In the midst of all the Brian Kelly-Marcus Freeman coaching drama on the football side, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball team has had a roller coaster ride to begin its 2021 season. A few quick wins in tune-up games was followed up a tough stretch of losses, with the Irish hitting rock bottom in a 16-point beatdown at the hands of the Boston College Eagles. But that brutal loss was immediately followed by a big-time against the #10 Kentucky Wildcats, which evened the Irish ledger at 4-4. With only three games to go before the start of ACC play, let’s take a look at some major trends to watch for this Irish team.
Blake Wesley is a star in the making
While Dane Goodwin sealed the Kentucky win with an emphatic dunk that would make Elijah Shumate proud, it was Wesley who delivered the real crowning moment with a go-ahead basket inside of twelve seconds. It was far from the only solid moment for the South Bend native Wesley, who reached double-digit points for the fifth time in as many games and is averaging 13 points in just 22 minutes of action per game so far in his freshman year.
This production has already been enough to propel Wesley into a starting role. The Irish have spent the last several seasons in search of consistently dynamic guard play, and they may have found it from the local product Wesley. If he continues to see starting minutes and produce at a high level, it could give the Irish offense a long-needed spark.
More Production Is Needed Down Low
While Wesley promises to raise the game of the backcourt, the Irish are still in search of consistent production from the bigger guys on the roster. Paul Atkinson has had some solid games, especially early in the season, but is still looking to replicate his Yale form (he is currently averaging 11 points per game, compared to 17.6 for last year). Nate Laszewski is also down in terms of offensive output from last season, when he averaged 13.3 per game (this year he is averaging 8.4). While both players have been solid on defense and off the glass, more consistent points are needed for the Irish to bring a balanced attack.
Another important task will be developing depth. The Irish have only two other players listed on the depth chart as forwards, both of whom are intriguing players we have yet to see in extended action. Will Elijah Taylor, a promising prospect who is in his first healthy season for the Irish, step up into a larger role? Will Matt Zona get some chances to throw around his big frame? With Laszewski and Atkinson the only two proven options, depth is definitely a huge concern here, so Mike Brey should make it a point in the holiday tune-up stretch to get those guys some more extended minutes.
Making or Breaking Brey
It has been a rough stretch of years in the A.C. (After Colson) era. The Irish have not appeared in the NCAA tournament since 2017, and have not reached any significant postseason tournament since an abortive 2018 NIT appearance. While an eventual down year was not too surprising with the amount of talent departing from the mid-2010s Irish squads, Mike Brey has now had several years to rebuild the program and has failed to reach what Irish fans would have once regarded as the low bar of making the NCAA tournament, let alone making a deep run. Players like Prentiss Hubb, who were highly regarded as prospects, have failed to reach their full potential under his leadership, and Irish fans are more than justified in wondering whether Brey has lost his touch.
This is a sad thing to write about Brey, who has become a beloved figure over the years and delivered some major highs throughout his run at Notre Dame. As a freshman, I personally rushed the court and shook the man’s hand on the hardwood after the 2013 five-overtime win against Louisville - I want nothing more than to see his success renewed and his run continue, but at a certain point there has to be progress. The win over Kentucky was a statement from this team that that is still possible, and that Brey’s players want to deliver it. For the sake of all of us who have appreciated Brey over the years, let’s hope they can do it - because if they can’t, he likely won’t be back next year.