Your final Three Things for this year’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish regular season! This week featured a win, which made it the best one in some time. Let’s dive into it.
Last Week’s Results
W vs. Pittsburgh Panthers, 88-81
L @ Clemson Tigers, 87-64
Notre Dame finally got back into the win column this week in Mike Brey’s final home game with a dominant win over a ranked Pitt squad, giving the beloved departing coach an occasion to party at the Backer. Barring an improbable run through the ACC tournament, this was Brey’s swan song. Unfortunately the Irish came down from that high with a sobering loss in Tiger-town to close out the regular season. What did we learn?
The Rotation Deepens
For most of the season and indeed the last several years, Notre Dame has used a very small rotation of 6-7 players. This week, however, we saw that rotation expand; due in part to injury and garbage-time circumstances, no doubt, but seeing some seldom-seen faces on the floor for extended time had some interesting results.
While the rotation against Pitt was mostly the same as we had seen earlier in the season, Saturday’s game against Clemson saw a significant shift, with forward Matt Zona getting significant minutes in both the first and second halves. The sophomore big man thrived, putting up 10 points (including 2-of-3 from beyond the arc) in addition to five rebounds in 19 minutes.
While the other players who got in against Clemson got extremely limited garbage-time minutes, this was still a good sign. The Irish will need players like Zona to be ready next year, and seeing him hold his own in real reps was cause for optimism.
Wednesday night’s win wasn’t just emotional for Coach Brey - nearly the entire lineup for the Irish was playing its final home game, and they delivered. 20 points each for Cormac Ryan and Marcus Hammond, the former of whom punctuated the game with a dunk that elicited the kind of thunderous applause not heard in Purcell for far too long. 14 points each for Nate Laszewski and Trey Wertz, with Laszewski adding in three blocks and eight rebounds. Dane Goodwin added 12 points to round out a rock-solid performance for the all-graduate starting lineup, which played with a level of focus, aggressiveness and passion that recalled its best moments at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame fans could drive themselves crazy asking where this performance was all season - most entered this season expecting to see more performances like this from a veteran Irish team that brought back most of its pieces (while losing two important ones, to be fair) from a solid tournament run last season. The results this season proved those expectations wrong, and what we likely saw on Wednesday was a group of guys playing with a level of passion that allowed them to rise above their usual potential, not simply reach it. Regardless, at this point it’s wise to simply enjoy what pleasures we have left, and watching this crew come together for one last big win certainly qualifies.
There are lots of legitimate criticisms of the way Mike Brey has run Notre Dame basketball for the last five years or so and the position in which he leaves the program, and we’re going to leave them all aside today in lieu of a salute to a guy who on the whole did a lot more with this program than most expected - a statement that was never truer than on Wednesday night. Seeing an underdog Irish team run over a ranked conference opponent at home one last time felt like putting in a favorite movie for the first time in years - familiar and yet refreshing all at once. It was fitting that the opponent was a frequent one going back to the Big East days, a representative foe for Brey’s tenure and one that was not experiencing this for the first time.
In light of this, Brey’s visit to the Backer isn’t just a fun anecdote but mirrors the game - one last moment of unabashedly goofy showmanship from a man who never failed to make the game fun. The road ahead is uncertain but in the meantime - cheers, Coach. You earned that night.