physically ready than any of the current freshmen were this past season, and yet he still struggled to adjust to the college game. That’s just how it works with most 18-year-olds. But you know what happened? Brey and his staff developed the clear talent that was there, and Jackson averaged 12, 4, 3, and 50% shooting (43% from 3) in his second season, and then took the reins as a junior and averaged 16 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 5 assists in his final year
  • Steve “White Steve” Vasturia is another great example of how we shouldn’t judge a guy based on a freshman season, considering he didn’t have the ridiculously elite athleticism of Jackson but still played a lot due to how bad the team was in ‘13-’14. White Steve averaged 23 minutes per game as a frosh, scoring 5 points and grabbing 2.6 rebounds per game (and shooting 35% overall and 33% from deep). As a sophomore, he improved to 10 points, 3 rebounds, 49% shooting, and 41% from long range. As a junior with more volume in the shot attempt department, he went for 11 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 43% shooting, and 34% from deep. And as a senior, he 13 points, 4 boards, 3 assists, 1 steal, 43% shooting, and 36% from three
NCAA Basketball Tournament - Notre Dame v West Virginia Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
  • Finally, I want to point out Jerian Grant to you all. You’re probably thinking, “Hey, Grant was pretty good as a freshman. He scored 12 points, had 5 assists, and shot 35% from deep in 2011-2012.” Well, folks, let’s be clear here. That was Jerian Grant’s REDSHIRT freshman season. He was in the same class as Eric Atkins, who was ready to play as a true frosh, but Grant was not — he needed a year of training and practice to even be ready to contribute. And even if you want to give him that redshirt freshman season as a “freshman season,” take a look at how he improved over his career under Brey’s tutelage: he averaged 13 points and 5.5 assists in ‘12-’13, was averaging 19 points and 6 assists with 52% shooting (41% from 3) before his suspension the next year, and then of course had his 1st Team All-American season in 2014-2015, averaging 16.5 points, 6.7 assists, 3 rebounds, and 48% shooting

Okay, I’m done beating a dead horse. CLEARLY, you can never count ND players out or count them as having peaked in terms of ability/size of contributions until their careers are over — even when you think you’ve seen enough of them as freshmen to convince you they will never be great.

Some guys have come in right away and been great (Chris Thomas, Pat Connaughton, Bonzie Colson come to mind as guys you could just tell were already kicking ass as freshmen), some have been good but became superstars over time (Jerian Grant), some have been mediocre/disappointing at first only to become stars (Demetrius Jackson, White Steve, Zach Auguste, Jack Cooley), some have come out of nowhere to be great (Tim Abromaitis, Matt Farrell), and some have seemed to absolutely never have a chance of truly contributing, only to bloom as fantastic seniors (looking at you, Marty Geben).

So, I guess what I want you all to take away from this rambling is that when you look at this year’s freshmen, remember all the Brey players who have come before them and not been spectacular right away either.

That coaching staff knows what they’re doing in terms of grooming players to execute in their system, and despite the bad season, guys like Goodwin and Laszewski and Hubb still had their flashes of “OH SHIT” moments that made you remember why they were highly rated recruits coming in. They WILL all get better — potentially much better, based on history — as their careers move on.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Oh, and remember guys like Geben and Carter when you write off guys like Harvey and Gibbs and Djogo in terms of what they can or can’t do. Sometimes everything just takes a little longer to click, but when it does, it can lead to some amazing swan songs for these guys’ time in the program.

CONCLUSION

Well, folks, this is the end of another long, incoherent, rambling piece by Pat Rick about the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

I’m very glad the season is over and we can stop forcing ourselves to watch that poor team get slaughtered night after night. I truly believe in what I have laid out above and I truly believe, with all my heart, that Mike Brey will once again prove to us why we not only love him as a man but also think he’s an incredible basketball coach.

NCAA Basketball: Maui Invitational-Wichita State at Notre Dame Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

This bad season isn’t the beginning of the end or a permanently huge disappointment in capitalizing on back-to-back Elite 8 success.

Instead, I think it’s a speed bump, or at worst a little dip in the road, and the Irish are about to zip up that incline with a renewed determination and some powerful acceleration into competing for an NCAA Tournament bid once again with a team full of guys who will be DESPERATE to prove themselves in 2019-2020.

Appendix: Pat Rick’s Thoughts on the Roster

Let’s start with the freshmen and work our way up.

Prentiss Hubb had to play 34 minutes per game this year, and managed to finish the season averaging 8 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, and 1 steal per game. His assist-to-turnover ratio was 2.11, which was a better frosh A/TO ratio than both Jacksons (Tory and Demetrius).

Oh and his 26% 3-point shooting? Well I bet Tory Jackson would tell him that is very fixable and nothing to panic about just yet...

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Georgia Tech vs Notre Dame Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Nate Laszewski finished the year averaging 19 minutes per game and putting up a stat line of 7 points, 4 rebounds, and 34% three-point shooting. Not sure if y’all were aware, but that is the 4th-most total rebounds per game of any freshman or redshirt freshman in the Mike Brey era. His 1.4 offensive rebounds per game is 3rd-best among frosh/RS frosh under Brey. So clearly, even as a string bean, the kid can rebound a bit, you guys. He isn’t a one-trick pony struggling to do his one trick (shoot threes).

And if you have seen him when he’s on from outside, you know that shooting percentage is going to climb as his career progresses. He’s gotten enough experience to fix it over this off-season, and he clearly has the ability to score.

Dane Goodwin had to play 25 minutes per game this season, and averaged 6 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, and 34% three-point shooting. Yet for some reason, he’s become the “this guy clearly won’t amount to much in the ACC” whipping boy for internet commenters.

First of all, that’s a perfectly normal freshman year stat line, as we saw with all the other frosh years I outlined above.

