EAST LANSING, Mich. – Mike Brey leaned into the narrative earlier in the week, ripe with excitement.
The last time his Notre Dame basketball team traveled to Michigan State, it began a fall from the highs of three straight years with at least one NCAA tournament win and a fresh Maui Invitational title into oblivion. Wouldn’t it be something, he wondered, if this return trip was the exclamation point on what had been an upward trend since last February, a moment where folks outside Rolfs Hall started feeling that same buzz and reward for their patience?
Perhaps there is still some moment that will deliver signs the Irish are headed back on a path to the NCAA tournament. The early-season schedule is full of chances to turn heads and cock eyebrows, after all.
But not here. Not now. This experienced group didn’t quite look like one in its opening game of the season. The Irish lost to No. 13 Michigan State 80-70 Saturday night, a final margin not reflective of the game’s arc. Notre Dame trailed by 28 two minutes into the second half, a hole created by surrendering 26 straight points and going scoreless for the final 7:12 of the first half. The drought erased what was a 26-22 Notre Dame lead.
“A great example of how fragile a game is,” Brey said. “We had some careless turnovers, and then we fouled and kind of lost control of it.”
Notre Dame’s first game since March 11 in the abbreviated ACC tournament and after a strange offseason isn’t a referendum on this season’s outlook. It is, though, a realization that continuing on the feel-good path off a 9-4 end to last season won’t be a linear trip. There will be bumps, especially early on against six more preseason top-30 KenPom teams to close out 2020. Can’t be too many. Especially not in the same game.
Facing a brawny, athletic Michigan State unit, Notre Dame couldn’t find extended ways to manufacture open shots or knock the Spartans’ offense off-kilter to survive its drought. After that crisp opening 13 minutes, the foundation turned to rubble as Michigan State rip-corded through Notre Dame’s defense – ending with 26 assists on 30 baskets – and clamped down itself.
“It was two passes and someone put their head down,” Brey said. “That’s why we had bad shots, forced shots, turnovers, and the run was on to pretty much knock us out before half.”
Point guard Prentiss Hubb, Notre Dame’s pulse and team leader, fell back on erratic habits. As much as anyone, he has the power to get Notre Dame where it wants to go. He was sped up into iffy shot selection and decision-making, as if he was trying to match every Michigan State haymaker with one of his own. He ended the first half 2-for-10 from the floor with four turnovers.
Hubb is in his third year as the starter and entered the game third among active power-conference players in assists. His role is not new, but Brey’s demands of him and his importance are areas he’s still grasping even as Notre Dame leans on him. The Irish will encounter games like Saturday where they’re not the more talented team, but Hubb’s electric ability with the ball is a threat to keep them in any contest when he’s operating at peak levels.
The same goes for Cormac Ryan, the former top-100 recruit and Stanford transfer playing in his first game after sitting last year. He made a pair of 3-pointers in the opening minutes, but was 0-for-6 the rest of the first half.
“Cormac and Prentiss are going to have to be risk-takers for us,” Brey said. “They’re going to have to force some plays to try and make some plays. We’re going have to live with some turnovers and stuff.”
Picking the moments to take a risk isn’t a balance suddenly figured out with the snap of his fingers. If the right moments to push it outweigh ones that backfire, Notre Dame’s in business. Especially with Hubb. Saturday, the reverse happened.
“You have to see it when it happens,” Hubb said. “Sometimes you have to go for it. other times, you have to slow it up. With the pace of the game, if we’re going really fast, I can see the team getting energetic and I see teams making their run, I have to slow us down and get us in something good.”
Fifth-year senior forward Juwan Durham, meanwhile, is tasked with handling the bulk of John Mooney’s vacated interior production. Brey played him for 30 minutes, the workload he’s expected to see game in and game out. He sought out post-ups early, seemingly trying to establish that he’s capable. But results weren’t there. He was 2-for-7 with four points and five rebounds.
“This was new territory, 30 minutes,” Brey said. “He was a 17 minute per game guy. His body has to get used to that a little bit. I love that he was going to the rim trying to get calls and get stuff. He has to continue to do that.”
Saturday, though, he was knocked back on his heels. So was Notre Dame.
The next game is a chance to get up and get right. Notre Dame had no tune-up before busing up to Breslin Center to play a top-15 team. No secret scrimmages. No summer school. Nothing. Wednesday’s game against Mid-American Conference opponent Western Michigan provides a nice path before a Dec. 8 visit from Ohio State. And if nothing else, Notre Dame is leaving its opening-night humbling understanding where to start.