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Friday, April 12, 2024
The Observer

Irish men’s basketball prepares to start fresh after season of trials and tribulations

Max Petrosky/The Observer
Mike Brey leaves the Purcell Pavilion court for the final time as Notre Dame's head men's basketball coach after an 88-81 win over Pitt on March 1.

It never felt like Notre Dame men’s basketball was far from breaking through. Amid each of their countless last-second losses by a razor-thin margin, they always seemed to be just one big win away from regaining the mojo that sparked the previous year’s NCAA Tournament run. But that moment never really came. And after a disappointing 11-21 season, the Irish now find themselves entering a new era. One that they will have to navigate without Mike Brey at the helm.

The Irish came into the season with lofty ambitions. Led by a core group of four returning graduate students, many predicted Notre Dame to be near the top of the ACC once again. Even the key players they did lose — Prentiss Hubb, Blake Wesley and Paul Atkinson Jr. — seemed to have worthy successors in graduate transfer guard Marcus Hammond and highly touted freshmen guard JJ Starling and forward Ven-Allen Lubin.

“I think they feel they can advance [deep into the NCAA Tournament],” Brey said before the season. ”They really tasted what it was like to advance and the excitement of it, and I hope they’re kind of addicted to it.“

With five graduate students in their primary seven-man rotation, the Irish were one of the most experienced teams in the country. They had to lean on that experience earlier than expected. Their opening stretch of non-conference play featured surprisingly narrow victories against mid-major opponents.

Notre Dame needed a game-winning layup from graduate guard Cormac Ryan to seal a come-from-behind win in their season opener against Radford. The next week, graduate guard Dane Goodwin nailed a go-ahead three-pointer late in a 66-65 win over Lipscomb.

Despite not passing the eye test, the Irish managed to start the season 5-0. Their success in the previous season had been aided by their ability to step up in key moments and be at their best when the lights shined brightest. While their wins were far from pretty, it was easy for fans to remain optimistic, having grown accustomed to seeing Notre Dame rely on that clutch gene.

“When we got that look and that drive, I’m saying, ‘That one’s going in,’” Brey said about Goodwin’s game-winner against Lipscomb. “We’ve got some older guys that know how to win.”

After beginning the year with a five-game homestand, the Irish’s first venture outside of Purcell Pavilion provided a wake-up call. Facing St. Bonaventure at the New York Islanders' UBS Arena, Notre Dame trailed by double digits for most of a 63-51 loss.

They quickly got back on track, though. Just five days after suffering their first defeat, Notre Dame earned what would turn out to be their biggest win of the season. Playing host to No. 20 Michigan State, the Irish looked every bit the part of a team that would be playing in March in their 70-52 victory.

“I think we were due for one, all of us,” Ryan said after making six three-pointers against the Spartans. “We have guys who are too good at playing the right way [to be losing] and I think we were still trying to find ourselves. We picked a good night to figure it out.”

But the momentum from that signature win vanished just as quickly as it had arrived. Notre Dame's 6-1 start was a product of them consistently pulling through in late-game situations. The sudden, stunning loss of that ability would haunt them for the rest of the season.

The Irish's crunch-time woes began in their ACC opener against Syracuse. Playing in his first Notre Dame game after suffering a preseason knee injury, Hammond, a transfer from Niagara, converted a three-point play to put the Irish ahead by one in the final minute. But a last-second Syracuse bucket sent the Orange home as 62-61 winners.

“We figured it would [come down to] game situations,” Brey said after the loss. “We needed to get that one stop and we couldn’t get it.”

Notre Dame won just one of their three ensuing non-conference games before hitting the road to take on Florida State. Their second ACC game ended almost identically to the first, with another one-point defeat.

Three more conference losses pushed the Irish to 0-5 in ACC play before they returned home to face Georgia Tech. Down seven in the final three minutes of regulation, Notre Dame fought back to emerge with a dramatic 73-72 overtime victory.

“We were looking for some confidence, we were searching for something,” Brey said after the win. “It was great for that group.”

But there would not be much to celebrate in the following weeks. Notre Dame’s only win in their next 12 outings came against hapless Louisville. The Irish all eight games in that stretch with a single-digit margin of victory. Frustration grew as they struggled to figure out why the Irish could not break through.

“I feel for our guys, because we keep getting in position, but we can’t finish,” Brey said after a four-point loss to North Carolina. “We put ourselves in position, but [losing close games] has kind of been the recipe.”

In the midst of that difficult stretch, Brey announced his decision to step down at the end of the year. After 23 seasons that saw him compile more victories than any head coach in program history, Brey felt that the moment was right for a change.

“It has been a great run for me and our program over the past two decades,” Brey said in the university’s announcement. “But it is time for a new voice to lead this group into the future.”

The 2023 edition of senior night was thus particularly meaningful. Fittingly, the Irish brought everything they had against Pitt, winning their first game in more than a month to send the departing members of the program off right.

“What an unbelievable night,” Brey said postgame. “It was neat to feel this atmosphere in here one last time.”

That vintage performance brought hope of a late-season resurgence. But it was ultimately not to be. In their regular season finale three days later, Clemson blew the Irish out of the water. Needing a miraculous ACC Tournament run to keep their season alive, the Irish battled hard but suffered yet another last-second loss in the first round against Virginia Tech.

The disheartening end to the year quickly gave way to an action-packed offseason. In Brey’s place, the Irish brought in Micah Shrewsberry. The Indiana native had become a hot name in coaching circles after guiding Penn State to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011. Shrewsberry spoke about his coaching principles at a festive introductory press conference in March.

“We’re going to play with discipline, we’re going to play with toughness and we’re going to play together,” he said. “If you do that, you give yourselves a chance every night, and that’s all I’m asking [for].”

Rebuilding the Notre Dame program will be no easy task after the mass exodus that took place in the spring. Seven players made up the Irish’s normal rotation this season and none will be back next year.

After leading the program for the last several seasons, Goodwin, graduate forward Nate Laszewski and graduate guard Trey Wertz will pursue professional basketball. Ryan will spend his last year of college eligibility at North Carolina. Their final season in South Bend did not go as planned. But the good of how well they represented the program and their starring roles in the 2022 March Madness run far outweigh the bad of 2022-23.

Hammond is also out of eligibility. Starling and Lubin both sought new homes in the transfer portal. So did forward Dom Campbell also having transferred. That means Notre Dame will return none of its three-man freshmen class, and just four total players.

That might seem unnerving for Irish fans. However, that type of turnover has become par for the course in college basketball following a coaching change. Shrewsberry has full confidence in his staff’s ability to assemble a competitive team for next season and put Notre Dame back on track.

“Recruiting’s really important. It never stops, and it hasn’t since this change has happened,” Shrewsberry said. “No stone will be [left] unturned to find that person, find that fit.”

The coming months will be telling for next season’s outlook. The Irish figure to add upwards of 10 new players to their roster. Notre Dame may struggle next year, but several programs in recent history have successfully rebuilt on the fly and performed well shortly after a coaching change. In fact, Shrewsberry’s Penn State teams did just that.

The Irish did not deliver on their goals this season, but they don’t expect that to happen again any time soon.

“You can win the national championship here and that’s what we’re going to do,” Shrewsberry said. “That’s what we’re going to fight for every single day.”