“I’ve never had a situation like this, not five years at Delaware or 18 years (at Notre Dame) where I’ve had so many new guys.” Mike Brey said after the Fighting Irish defeated Duquesne 67-56 in their fifth game of the season. “We’re obviously in a total youth movement. We’ve sprinkled in some really good veterans, but I’ve never had it like this.”
Brey’s team was 4-1 at that point – three ragged wins against low level teams, a loss to a pretty good Radford team (still a game that an ACC team should win every time), and the just completed victory over a middle of the pack Atlantic 10 team.
“We’ve got a long way to go, which we kind of knew,” Brey said after the Radford loss. “Everybody can beat us. That’s who we are right now.”
Every team goes through the same process each season. It’s only a matter of degree. Players have left the program. Returning players expect more significant roles. New players must earn roles, must be integrated into the program, and must adapt to college itself as well as college level basketball competition.
Forming a cohesive team with clearly defined roles is an annual task for every coach, almost a drill, as two or three players leave the program and two or three are added. Forming a cohesive team with clearly defined roles is not a drill when four leave and six are added, seven considering DJ Harvey’s limited time in the program before a knee injury ended his season last January. That takes more time.
Brey looked to define roles by using a ten-deep playing rotation. “My attitude was to play 10 guys in the first half, and they’ll tell us who’s going to play in the second half,” Brey said after the opener against UIC.
Brey experimented with player groupings and tried different starting lineups. “It’s night to night,” he said after game #7 of the process, a 76-74 home win vs. Illinois. “I don’t know if I’ve ever sat there with my staff and discussed personnel. That’s our challenge as a staff, to find that right mix at different parts in the game to help us.”
By then, Elijah Burns had left the program, skewing the team’s experience level even more to “lack thereof.” Brey described Burns as “a talker and a positive energy guy,” traits that would be missed on a young team; but the setback of his departure opened more minutes for the new players. Juwan Durham took advantage.
Durham, whose limited playing time included a DNP-CD vs Radford, had a breakout game against Illinois with 10 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots in 17 minutes of playing time. He continued to play well and has found his way into the starting lineup.
In terms of basketball ability, Burns is replaceable. He’s a good all-around player, but there is no one aspect of his game that leaves observers asking how the team can fill the void. Points, rebounds, assists… Plenty of options, but quality people who work hard every day often aren’t missed until they’re gone. Steadiness hasn’t been this team’s strength.
In addition to Durham, Nate Laszewski stood to gain playing time after Burns left. He is known for his three point shooting, but Laszewski’s more consistent contributions have been rebounding and defense. “He’s a good position defender,” Brey said after the DePaul game. “He’s not the strongest guy, but he plays smart.”
Talking about the number of players in the rotation early in the season, Brey said, “At some point, you’re going to have to make some decisions.” One decision was made for him with Burns’ departure. Then came a second.
Freshman Robby Carmody already had to leave two games with shoulder pain before playing against UCLA. Then came the finals week announcement. Carmody needed surgery for a torn labrum. He was done for the season. Decisions made. Rotation set. Bring on Purdue.
The Unkindest Cut
Rex Pfleuger started the season shooting poorly and making uncharacteristic turnovers, but he played his best basketball games against UCLA (14 points, 5-6/4-4 shooting, 6 rebounds, 4 assists) and Purdue (10 assists, only 1 turnover) until…
Pfleuger tore his ACL on an awkward landing late in the Purdue victory.
Notre Dame lost its only senior, its best defender, a 35 minutes per game player. More significantly, Notre Dame lost its team leader.
“I know we’re the two captains on the team, but I look up to this guy too,” TJ Gibbs said when talking about Pfleuger after the DePaul game. “When I need a leader, I look to Rex. Just having this guy here with me and letting him lead me last year and my freshman year, I learned a lot from him. I can’t thank him enough. The way he’s leading this team is great.”
“He’s been a great leader. He’s been a great captain,” Brey said early in the season. “A lot of these young guys are comfortable because of the time Rex has spent with them unselfishly.”
Pfleuger will be around the team as a leader, but it isn’t the same when he can’t be on the court for practice and games. It isn’t the same when he can’t show the way as well as tell it. His stats can be replaced. His defense will be hard to replace, but the Irish don’t lack willing guards and wings. Rex Pfleuger’s leadership on the court will be missed, already has been missed.
The Irish opened the ACC schedule with a loss at Virginia Tech, as expected. Still a work in progress, Notre Dame was outclassed by a very good veteran team.
To have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament, the Irish will need to be 9-9 in the conference which established itself as an up-and-comer in the final month of the season. Is that possible? Yes. Is it likely? Let’s look.
The Irish have home games against Syracuse, Boston College, NC State, Virginia, Duke, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, and Clemson. Two of those games are probable losses (Virginia, Duke), and the Notre Dame team we’ve seen so far looks like a 4-3 team against the other seven. They really need to be no worse than 5-2 to have a shot at 9-9. We’ll know if that’s possible after Saturday’s game vs Syracuse.
That leaves the Irish needing to be 4-4 in their remaining road games against North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Boston College, Miami, Virginia, Florida State, Louisville, and Pittsburgh.
The bad news is that three of Notre Dame’s last four games are on the road. The good news is the same, three of ND’s last four games are on the road. If this team begins to overcome its youth and play to its potential come February, it will be more equipped to get the quality road wins it needs to make the tournament.
Tune in Saturday for the next chapter of Youth Movement.