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Tuesday, June 25, 2024
The Observer

Irish may switch up starting lineup ahead of North Carolina matchup

No. 20 Notre Dame has used the same starting lineup in each of its 23 games this season.

That might change Saturday, with Irish head coach Mike Brey pondering dropping junior forward Martinas Geben from the starting five for his team’s trip to No. 12 North Carolina.

Irish freshman guard T.J. Gibbs attempts a pump fake in Notre Dame's loss to Duke on Monday at Purcell Pavilion.
Irish freshman guard T.J. Gibbs attempts a pump fake in Notre Dame's loss to Duke on Monday at Purcell Pavilion.
Irish freshman guard T.J. Gibbs attempts a pump fake in Notre Dame's loss to Duke on Monday at Purcell Pavilion.

Geben might stay in his spot, Brey said, but he’s also considering senior forward Austin Torres, sophomore guard Rex Pflueger and freshman guard T.J. Gibbs to take the final starting spot.

“I’m not sure who we start and I think we’ve got to look at that over the next two days,” Brey said at his pre-practice press conference Thursday. “Man, we may not make a decision on the fifth starter, that is, until the shootaround on Saturday. It could be the same way; it could be Torres, like we’ve done in the second half of Georgia Tech; or it could be one of the guards.”

The starting lineup might not be the only rotation change Notre Dame (17-6, 6-4 ACC) implements for its trip to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on Saturday — freshman forward John Mooney might find his way onto the court in a key spot, Brey said.

“I want to get him in a white shirt and get him playing with our key guys the next two days,” Brey said. “Love to get to him on Saturday and evaluate that — he’s a guy that’s been on my mind.”

Mooney said he has been biding his time this season ready for a chance to shine — it might finally happen Saturday against the Tar Heels (20-4, 8-2).

“Coach has always said, ‘Stay at it, be ready,’ and if this is my opportunity, then I’m gonna make the most of it,” Mooney said. “ … Over the past couple practices, I’ve been getting a little bit more time with the first group and it’s exciting.”

No matter the personnel the sliding Irish put on the court, they’ll have to deal with North Carolina’s key post presences: senior forwards Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks. If the Irish stick with a smaller lineup, Brey said, it might be due to success on the offensive, not defensive, end of the floor.

“I think for us, that’s a tricky one, because we do want to play small sometimes and downshift,” Brey said. “It’s a group responsibility and can we ride our small group — are we scoring enough to absorb a couple putbacks? — is kind of how I always look at it when we’re downshifted.”

But for as big of a problem as Hicks and Meeks could be down low — especially Meeks’ 17.2 percent offensive rebound rate, fourth-best among qualified players in the nation — the Irish need to be cognizant of the 3-point threat from junior guard Joel Berry (a 43.1 percent 3-point shooter) and junior forward Justin Jackson (39.5 percent).

“Those two guys have been so good. We have to have a real awareness; we can’t help off of them,” Brey said. “We’ve gotta take away their 3-point looks because those guys are really shooting it from there.”

Switching up defensive schemes could help the Irish, Brey said, with Notre Dame likely to go to a 2-3 zone at some point during the game.

“We’ll play some zone and when we do, we have to really tilt it toward those guys,” Brey said. “But [in man], whoever’s matched up on ’em, and it’s gonna be a lot of different guys, you can’t help in the post. If Kennedy Meeks is backing down somebody, you just can’t leave those two guys. Those guys making 3s are momentum plays for them.”

The Tar Heels eked out an 80-78 win over last-place Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, a game where the Panthers shot 56 percent from the field, including 13-for-29 from behind the arc. Along those lines, Saturday could be an opportunity for the Irish to get senior guard Steve Vasturia, who’s shot just 2-for-16 from the field in the last two games, going. Brey, though, isn’t concerned about his captain’s mindset during a slump.

“Steve’s the lowest-maintenance player I’ve ever coached,” Brey said. “ … I don’t have a lot of deep heart-to-hearts with Steve. I’ll come back after he goes 1-for-7 and he’s thoroughly exhausted in the training room and mess with him about Bruce Springsteen and we’ll [joke] about bouncing back. He’s such a steady guy and ‘onto the next play’ guy, I’ve never really had to worry about his head so much.”

Notre Dame will look to break a three-game skid Saturday at North Carolina, with tipoff set for 6 p.m. on ESPN.