I know this sounds ridiculous to think about because we’ve all been so focused on football and it’s crazy to think time has flown so quickly recently, but this Saturday marks the season opener for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball team, you guys.
Mike Brey and the boys expect to ease into the season by playing...
...a road game against the #13 Michigan State Spartans at 8pm ET on Saturday night.
Welp, that’s one way to quickly find out what kind of team you’ve got, I suppose.
In fact, we will learn A LOT about this year’s team before 2020 is up, as the Irish’s early season schedule is littered with tough tests, with their first 9 games featuring match-ups against numbers 4 (Virginia), 9 (Duke), 10 (Kentucky), 12 (Tennessee), 13 (MSU), and 23 (Ohio State) in the preseason AP poll, plus ho-hum match-ups with no-name programs like Syracuse and Purdue for good measure.
On Monday, Notre Dame officially announced who the team captains will be trying to lead this hopeful Irish team with a lot to prove into that horrifying gauntlet of games.
Most of this group is pretty unsurprising, as Juwan Durham and Nikola Djogo are the only seniors on the team (both are actually 5th-year grad students) and anyone who watched the 2019-2020 squad could tell that this was becoming Prentiss Hubb’s squad last year, seeing how his performance took a leap and how he began to be a pretty vocal leader out on the floor.
He finished the season averaging 12.1 points, 5.1 assists (5th in the ACC), and 2.4 rebounds per game while shooting 34% from 3-point range, which was a marked improvement over his 26% in 2018-2019, especially considering he shot ~2 more threes per game as a sophomore than as a freshman. In crunch time, he became the guy who willed the Irish to the finish line, oftentimes more or less on his own.
Cormac Ryan is the most interesting one here just because he’s the newcomer in the group, although again, anyone who’s been following the program knows that Mike Brey has been singing his praises as a fiery, vocal guy ever since he transferred in from Stanford in the summer of 2019. It’s good to see that wasn’t just talk, and hopefully Ryan’s play can match his leadership as ND tries to fill some major voids on the court with the graduation of John “John Mutton” Mooney, T.J. Gibbs, and Rex Pflueger.
The 6’5” Ryan averaged 8.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game for the Stanford Cardinal in his true freshman season in 2018-2019. He flashed some strong outside shooting as well (one game where he shot 6-for-11 from long range and another where he went 5-for-8), although his overall season average was not great at ~32% from deep.
Irish fans are certainly hoping he makes a gigantic leap and combine with Hubb to form a dynamic, high-scoring backcourt that drives the ND offensive engine this season.
He’s only the 5th transfer into the Irish program to serve as a team captain, joining Durham (UConn), Scott Martin (Purdue), Ben Hansbrough (Mississippi State), Dan Miller (Maryland), and Ryan Humphrey (Oklahoma). Miller and Ryan are the only ones to serve as captain in their first season playing for the Irish.
Juwan Durham is definitely a needed voice and strong presence on the court this season with John Mutton gone.
The 6’11” grad student had his moments last year while averaging 7.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game, but due to a mix of injuries and foul trouble, he’s had trouble staying on the floor in his first two seasons with the Irish.
His ability to take the next step, log more minutes, and be a more consistent and reliable player down low will be critical for the success of this year’s team.
Finally, Nik “Khal” Djogo kicks off his 5th year in the program as the epitome of a great locker room guy. The 6’8” wing has good length and athleticism, but has struggled to crack the rotation or be a guy Brey can trust for a long period of time on the floor.
Nevertheless, the guy who was originally a “why not?” recruit to try to entice his high school teammate Thon Maker to come to Notre Dame is now considered to be the ideal teammate and veteran who will do whatever he’s asked to do for the team, whether that’s mentoring young players and rooting hard from the bench, or it’s coming into a game in crunch time after an injury or foul trouble and providing good energy and lots of hustle on defense. Hats off to Djogo in his final season with the Irish — he’s earned the right to be one of the team leaders this year.
Looking more to the future, the Fighting Irish coaching staff managed to sign a couple very promising recruits in the 2021 class over the past couple weeks.
J.R. Konieczny had been committed to the Irish since August 2019, so the 6’6”, 170-lb small forward’s signing was certainly not a shock. Still, the local product from South Bend St. Joseph’s was a nice pickup for Brey and the boys, considering he’s a 4-star on ESPN (#27 SF in the 2021 class) and ranked #133 in the class by the 247sports composite rankings.
The long, lanky wing is a great shooter with the ability to handle the ball and play a bit of defense as well, and with a decent ability to finish at the rim — although he will certainly need to put on some muscle if he expects the same amount of success against college big men.
Konieczny could come in and provide some nice offense off the bench right away, but depending on depth next season Mike Brey may opt to try to put him on a 5-year plan to beef him up and not waste a year of eligibility unless absolutely necessary.
Keeping with the theme of apparently only recruiting local fellas to play for the squad, the bigger and much more recent recruiting win for the Irish came last week when Blake Riley, a 6’5” shooting guard from South Bend Riley, officially committed and signed with the Fighting Irish. He chose ND over a final other 5 of Maryland, Purdue, Creighton, Xavier, and Kansas State.
Wesley’s ranked 113th in the 247sports composite rankings for the 2021 class, and ESPN has him as a 4-star and the #24 SG. The 170-lb wing is a fantastic athlete who loves to get out in transition and finish at/above the rim.
He’s a good-but-streaky shooter with plenty of room to improve, but what he could probably most help with right away is defense, as his length, instincts, smarts, and aggression equip him to be a standout defender on the perimeter.
I think Wesley will come in and earn at least a little bit of PT off the bench right away, even if it’s just in giving guys like Cormac Ryan, Dane Goodwin, and Trey Wertz an occasional breather while bringing lots of energy and hustle for a few minutes at a time. And, in a year or two, hopefully he can develop into an all-conference guard like a guy he grew up watching in the area:
Overall, it’s a solid class for the Irish, but the big gap still going unfilled for the program is adding more big man depth. The Irish are thin as it stands for the 2020-2021 season, with Juwan Durham and Nate Laszewski only really backed up by Matt Zona down low. Otherwise, ND will need someone like Tony Sanders Jr. or Cormac Ryan or Dane Goodwin to level up to play more of a rebounding/interior defense role if needed, considering freshman forward Elijah Taylor is out for the year with a scheduled ankle surgery happening in a couple weeks.
Heading into 2021-2022, the void down low could be even worse with the potential departure of Juwan Durham — although there’s a chance this year doesn’t count against anyone’s eligibility due to COVID, so maybe Durham could stick around for one last ride (if he’s so inclined).
Even if that happens, Brey and his staff will likely need to scour the transfer portal for a plug-and-play solution down low, as Nate Laszewski, Matt Zona, a recovering Elijah Taylor, and guys who primarily play the wing won’t cut it in keeping teams like Florida State and Duke and Virginia and North Carolina off the boards.
Still, the Irish have a little recruiting momentum after a couple years where they only brought in a few 3-star prospects and left one class completely empty, so it’s nice to see that Brey closed on some strong local talent and kept the pantry stocked on the perimeter, considering the talent already there with Hubb, Goodwin, Ryan, Wertz, Sanders, etc. If they can bring in some depth down low, the Irish could be set up for a nice couple year run from 2021 to 2023 or so.