Where: Breslin Center, East Lansing, Michigan
When: 8:00 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020
TV: Big Ten Network
PG Prentiss Hubb (JR, 6-3, 175), Nikola Djogo (SR, 6-7, 230), Elijah Morgan (SO, 6-0, 170)
SG Cormac Ryan (JR, 6-5, 195), Robby Carmody* (JR, 6-4, 215), Trey Wertz * (JR, 6-5, 195)
SF Dane Goodwin (JR, 6-6, 200), Tony Sanders (FR, 6-7, 202)
PF Nate Laszewski (6-10, 227), Matt Zona (FR, 6-9, 240)
C Juwan Durham (SR, 6-11, 240), Elijah Taylor (FR, 6-8, 231)
*= Injured or not eligible
Notre Dame finished the year 20-12 but it was a rather “Rocky Road To Dublin” for them. The Irish had just won their first round matchup in the ACC Tournament before the pandemic shut everything down in college basketball, yet they would have needed to win the whole thing to get into the NCAA Tournmanet. They were ranked 57th in KenPom and didn’t really possess a very impressive resume throughout the year. After starting their ACC season 2-6, they finished the campaign strong at 9-4 though. Seniors John Mooney (16.2 points, 12.7 rebounds per game) and T.J. Gibbs (13.3 points, 3.3 assists per game) led the team in scoring but Michigan State won’t have to tangle with either of them. Experienced starter Rex Pflueger (5.2 points) is also gone, but his 33.3 percent shooting from the field wouldn’t have scared the Spartans much anyway.
The Fighting Irish return two starters in playmaker Prentiss Hubb and fifth-year big man Juwan Durham. Both started in all but one of the 32 games last year and fill key roles for Mike Brey’s squad. Hubb (12.1 points, 5.1 assists, 38.5 percent field goals) will be handed the keys to the team and is looked upon to shoulder a heavy load on offense. Durham, standing at 6-foot-11 and having bulked up to 240 pounds over the summer, is a traditional rim protector and “Wild Rover“ in the paint as he swatted a few at 2.1 blocks per game. His offensive game is a work in progress but as shown by his 21 points against Duke in early February, some potential is there.
The other key returning players for the Irish are junior wing Dane Goodwin (an AAU teammate of Foster Loyer and Thomas Kithier) and stretch big man Nate Laszewski. Both aren’t shy of launching the long ball and play a key role in stretching the defense (together over eight three-point attempts per game last year). Sniper Cormac Ryan is eligible for the first time after transferring from Stanford and has already been voted a co-captain. For Ryan, 155 of his 198 field goal attempts as a Cardinal were from behind the arc, so safe to say that he will be looked upon to shoot. His 31.6 percent from there looks unimpressive, but he had plenty of games where he drained more than four triples. Trey Wertz will most likely be used as a combo guard and had good numbers at Santa Clara (11.9 points, 40percent from downtown) yet his waiver to play this season hasn’t been approved yet. The rest of the Irish bunch consists of some seldom used role players and inexperienced freshmen. Of those youngsters the athletic Tony Sanders and the bullish Matt Zona have been the most impressive according to reports.
Prentiss Hubb had good numbers for Notre Dame last season but the Irish expect even more from him this year. The long and lanky point guard plays with a calm demeanor and possesses a very dangerous outside shot that would surely impress “Molly Malone” or a “Galway Girl.” He brings the ball up yet in the half-court he often switches to the off guard position to make use of his ability to slip around screens. With long steps and fluid moves the lefty can also get to the basket if you offer him an open lane. Hubb is a very heady player, has already seen a lot of basketball during his two years in South Bend and will be looked upon to carry plenty of the scoring load for the Irish.
Mike Brey runs a motion offense that usually plays four of the five players around the perimeter. Over the years he loved to use a true stretch big man as his power forward which usually results in good spacing for the Irish attack. The Irish are an offensive-minded team whose defensive and rebounding numbers usually rank lie as low as “The Fields Of Athenry.” They move the ball smartly and plenty (best assist-to-turnover-ratio in the nation in 2019-2020) and they will put pressure on the defense with a boatload of off-ball screens. Brey’s teams play very slow and methodical, normally ranking in Wisconsin area in terms of tempo. Last year though they played a bit faster (190th in tempo according to KenPom) but nobody will confuse them for the Golden State Warriors just yet. As the Irish defense plays a minor part in their identity, Brey is constantly trying to find the right dose between man-to-man and some zone. Notre Dame usually will not put a lot of pressure on the ball handler, but they still got plenty of long players that potentially can disrupt passing lanes.
Mike Brey has been one of the longest tenured coaches in college basketball as he is now entering his 21st season under the Golden Dome. He used to coach in a “Dirty Old Town” in Durham, North Carolina, for some guy named Coach K and has continued his success from his Delaware days in the Big East and later the ACC. He made the Irish a very respectable high major program again that took on the tough task of channeling some historic national glory and carving out the role of talented little brother at a traditional football powerhouse. Brey made 12 of 20 NCAA Tournaments during his career at Notre Dame and is the winningest coach in school history with 437 wins (sorry, Digger).
He along with his school puts plenty of emphasis on education and his philosophy revolves around developing players over the course of four years. Brey is a respected player’s coach, a classy, likable competitor and someone you would love to chat some ball with — which Tom Izzo will certainly do. The 61-year-old is very excited about this upcoming season in which he made up an extremely tough schedule for the Irish (next to their league play which includes the likes of Duke, UNC and Virginia, the Irish will tangle with MSU, Ohio State, Kentucky and Purdue out of conference). Brey said to that: “We wouldn’t have created a schedule like that if we didn’t think we could have some fun with our group. I’m really excited about this team.” Aren’t we all before a season?! Nonetheless, we hear you, Mike!
THE STATE OF STATE
The Spartans took care of business with a 83-67 win against Eastern Michigan on Wednesday, a game that really didn’t answer that many questions as EMU was overmatched from the start with plenty of their players missing. Foster Loyer’s shooting exhibition was exciting (six-of-10 on triples, 20 points) but of course he has to do more than bury open threes against an undersized mid major zone defense. Prentiss Hubb should be a great test for him defensively, at least if Izzo lets him guard the Irish junior. Aaron Henry made some good plays against EMU, but only shot the ball three times — raise your hand if you want that number to increase. Rocket Watts is said to suffer from a minor injury, which isn’t good news. For this team to fully realize its potential MSU needs Rocket to take over at least a heavy dose of the playmaker minutes, something he didn’t prove to be capable of just yet. The big men rotation seems to be a case of musical chairs for Izzo as he has about 15 guys who deserve minutes here yet of course only 80 minutes to dish out. Rebounding (which uncharacteristically was a minor issue last season) and turnovers (traditionally) were areas of concern against EMU as well, but are both areas that shouldn‘t necessarily be feasted upon by Notre Dame.
Make no mistake, MSU will be facing an excited team that will start with plenty of expectations into their season. Overall though, the Spartans should make use of their better interior talent, their superior athleticism and their overall depth to fight out a hard earned win. MSU wins by 10 (fingers crossed) and ND will be happy to be “Back Home In Derry”… ehh South Bend of course.