The games are raison d’être for a basketball team; but simultaneously, they are mere steps in the unfolding story of a season that begins in the summer and, in all but a handful of cases, ends with a tournament loss. Roles are determined early in the process. Some leaders are appointed while others emerge. The team develops an identity and hones its performance in that context, with the amount of postseason success and the final record determining success or failure.
This is a process that unfolds as surely as spring follows winter and summer follows spring… except for the 2017-18 Fighting Irish basketball squad. Its story isn’t the usual straight line. Its story has plot twists in quantities that would make a B-movie screenwriter self-conscious.
The story began in Chicago where the Irish helped DePaul open its new home, Wintrust Arena. It was a typical opener – sloppy and competitive longer than it should have been; but in the end, ND pocketed a 14-point win. It was time to focus on the Maui Classic tournament and its challenging field as the Irish eased through a couple of tune-up games.
Notre Dame won the Maui Classic championship with a dramatic comeback victory over top ten Wichita State. The week was what a storyteller would call a narrative grabber. Returning to South Bend with the prestigious trophy affirmed preseason optimism. This was to be an exciting, fun cakewalk to the postseason.
Every good story has a set of problems to solve, and we began to learn what they would be the week after the team returned from Maui. It started with a trip to East Lansing where Michigan State crushed the Irish 81-63. Notre Dame started slowly, trailed by 20 points at halftime, rallied to make the game somewhat competitive, and faded at the end.
Michigan State has an outstanding team, a legitimate national championship contender; so one poor performance could have been considered an anomaly. The Irish could right the ship against St. Francis and Ball State, grab a win at Delaware, and be ready to beat Indiana in the Crossroads double-header.
Nice plan. Didn’t happen.
Slow lackadaisical starts and general inconsistency began to define the team. The Irish trailed Ball State at halftime, rallied to a second half lead, surrendered the lead, and rallied again to tie the game with 21 seconds left only to allow Ball State’s winning basket with a second to play.
“We tried to get it to overtime but probably didn’t deserve to get it to overtime,” a frustrated Mike Brey said after the game. “They outplayed us.”
If slow starts were a problem, a consistent spark from the bench wasn’t part of the solution. No reserves played meaningful minutes before this season, and it showed in the players’ inconsistency. This team was struggling with roles, playing time roles as well as leadership roles. Asked if he would be more hands-on or would work through his leaders, Brey said, “I’m still trying to figure that out with this group.”
The Delaware game brought another slow start, but the Irish rallied late in the first half, led by nine at the half, and dropped 54 second half points on former ND assistant Martin Ingelsby’s team. Maybe the team was starting to gel.
It looked that way when Notre Dame built a 12-point lead in the first half of the Indiana game; but the Irish played poorly in the second half, missed free throws at the end of regulation, and lost in overtime. Lapses by the leaders at key times contributed to the loss.
“This is extremely disappointing for us,” Brey said after the game. “I loved how we were ready to play, but we couldn’t get away from them.
“We didn’t make some very smart plays down the stretch and overtime that really cost us.”
Slow starts? Lapses in key moments? Those things can be fixed over the course of the season. The staff and the team knew what was needed. They just had to work through the issues.
It was time for the story to turn to resolution and preparation for the big finish. The 2015-16 Fighting Irish had a similar start – losses to Monmouth, Alabama, Indiana, and Pittsburgh, games they were favored to win but lost thanks to sluggish first halves that put them in deep holes. That team rallied to go 11-7 in the ACC; beat Duke twice, once in Cameron Indoor Stadium and once in the conference tournament; beat eventual national champion North Carolina in South Bend, and make it to the regional final in the NCAA Tournament. A 2017-18 repeat would take work, but the Irish had the talent to achieve it.
Notre Dame opened the ACC season at home against Georgia Tech. Another slow start had the Irish trailing at halftime, but they rallied to a 68-59 victory. Bonzie Colson had 22 points and 17 rebounds. More importantly, Colson displayed the on-court enthusiasm and leadership that had been missing from this team. He refused to let his team lose.
“I thought our defense was better when we started to build the lead,” Brey said. “We didn’t have the let-down.”
The seniors led in the locker room at halftime, too.
“Bonzie and Matt were fabulous,” said Brey. “I heard them before I got in there. It was, ‘Relax. Twenty more minutes.
“Bonzie, especially, has been great.”
Two days later, we learned that Colson played that great game on a broken foot. He is out through February and possibly for the rest of the season. No leading scorer. No leader on the floor.
North Carolina State was next, a chance to make Brey Notre Dame’s winningest coach; but it would have to happen without Colson. The Irish responded to the challenge with a 30-point win. It was a great occasion, except…
Matt Farrell, the team’s second leading scorer, severely sprained his ankle with seven minutes left in the first half. Farrell would be out indefinitely.
Next came a trip to Syracuse, a slog-fest game that the resilient Irish won at the buzzer; but they haven’t won since then. Demoralizing close losses to ranked teams, 69-68 to North Carolina and 82-78 in two overtimes to Louisville brought additional bad news. Emerging, talented freshman DJ Harvey injured his knee, a bone bruise that would keep him off the court for at least a month.
“These were two amazing gut punches,” Brey said after the Louisville game. “I feel for them, but I think we’re pretty darned resilient.”
As much as the personnel losses have hurt the Irish, their own poor shooting has made their play look uglier than it really has been. Farrell has shot 8-25 and 2-11 from the field since returning to the lineup. TJ Gibbs was 6-20 and 5-17 in the UNC and Louisville games. Rex Pflueger is 5-24 over the last three games.
Set in the old west, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is a Western about rivals in a cutthroat search for gold. That’s a bit like the way Brey sees the rest of the 2017-18 season.
“Last year we lost five out of six in the ACC,” he said, “and we found our footing and scratched and clawed to the end. I’m not sure if we can scratch and claw to twelve league wins and a double-bye. I don’t know if that’s realistic, but can we scratch out five or six more and then go to Brooklyn and see what happens… Colson’s maybe back. That’s the world we’re in. That’s how we’re going to manage it.”
There is some good news. Martin Geben is the #2 rebounder in the ACC, averaging 10.9 per game; and he has made 63% of his shots from the field this season.
“He’s as good as any big guy in the league right now,” Brey said. “Thank God we have him.”
John Mooney is carving out a nice role for himself by playing better defense highlighted by 13 points and 7 rebounds in 23 minutes at Clemson; and Nik Djogo is emerging after it looked like he was a year away from being a significant contributor. Djogo’s three point baskets were crucial to keeping the Irish in the North Carolina game to the end.
We need him to get good fast because he’s going to play a lot of basketball,” Brey said of Djogo, “but I definitely like how he’s trending. How he’s played against two good teams in big time atmospheres… I’m really proud of him. He’s come a long way from October.”
If Farrell and Gibbs can return to their historical shooting percentages, the current rotation players continue to grow, and Harvey returns with his basketball growth not stunted by the injury, the Irish will be a tough draw in the ACC Tournament; and if Colson returns, the Irish will be as tough a lower seeded draw as there can be.
Every good story includes obstacles that must be overcome; and if it’s a good story, we don’t know how it will end until we actually get to the end. Often it looks bleak only to have the protagonist overcome.
There were three outcomes in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Sentenza (played by Lee VanCleef) was killed. Tuco (Eli Wallach) had his share of the Gold, but Blondie (Clint Eastwood) left him tied up in the desert. Blondie rode into the sunset with his share of the gold. Will the 2017-18 Notre Dame basketball team’s outcome be more like Sentenza’s, Tuco’s, or Blondie’s?