This Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball team is as frustrating and inconsistent as they come.
In what has been a weird, tumultuous, stop-and-start season of college basketball, Mike Brey’s squad has managed to be extremely disappointing overall while still showing flashes of promise that repeatedly pull die-hard Irish fans back into believing that they’re finally about to turn the corner and compete, despite the constant letdowns that seem to occur immediately after, every single time.
The Irish came into the season with lots of hope, as the vaunted members of the 2018 recruiting class were now juniors, promising wing transfers Cormac Ryan and Trey Wertz brought excitement and unknown potential, and Mike Brey’s seat was starting to get juuuuust hot enough to hopefully drive him to coach a fantastic season of basketball and return Notre Dame to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017.
Instead, ND fans saw more of the same from the past couple years — the Irish won just 3 of their first 11 games, played horrible defense without making up for it on offense, and consistently wilted down the stretch in games they could have — or even should have — won. Even once the Irish finally shook off an 0-5 ACC start to get a couple conference wins, they managed to score just 51 points against Virginia Tech in a ROUGH effort, and then after redeeming themselves a bit in subsequent games, they blew a 15-point halftime lead at Georgia Tech last Saturday to again bring everyone’s optimism crashing back to reality.
Nevertheless, the team has actually — at least relatively speaking — been on a bit of a tear of late. Unwilling to let setbacks like Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech push them into a tailspin, the Irish bounced back from those losses by blowing out Pittsburgh and Wake Forest (post-VaTech catastrophe) and by scoring 93 points at Cameron Indoor to beat Duke there for just the second time in program history (post-GaTech debacle).
Suddenly and sneakily, this Notre Dame team has won 5 of their last 7 games, is now 5-7 in the ACC and 8-10 overall and up to 11th in the conference standings, has jumped into the top-60 on KenPom.com, and is staring at a very manageable portion of the schedule to-go.
It’s not a FANTASTIC spot to be in, no doubt. But relative to many appearances Mike Brey’s team took on earlier in the season against tough competition, we have to ask the question: how in the world did the Irish even claw their way back to this point, what’s changed of late, and can it continue?
A Softer Schedule, To Be Sure
Let’s get the easy reason for the Irish’s improved play recently out of the way now: their schedule has finally relented after a ROUGH beginning.
Even before the season began, the Irish knew how brutal their first couple months of basketball could be. Their original schedule featured match-ups against Michigan State, Tennessee, Ohio State, Kentucky, Duke, Purdue, Syracuse, and Virginia — all before the end of 2020.
Even removing Tennessee after the game was cancelled due to COVID, and also acknowledging that some of the teams on ND’s schedule are struggling through down years (MSU, Kentucky, Duke), the Irish’s strength of schedule is currently rated 12th in the country by KenPom.com. The competition they’ve faced so far is no joke, and partially explains the team’s 3-8 start to the season.
Now, having navigated through the bulk of the best teams on the schedule, Notre Dame is getting a bit of a breather in the back half, and reaping the rewards. Over the last 7 games, they’ve faced 6 teams currently sitting 8th or worse in the ACC standings, including 5 outside of the top 8. Their remaining seven games feature teams in 14th, 6th, 9th, 4th, 15th, 12th, and 2nd in the conference.
Winning one of the Louisville (4th) or FSU (2nd) games will be a tough request of this group (although definitely possible), but the other 5 games are very winnable, and just going 5-2 down this remaining stretch will put the Irish at 10-9 in conference play and 13-12 overall on the season. In a normal year, that wouldn’t come close to being enough to be part of the bubble conversation, but in a weird COVID year, that performance plus a decent showing in the ACC Tournament could actually be enough to maaaaaybe sneak into the field, depending on what happens elsewhere. The ACC having a down year doesn’t help those chances, but at that point a delusional fan desperate for ND’s return to March Madness can at least dream, right?
Of course, with this team’s history, all the remaining games are also very losable — so we should probably stow the NCAA Tournament bubble talk for now. But if you told me that the 5-9 (2-6 ACC) team that scored just 51 points at home against Virginia Tech could realistically finish the year with a winning record and maybe even have a shot at being part of the NCAA Tournament conversation, I would have laughed in your face (and still might).
Juwan Durham Flipped a Switch Offensively
Okay, on to the much more fun reasons why the Irish have been able to claw their way back into the middle-ish of the ACC pack — Irish players making some mooooooooves!
