After a tumultuous final five years of Mike Brey’s tenure as head coach of Notre Dame, former Penn State head coach Micah Shrewsberry will attempt to rebuild the Irish men’s basketball program from the ground up. The Shrewsberry era officially tips off Monday against Niagara, so now’s the time to brace for what will almost assuredly be a season of growing pains.
But this time — hopefully — the growing pains will not be in vain. Shrewsberry preaches a commitment to effort and defense, purportedly non-negotiables of playing in his program. That’s refreshing to hear, although what’s preached has yet to be practiced in a non-exhibition setting. Even so, if the philosophical shift fails to yield immediate results, Shrewsberry deserves some grace.
Although coaches can rebuild rosters more rapidly than ever by utilizing the transfer portal, Notre Dame returns just 2.3% of its minutes played and just 1.6% of its scoring production from last season. And, above all else, it’s the University of Notre Dame, which means shopping down a different aisle in the transfer portal.
Three portal additions — all unproven to some degree — and four freshmen recruits won’t be enough to make Irish men’s hoops immediately relevant again. But they and their coach serve as a shot of adrenaline to a program and fanbase whose pulse had flatlined.
Here’s how I think the first year will play out.
Most Frequent Starting Lineup
G: Markus Burton
G: Braeden Shrewsberry
G: Julian Roper II
F: Carey Booth
C/F: Kebba Njie
If you had asked me this before Notre Dame’s “secret” scrimmage against Xavier and their exhibition against Hanover, I would have guessed that Irish redshirt sophomore JR Konieczny would be starting over Braeden Shrewsberry. I might have even thought that senior forward Matt Zona would be starting, at least to begin the season while the freshman Booth got up to speed.
But I anticipate talent winning out as Booth gets more comfortable with the college game. And as much as I hate to acknowledge it — as someone with conflicting opinions on head coaches who coach their own child — I’m not going to bet on Micah benching Braeden for a prolonged period of the season. In any case, this feels like a year where the lineup will be tweaked constantly at various positions.
Leading Scorer: Markus Burton
It would be quite an experience for the 5-foot-9 guy to lead a Power 5 college basketball team in scoring, but I think that’s the most likely scenario. The freshman Burton averaged around 30 points per game in his senior year of high school. Even though Indiana high school basketball isn’t loaded with premier prospects, he’s clearly a scoring guard and will probably be counted on to score at all three levels on this team.
Of course, he could also hit a freshman wall and go on a bit of a scoring drought at some point, especially once the Irish reach conference play. If that ends up tanking his average, Braeden Shrewsberry seems like the next safest bet, but even that feels unlikely. This roster really will be a grab bag of contributors by my estimation.
Rebounding Leader: Kebba Njie
It feels like this is between Njie and Booth, but Booth can also play a stretch four role, which should give Njie a few more opportunities to grab offensive rebounds. But then there’s also a possibility that Njie only plays about 20 minutes per game while Booth’s talent dictates he be on the floor for around 30 minutes per game (unlikely though that scenario may be). In that case, rebounds that would be Njie’s get siphoned off by Zona and Seton Hall transfer Tae Davis.
Assist Leader: Braeden Shrewsberry
Burton’s role as a scoring guard would seem to disqualify him here, and Northwestern transfer Julian Roper II is a combo guard in the vein of Trey Wertz. That leaves Shrewsberry as the only pure point guard on the roster and the default safest bet here. But again, and I cannot stress this enough, this is anybody’s guess, because I don’t know how much independent creating Shrewsberry is going to do as opposed to being part of a larger offensive system where the ball is shared by everyone.
Minutes Leader: Carey Booth
I really want to pick Roper here because of his mix of playing experience and versatility at both guard spots. But I foresee the Irish rotating more liberally in the backcourt based on the personnel they have available. Booth was a four-star recruit and top-100 player nationally, so I’ll predict a concerted effort by the coaching staff to let him go make plays even if he makes some freshman mistakes along the way.
Best Defender: Tae Davis
“Best defender” isn’t easily defined because blocks and steals can be opportunistic stats (and big men are usually good at the former while guards are usually good at the latter). But you can generally pick out a guy on a roster that the coaching staff will assign to lockdown the opposition’s best offensive weapon. That’s probably Davis, who, at 6-foot-9 and 208 pounds with good athleticism, has unique tools that should offer versatility on the defensive side of the ball.
Going through the schedule initially, I had the Irish going 6-5 in the non-conference and 6-14 in the ACC. However, it seemed like I was picking a lot of home losses in conference play. Even though this feels like a team that will lose some games it should win and win some games it should lose, I think a rejuvenated program and fan base will be worth at least one upset win in Purcell Pavilion. So I’ll go with a 7-13 ACC record and a 13-18 mark overall in the regular season.
That should put the Irish at about a 13th-place finish in the conference, ahead of dumpster fire Louisville and in the running with Georgia Tech, Boston College and Florida State. Maybe they can even notch a win in the first round of the conference tournament, but anything beyond that feels like wishful thinking.
It’s not going to wow anyone if the Irish reach those marks. But given the rock bottom expectations for this program after last season’s 11-21 overall, 3-17 ACC finish, it would be a marked improvement and a portent of good things to come in the Micah Shrewsberry era.