But also let’s dive into these numbers a little more. There have been 34 frosh/RS frosh players under Mike Brey at ND. Goodwin’s three-point shooting is ranked 11th among them, and it’s 7th when you filter to show just people who averaged at least 2 threes per game. We talked about rebounding with Laszewski — Goodwin’s offensive rebound number is 5th-best among Brey frosh all-time, and his total rebound number is 8th.

And hell, let’s just compare him to Vasturia straight-up, considering the comparisons that seemed to happen between those two guys all throughout this year. Goodwin shot 2.6 percentage points better from the field and 1.4 percentage points better from three and 9 percentage points better from the charity stripe, and averaged more points and rebounds than Vasturia did as a freshman. The two played virtually the same minutes and had essentially the same production in terms of assists and steals.

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

So why exactly does everyone think Goodwin should be written off as a good player, considering he compares slightly favorably as a freshman to a FANTASTIC four-year, two-way guy like Vasturia??? I think we’re gonna see him turn into a very good player over the next couple seasons.

Robby Carmody and Chris Doherty both didn’t see enough action for me to need to defend their honor, as I haven’t heard anyone really saying they can’t cut it. Carmody is aggressive and athletic and should help bring an edge to the team next year that was sorely needed in ‘18-’19. Doherty looks to be an Austin Torres-type energy guy right now, but who knows if he might develop into something more later in his career? I wouldn’t put it past him.

On to D.J. Harvey, who looked positively lost in his season following knee surgery. It seems clear he hasn’t totally recovered, both mentally and physically, from that injury, and so it’s tough to say with lots of confidence that he will make great strides over the off-season.

However, Harvey was a fantastic athlete prior to the injury, and has the shot-creating ability, size, and length to be a very good player if he doubles down on giving better effort on defense and on the glass, and gets confident enough to attack the rim consistently again. His mid-range game is weird for Brey’s offense but can be quite effective and reliable in terms of manufacturing points, so maybe he can become a go-to scorer in crunch time if he’s able to improve his stamina and effort late in games.

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Juwan Durham was still pretty raw this season, and his ankle issues didn’t help much, considering he missed substantial ACC PT. With that said, he showed a fantastic ability to protect the rim (easily the best shot blocker Notre Dame has had since Ryan Humphrey), and also appeared further along in his offensive game than we thought he would be — he had some decent post moves and little jumpers and some solid alley-oops that give him a lot to build on in the off-season.

The key for him, though, will be improving strength and stamina. The Irish need him to stay healthy and to be able to weather the storm a little more down low to take pressure off Mooney. If Durham can get bigger/stronger, he could be a legitimate force in the paint in all aspects of the game, considering his length and athleticism for his size. At the very least, I have visions of him becoming a Zach Auguste pick-and-roll threat, and the Return of Dunks du Lac daydreams stemming from that are glorious.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Notre Dame vs Louisville Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Nik “Khal” Djogo had himself a nice little junior season (at least relatively speaking). It obviously wasn’t anything crazy-good, but he was a steady presence out there, contributing some length and defense and hustle and the random go-off game against Boston College.

He managed to slightly increase his scoring average despite less playing time than last year, and improved his shooting substantially — 15 percentage points in overall shooting, 10 percentage points from the free throw line, and 7 percentage points from three-point land. For a guy who only played 12 minutes per game, obviously that didn’t mean that much in the grand scheme of things, but he showed legitimate improvement. I could see him making another leap and being a guy next year who still plays only 10-ish minutes per game, but who shoots ~35% from deep and provides good energy, defense, and a calming senior presence.

T.J. Gibbs was a conundrum this year, as discussed above. But we all saw what he could do in his freshman and sophomore campaigns, and at times this year as well. There’s no reason to think he will stay in a slump with an entire off-season to work with Brey on whatever was bothering him, and come back next year with renewed confidence and leadership and swagger. I think the Gibbs we see in 2019-2020 will more closely resemble 2017-2018 Gibbs than he will the 2018-2019 version. He can be one of the best scorers on a good team, I just know it.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

One very encouraging note — despite his disappointing season overall, Gibbs still managed to put up the 4th-best assist-to-turnover ratio of the entire Mike Brey era this year. Brey has had some unbelievably efficient teams full of incredibly good players who dished out a lot of assists and committed very few turnovers, so that stat is SIGNIFICANT.

At the very least, Gibbs has proven he can take care of the ball. Now it’s just a matter of turning around the rest of his game.

John Mutton is John Mutton. He was an absolute force this year and I think he will be similar next year. Although with hopefully more help, he might not average a double-double just because he will hopefully not have to carry the team quite as much or rebound so many horribly missed shots. With that said, I think he will score in double-figures, shoot efficiently from all over, and rebound like his life depended on it, as has become the norm. All-ACC honors are waiting for him again next season.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Notre Dame vs Louisville Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Rex Pflueger will be back for a grad-school year in his finale, and I think he’ll have himself a very solid season. Yes, he tore his ACL, but he did it way back in December and he is a freaky-religious hard worker who I’m sure has been crushing his rehab.

I bet you anything Pflueger comes back as a vocal, energized senior leader who will continue to go balls-to-the-wall on defense while also flashing that offensive ability that we saw start to come out against UCLA and Purdue.

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

He’s gonna be a guy who averages 10 and 6 and 5 and shoots 40% from deep. I don’t think the ACL will set him back at all, really, and he will bring energy and toughness and a veteran voice on the court that will pair nicely with the young talent that will be coming into its own.

Last but actually most (not least), Red Panda is expected back for her 25th-year (a rough estimate) season with the Irish halftime show, and will actually perform her jaw-dropping act at Purcell and inspire the team to not only win that game, but to win a bunch of games and ultimately make the big dance.