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Notre Dame Men’s Basketball: Three Things We’ve Learned Heading Into the Tournament

The Irish survived one early tournament exit, and hope to avoid another

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Notre Dame vs Virginia Tech Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Following our pattern from the football season, this basketball season we’re going to be taking a look at the start of each week at lessons learned from the previous week’s action for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. This, of course, involves multiple games and will therefore be more of a look at overall trends than a focus on one game. Let me know what you think/what you noticed in the comments!

Last Week’s Results

L vs. Virginia Tech Hokies, 80-87

Things got a little dicier than expected last week as the Irish, holding the #2 seed and a double bye, dropped the ACC quarterfinal to an ascendant VT squad whose subsequent wipeout of the conference field earned them a tournament spot of their own and nearly displaced the Irish. Looking at the bigger picture, the Irish have lost three of their last six and definitely have some things to figure out heading into the tournament.

That said, the Irish made the big dance all the same, and we should take a moment to appreciate that. This Wednesday’s matchup with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights - play-in game though it is - will be the first NCAA tournament action the program has seen since 2017. I don’t think many of us saw that coming when the team started out 4-5, and what this team has achieved in conference play is pretty remarkable. Not a perfect season by any means, but it’s still been a great ride - what have we learned?

Notre Dame’s Biggest Stars Have to Shine

One of Virginia Tech’s keys to defeating Notre Dame was shutting down its two most dynamic offensive contributors in Blake Wesley and Paul Atkinson, holding them to a combined 14 points. Wesley’s driving, ball skills and raw athleticism and Atkinson’s motor and finishing skill down low were the keys to the in-the-paint dimension of Notre Dame’s offense, and the Hokies effectively neutralized them. Wesley was so effectively shut down that Mike Brey only kept him in the game for 21 minutes.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Notre Dame vs Virginia Tech Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With their two biggest stars stopped in their tracks and the Irish already way behind early, veteran guards Cormac Ryan and Prentiss Hubb led a valiant comeback effort, contributing 20 and 23 points respectively, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the hole the Irish had dug for themselves. Hubb and Ryan can outscore many a guard pairing, but they don’t have the versatility or consistency to counter a team offensive effort like the one Virginia Tech put forth. Make no mistake: in tournament play, the Irish will need their biggest and most versatile stars to show up, and Atkinson and Wesley will need to show more.

The Three is a Necessity

Another key revealing stat line from the Virginia Tech loss: 36.8%. That’s what Notre Dame shot from beyond the arc. That’s about on par with their season-long mark of 38%, and it wasn’t all bad - Hubb and Ryan in particular hit some big shots to keep the Irish in the game - but it wasn’t nearly good enough in a game where Justyn Mutts and Keve Aluma were abusing the Irish frontcourt on both sides of the ledger, scoring at will on one end and shutting the Irish down in the paint on the other. It was down to the Irish shooters to provide a counterweight to the Hokies’ offensive dominance and they weren’t able to do enough, especially in a game where the Irish were badly overmatched on the boards (Atkinson and Nate Laszewski combined for two offensive rebounds).

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

While this year’s Irish squad hasn’t consistently replicated the hot-shooting ways of past Mike Brey teams, in its best efforts the team has usually topped 40% from beyond the arc. This is an Irish team that has a well-known vulnerability to physicality and scoring ability down low, and in the games where they have triumphed over bigger and stronger teams the three has played a primary role. If the Irish advance in the tournament they will run into that bigger, stronger opponent at some point, and more of their shots will need to find the net.

Veteran Leadership Still Matters

If there is one bright spot to take away from last week’s early exit, it was the aforementioned comeback effort led by seniors Cormac Ryan and Prentiss Hubb. After a season where their roles were reduced somewhat due to the emergence of Wesley and Atkinson (as well as Dane Goodwin, who did not start against Virginia Tech), each of them answered the call. Not only did they each hit big shots, they also hit key free throws to take advantage of Virginia Tech’s early foul trouble, and they were willing to venture inside and get to the line against a physical Hokies interior. Most importantly, they and the other Irish veterans showed remarkable courage and resolve in continuing to fight after falling behind early, and damn near succeeded in winning the day.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Notre Dame vs Virginia Tech Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

As mentioned above, if the Irish are to make a decent run in the tournament Hubb and Ryan can’t be the two leading scorers contributing half of the team’s points. But their leadership and resilient presence will still matter, and it’s good to know the Irish will keep fighting in the tournament - what though the odds be great or small.