Entering their game on Saturday against the number four ranked Virginia Cavaliers, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish had a record of 13-11 overall and 3-8 in ACC conference play. In what has been an up-and-down season hit hard with injuries to key players such as Rex Pflueger, Robby Carmody, and Juwan Durham for a period of time, the season has not produced the wins the team would like to see. However, the glimpses of potential shown in this game lead me to believe that Notre Dame is going to be a force two to three years down the line.
Let’s begin by looking at Notre Dame’s last two games in the month of January. They hosted the Virginia Cavaliers and the Duke Blue Devils in back-to-back games and lost 55-82 and 61-83, respectively. Flash forward to Saturday and the Fighting Irish since have a 2-2 record in four games in the month of February with wins at Boston College and Georgia Tech, paired with losses at Miami and Virginia. They played Virginia down to the wire in what ended up being only a 54-60 defeat.
One of the main reasons why Mike Brey usually produces NCAA Tournament teams is the experience his players gain after having been in the program to develop for three and four years. This year is very different, though. Prentiss Hubb, Nate Laszewski, and Dane Goodwin are all freshman that are receiving big minutes this year in part due to necessity, but also for the fact that from the beginning of the season Mike Brey embraced the youth movement. The willingness to play many young faces in one of the toughest conferences in college basketball is going to have moments that are not so pretty.
Playing freshmen consistently has also impacted other players roles as well. Junior T.J. Gibbs has been trying to evolve into a leadership role as the season has progressed, similar to that of junior John Mooney. With Mooney’s minutes also seeing a drastic jump, from 15.4 minutes per game last season to 28.3 minutes per game this season, he has been asked to do a lot more than just lead. As for D.J. Harvey and Juwan Durham, Harvey returned to the court this year after an injury ended his season early last year, and Durham is in his first year playing at Notre Dame after transferring from Connecticut and being forced to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer regulations.
While it is hard to accept the idea of moral victories, I would be extremely happy to have been as competitive as the Irish were against one of the best teams in the country if I were a Notre Dame basketball fan. Notre Dame was very close to pulling the upset had a few more things gone their way. In the first half, both teams struggled to shoot the ball. T.J. Gibbs scored the first 10 points for the Fighting Irish. Harvey and Mooney were the only other two players to score for Notre Dame in the first 20 minutes, contributing ten and five points, respectively.
The biggest takeaway from the first half was the lack of a balanced scoring attack shown from Notre Dame. Having only three players score over a 20 minute period of time makes it hard to win games period, let alone against someone as good as Virginia.
The second half saw players such as freshmen Prentiss Hubb and Nate Laszewski gain some confidence offensively that they were lacking in the first half. That helped Notre Dame withstand a few runs by the Cavaliers when they could have busted the game open. In the end, though, Virginia made plays when it mattered most and denied the Fighting Irish a signature road win.
All in all, while Notre Dame is not producing the amount of wins they have been accustomed to over the last few years, they compete hard every game while also showing possibilities of the force they could be down the road.
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