Saturday night’s 85-84 loss in Tallahassee, at first glance, seemed like another disappointing data point in a long list of such data points from the last few years of Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball.
Mike Brey’s squad did what they have done numerous times this season: they fell behind by a double-digit margin in the middle of the game, only to mount a fantastic comeback (something we also saw against Indiana, Louisville, Syracuse, and a few other games), put themselves in a position to win, and then ultimately fell short (with a little help from the refs and the clock operators, this time).
But as many casual fans will write off the 2-6 ACC record the Irish currently have as another horrible season with no improvement and another reason Mike Brey needs to end his time at Notre Dame, anyone who’s been watching this team knows better, and anyone who’s been paying attention can see some substantial improvement happening with a team that suddenly feels a lot more like a Mike Brey team of old.
In the disaster that was the 2018-2019 season, Notre Dame went 3-15 in ACC regular season play, and then 1-1 in the ACC Tournament, finishing with a 4-16 overall ACC record. In those games, the Irish’s average scoring margin was -7.2, and their average margin in losses was -10.6 points. To put it simply, last year’s team wasn’t just losing almost all their games — most of the time, they weren’t even competitive against ACC opponents.
This season has NOT been the same. Average scoring margin overall? -2.3 points. Average margin in losses? -3.8 points. The UNC game to kick off the season is dragging these numbers down a lot, as well, considering the Irish caught a healthy NBA lottery pick in Cole Anthony instead of the team that other ACC teams have been beating up on recently.
If you take that game out of the equation, we are talking about 17 points over the course of 5 games that separate this 2-6 ND team from being 7-1. To some extent, the Irish have simply been unlucky — KenPom’s Luck metric has the Irish as 336th in the country. Of course, this is not to say that this Notre Dame team should be 7-1 or that they’re actually one of the best teams in the ACC. Closing games out strong is what really good teams do, and the Irish have not done that.
But anyone who doesn’t see how much better this squad is than last season is ignoring the facts. Last year’s team finished 97th in KenPom’s efficiency rankings with a +6.95 efficiency margin. This year’s team is sitting at 62nd with +11.8.
Last year’s team averaged 68.7 points per game while shooting 31.5% from three-point range and ranking 211th in the country in assists. This year, the Irish are scoring 75.9 points per game, shooting 34.7% from long range, and are 17th in the country in assists.
The improvements are even more noticeable in the individual players. Prentiss Hubb has been the big one, as impatient fans were more than ready to call him a bust following a rough freshman season. Of course, Hubb was being asked to return from an ACL tear and run the offense as a true freshman, but many didn’t let that stop them from absolutely ROASTING him for his modest stats (8.1 ppg, 4 apg, 3.1 rpg) and his bad shooting (32% overall, 26% from long range).
This year, Prentiss Hubb has been the second best player on the team (obviously besides John Mooney), and at times he’s easily the most important player on the floor for the Irish due to his ability to create, attack the hoop, and knock down lots of big shots. He’s shooting 41% from the field this season and hitting 37% of his threes, two substantial improvements for a guy many said would never be a good shooter. He’s also averaging 5 assists, 2 rebounds, and has maintained his 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, showing that even though he occasionally gets wild with the ball, Hubb makes up for it twice-over with what he can do when he’s feeling it.
T.J. Gibbs was another guy who had a very rough 2018-2019 season, and much of the blame for last season was thrust onto his shoulders because he couldn’t do more to help John Mooney. He shot 32% from three and 35% from the field overall last year.
In 2019/2020 so far, Gibbs has bumped that back up to what everyone thought he could do after his sophomore season — he’s shooting 41% from the field and 40% from long range all while essentially maintaining his scoring, assists, and turnovers averages (a 3.2 A/TO ratio is a pretty impressive thing to maintain, folks). Oh, and if you want to focus on the games that matter most — ACC play — Gibbs is shooting 49% (!!!!!) from three-point land.