This conversation has to begin with Juwan Durham, because the dude was written off by literally everyone — myself included — as being too soft, not talented enough, an offensive black hole, etc. He’s a 6’11” 5th-year senior who just never came close to the expectations people had for him as a former top-50 prospect who transferred from UConn 3+ years ago. Everyone had visions of Ryan Humphrey-esque production, and instead it appeared for a long time that reality was somewhere between Tom Knight and Luke Zeller in terms of what he could contribute to the program.
Even this year, Durham still struggled to consistently perform at an adequate level. He’d too easily get in foul trouble, rarely would show any rebounding prowess, and wouldn’t score enough or play good enough post defense to justify him being essentially the only true big man in the rotation. Through the first 11 games of the season, he averaged 7.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, and shot 52% from the floor.
I’m not smart enough to tell you what changed over the last seven games, but what I can tell you is Juwan Durham’s performance — particularly on offense — has been one of the most important reasons this team has won 5 of 7. Something seems to have clicked with his confidence and energy out there, as he’s averaged 13.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game from the BC match-up onward, all while shooting nearly 20 percentage points higher from the field (70.7%) despite actually taking about 2 more shots per game in that span.
My hunch is that all of this is partially driven by Durham doing a much better job of staying out of foul trouble and being able to play for more consistent stretches of time — he’s averaging essentially the same amount of total minutes per game, but is only averaging 1.7 fouls per game during these last seven games, which is a much less interruptive (is this a word? Probably not, but gonna roll with it) number than the 2.9 he averaged in the first eleven.
Being able to get more into the flow of the offense has clearly granted him the confidence and conscience to do more offensively, and considering his newfound efficiency shooting the ball, this has been huge for an Irish offense that has jumped up to 12th in the country in KenPom’s ratings and is averaging 7 more points per game than they were in the first 11 games of the season.
If the Irish want to have a shot at making a run to end the season and putting themselves in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament, they’ll need this version of Juwan Durham to keep showing up down the stretch.
Prentiss Hubb — God Love Him — Rounded Out His Game
I think most of you would agree with me that Prentiss Hubb has been a baffling, beautiful, anxiety-inducing, frustrating, electric, maddening whirlwind of a basketball player in his three years in an Irish uniform.
The junior is a score-first shooting guard being asked to run the point in a Mike Brey offense predicated on ball movement and smart, unselfish point guard play, and he seems to match every awesome, clutch shot he drills with an ill-advised, early-in-the-shot-clock brick, and every sweet alley-oop lob he tosses with a head-scratching turnover at a very inopportune time.
And yet, Hubb is still the only guy on the team who can really create his own shot (and hit it), and so he’s oftentimes the poor schlub holding the ball late in the shot clock, asked to try to create some separation and hit a contested jumper due to the offense finding nothing better with their first 25 seconds of clock. And that’s not to completely defend Hubb, whose decision-making has been erratic at times and who also loves shooting way too early in a possession just because he’s feeling it. But the blame for his team’s offensive woes has often been placed on his shoulders this year, earned or not.
Through the first 11 games, I think most Irish fans would have told you that Hubb had been disappointing and clearly NOT the answer at point guard, considering his score-first mentality, propensity for turnovers, and high volume of bad shots, not to mention being compared to the long line of very good point guards Brey had before him, from Ingelsby to Thomas to Jackson to Hansbrough to Atkins to Grant to Jackson to Farrell. Following ND’s loss to Virginia on 1/13, Hubb was averaging 13.7 points, 4.5 assists, 2.9 rebounds, 3.1 turnovers, and was shooting 37% from the field and 29% from long range — not exactly brilliant basketball, especially from the guy whom Brey had supposedly handed the keys to the team.
Again, just like with Durham, something seemed to click in that 80-70 victory over Boston College for our guy Prentiss. After averaging just 4.5 assists during that 3-8 start to the season, he dished out 10 assists in that game, appearing to be making a more concerted effort to spread the ball around and find his teammates for buckets. He then followed that up with a 9-assist performance in ND’s win at Miami, and then after a rough showing for everyone against Virginia Tech (he had just 3 assists, but to be fair ND only had 20 made field goals overall), his next four games saw individual assist totals of 9, 10, 10, and 8, and over that seven-game stretch Hubb nearly doubled his assists average from the prior 11 games (8.4 vs. 4.5).
