End of the Road
Notre Dame men's basketball falls short in Round of 32
The Notre Dame men’s basketball team saw their season come to a close on Sunday, March 20th with a 59-53 loss to Texas Tech in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32. The 3rd-seeded Red Raiders closed the game on a 10-1 run to dash the Sweet 16 hopes of the 11th-seeded Irish.
After a Blake Wesley free throw put Notre Dame up 52-49, the Irish fell flat down the stretch. Two Wesley turnovers and a missed layup, paired with missed shots by Prentiss Hubb, Cormac Ryan, and Paul Atkinson saw Notre Dame squander a golden opportunity to advance.
Head coach Mike Brey’s decision to go to the freshman Wesley three possessions in a row – running him off a ball screen after a dribble hand off from Hubb – was a controversial one, and a decision that ultimately lost the Irish the game. After playing quality drive-and-kick basketball for most of the second half that allowed sharpshooter Dane Goodwin to get free and make some shots, Brey put the ball in the hands of his freshman phenom and sent him to drive into traffic against a much bigger Texas Tech team.
Hindsight is 20-20, but a team with six seniors – multiple of whom have scored 1,000 career points – should probably rely on this experience with their season on the line. Especially when the freshman star has been in a slump for the last month.
The refereeing didn’t help Notre Dame’s case in this one (see the two blatantly goaltending calls they missed), but don’t get me started on refs. They’ve been bad all year.
But despite the disappointing loss, Notre Dame’s season can be viewed as nothing but a success. After finishing under .500 both overall and in the ACC a year ago, the Irish turned things around in a dramatic way, finishing second in the ACC this season with a conference record of 15-5 and an overall record of 22-10.
They earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017 and won their First Four game in an instant classic against Rutgers. The Irish, behind 26 points from Atkinson, outlasted the Scarlet Knights in double overtime by a score of 89-87 in a game that extended past midnight and into St. Patrick’s Day. After hopping on an overnight flight to San Diego, Notre Dame played again on Friday and upset Alabama by a score of 78-64. Cormac Ryan led the way with 29 points while shooting 7-9 from three-point range. Wesley chipped in 18 points, and Atkinson added 13 points and eight boards. It was a comprehensive team effort, and it sent the Irish to the Round of 32 where they fell to Texas Tech.
Looking ahead to next season, it will be very interesting to see who decides to return to South Bend. Notre Dame currently has six players on the roster who are eligible to come back for a fifth year in 2022-23. Hubb, Goodwin, Ryan, Nate Laszewski, Trey Wertz, and Robby Carmody can all don the Notre Dame uniform again next year if they so choose. However, if all six decide to return, then the Irish are one scholarship over the limit of 13.
But this doesn’t seem likely. Hubb indicated that this was his last year at Notre Dame on Selection Sunday, and it seems unlikely that Carmody will play again given that he hasn’t taken the floor since December 2019 due to a string of injuries. To be blunt, none of these six are NBA-ready players, so they will either stay or transfer. I guess we will find out.
That brings us to the topic of Wesley. At one point this season he was projected as a first round NBA Draft pick, but given the way he finished the year, his stock has only dropped since then. A recent NBA Mock Draft has him being picked 20th, but I find it hard to believe that he would go in the first round after the way he closed the year.
If I am Mike Brey, I am citing the progression of Jaden Ivey at Purdue in any discussion with Wesley. Ivey, whose mother Niele happens to be the Notre Dame women’s basketball coach, went from a fringe first round prospect to a surefire lottery pick by returning for his sophomore season at Purdue. If Brey can convince Wesley to do the same, the backcourt of Wesley and incoming freshman JJ Starling could be the best in the ACC and significantly bolster Wesley's draft stock. That being said, I can't blame him if he chooses the money.
Beyond this, Notre Dame will need to monitor the transfer portal again. Atkinson, for whom Brey is attempting to get a sixth-year waiver, was a great find and helped propel the Irish to the postseason. Maybe there is another good fit out there, preferably another big man.
But before we completely move on to the 2022-23 season, let’s take a moment to appreciate what the Irish accomplished this year. It is by no means the pinnacle, but it is a great step in the right direction to get Notre Dame basketball back to relevance. It might just have been a job-saving season for Brey.