The dude has turned it back on for his senior year, and it’s so fun to see him shoot this well down the stretch.
I likely don’t need to tell you much about Dane Goodwin’s sophomore leap, considering his has been very obvious — especially as a guy who is constantly sparking big runs after the Irish fall behind by double-digits with long scoring droughts.
But just to remind you, let’s quickly compare his numbers, last year vs. this year:
- Last Year (24.5 mpg): 6.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.1 apg, 38% FG, 34% 3P
- This Year (26.1 mpg): 11.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.5 apg, 45% FG, 42% 3P
This kid is gonna be a special player and scorer — he and Hubb will be one helluva backcourt for the next couple years.
There’s been improvement among the big men as well. Juwan Durham has come along the most, improving his scoring, rebounding, blocked shots, and free throw averages. Mooney, though, has even bumped up his scoring and rebounding and overall shooting (although his 3P% has dropped as he’s been more focused inside this season).
And then, of course, there is Nate Laszewski. He was considered by many to be the best player in that heralded 2018 class over Hubb, Goodwin, Robby Carmody, and Chris Doherty, considering he was a guy with excellent height and length who was expected to be one of the best shooters on the team immediately upon stepping foot on campus.
Unfortunately, he’s still struggled to get that shot really going, shooting 34% from deep last season and just 30% this season. However, Laszewski has made strides in other areas of his game that will be especially key next year with Mooney gone — he’s gotten a little stronger and improved his defense quite a bit, has fought hard to improve his rebounding despite how skinny he still is, and has used his three-point struggles as an excuse to attack the hoop a bit and develop some other parts of his offensive game.
As for that three-point shot? I still personally believe it will come. His form is great and he has the height to shoot over people — I think there’s something mental going on and once Lasz works through that, he’ll be raining threes from all over. And in the meantime, he can still contribute on the boards and on defense.
I’ll stop rambling about the individual players now, but my point is pretty clear. These guys — many of whom were already written off as busts, not athletic enough, just plain bad, etc. — are getting better, and they’re starting to truly play the same style and level of Breyball that we’ve grown accustomed to over these past two decades.
I mean, come on, this group just went on the road against a top-5 team, took them down to the wire, and had a few chances to win it despite some questionable officiating. Do you really not think this team is capable of making a run in an ACC conference in a down year that has 9 teams that rank between 48 and 90 in KenPom and just three teams that look to be NCAA Tournament locks (Duke, FSU, Louisville)?
It might be my blind optimism I have in Mike Brey and his program, but this team is DEFINITELY still capable of making a run that gets them into tourney consideration. Their remaining schedule gives them games against the following teams:
- Miami (15th of 15 in the ACC)
- Wake Forest, twice (14th)
- UNC (12th)
- Georgia Tech (11th)
- BC (10th)
- Pitt (9th)
- Clemson (8th)
- Virginia (6th)
- Virginia Tech (5th)
- Duke (3rd)
- FSU (2nd)
To be in the conversation for the tournament, ND would likely need at least finish .500 in conference play, but more realistically would probably need 11 or 12 ACC wins to feel decent about it. If they were to just beat all the teams that are Clemson or better on the remaining schedule, and lost to everyone else, they will finish 10-10. And, of course, we all know the Irish might falter in some of those games, but performances against Louisville and FSU so far this season also make me believe that those tougher games against UVA, VaTech, Duke, and FSU might not all be losses — at some point, this team is going to close on a big win and make everyone take notice that they’re not the doormats of the ACC they were last year.
So, I guess my main takeaway for you all is this — yes, this year has had a lot more disappointment than we wanted it to have, but it’s become so clear over the past few weeks how hard this team is fighting to improve and compete, and how much they REFUSE to quit no matter the deficit or opponent. The fire Mike Brey showed in the postgame presser said it all, in my opinion — he and his team are frustrated and fed up and they’re not quitting on this season.
Don’t count them out yet. Let’s BELIEVE IN SOMETHING. Starting tomorrow night against Wake Forest.