He was all of a sudden playing more like a true point guard, and despite still showing some of the same reckless tendencies, this effort to find his teammates more appears to have rubbed off on the rest of his game.
He’s begun attacking the hoop a bit more, taking more twos and fewer threes per game, and that combined with his increased concern for finding his teammates has improved his efficiency and limited his bad shot-taking a bit — he’s been shooting 44% from the field and a scorching-hot 49% from three during this stretch, both marked improvements over his first 11 games. The better shooting has led to a scoring average of 15.9 ppg in this span, and the pass-more approach has improved his assist-to-turnover ratio from 1.5 to 2.2.
All of this isn’t to say that Prentiss Hubb is now a guy who always takes care of the ball or doesn’t hunt his own shot a bit too much. Even on Tuesday against Duke, he seemed to make almost as many “C’MON MAN!” plays down the stretch as he did clutch, game-winning plays (e.g. his alley-oop pass to Durham, or his step-back deep three to ice it).
But this version of Hubb is MUCH better for the team — creating shots for others so he doesn’t have to try to carry the load, and in doing so making himself a much more efficient scorer because he doesn’t have to force something every time. If he can continue this new look to go along with Juwan Durham continuing to elevate his game, those are two very good, efficient, complementary players to go along with the ever-steady Nate Laszewski in driving this offense forward to another level.
Everyone Else Making Subtle Adjustments/Improvements
Durham and Hubb have, no question, been the two guys whose play has truly elevated the team recently. But as they’ve done so, others on the team have also chipped in some developments that enabled those 5 wins in 7 games.
For instance, Nate Laszewski was already the leading scorer for the Irish, and was shooting 63% from the floor and 55% from deep during that 3-8 start. But over this stretch, others stepping up has allowed him to focus on other areas of his game a bit — he’s taken fewer threes (while still hitting ~50% from long range) and instead has increased his production down low, shooting more twos and making 67% of his shots overall during this 5-2 slate. Furthermore, he’s doubled his assists and tripled his blocks during these 7 games, finding other ways to contribute when he doesn’t have to do such a huge chunk of the scoring, especially from the perimeter (averaging 12.7 ppg in these games vs. the 16.7 he averaged during the 3-8 start).
Cormac Ryan is another guy we need to talk about and commend, considering his 28-point scoring output at Duke after a ROUGH individual night for him against Georgia Tech last Saturday. That game against the Yellow Jackets now seems like an outlier, as Ryan has been averaging fewer minutes during this 7-game stretch and that seems to have made all the difference in improving his production — he’s shooting more than 20 percentage points better both overall and from 3-point range, launching shots from deep a little less while using a nice mix of mid-range jumpers and finally finishing some shots at the rim to be a more efficient and complete scorer.
A more well-rested Cormac Ryan is a better Cormac Ryan, clearly.
Dane Goodwin is shooting and scoring basically the exact same as he has all season, but has bumped up his rebounding average in recent weeks and is committing fewer turnovers. Wertz has struggled to score, but has enjoyed an uptick in assists that suggests he could help Hubb distribute the ball effectively to all the other scorers as he tries to figure out his shooting and as everyone else continues to shoot well from the field.
And then, of course, there’s Nikola Djogo — since this run started with the BC win, he’s been taking more shots, making more shots, scoring more, and doing some solid damage on the glass. Like any good veteran role player, he’s been able to raise his game to meet his teammates’ level, and Irish fans have been delighted to see him contribute so much in his limited playing time each game. The dude has come a long way, done everything he’s been asked to do, and absolutely deserves the nice little season he’s having.
What’s Next for the Irish?
As I said above, I’m not sure it’s wise to actually start to believe this team could realistically make the NCAA Tournament. But with the way they’ve been playing recently (particularly on offense...the defense has been, as always, very bad), and with a winnable lineup of games standing between them and the ACC Tournament, the one thing I can absolutely say about this team is that they continue to fight, get better, and give us a reason to still tune in and watch them, despite the many past reasons they’ve given us to tune out.
I’ve often said “BELIEVE IN SOMETHING” in reference to Mike Brey teams and how they’re always potentially still in it, and I will continue to say that now, even if I’m just whispering it to myself. Durham, Hubb, and the rest of the crew are finding ways to change and improve and stay alive — and that has, at the very least, given us a pretty fun stretch of basketball to watch, lesser competition be damned. Here’s to hoping they keep the good vibes rolling and maybe even pull a big upset or two down the home stretch.