Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 24, 2020

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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48 OCT. 24, 2020 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED MEN'S BASKETBALL BY PATRICK ENGEL A ll that's missing is a complete schedule. And, presumably, fans at whatever games are on it. Notre Dame hasn't announced its first game or ACC slate, but both are fast approaching. The Irish started preseason practice Oct. 14, and their season can begin as soon as Nov. 25. The schedule has only a basic frame- work: Notre Dame will play three ACC games in December. It will play at Howard on Jan. 18, as originally scheduled. It won't go to the modified Legends Classic. Kentucky coach John Calipari indicated the Dec. 12 game against Notre Dame will be played. All told, the Irish will play no more than 25 games. Before it plays any, though, coach Mike Brey and staff will try to answer these important questions. WHAT WILL CORMAC RYAN'S IMPACT BE? The Stanford transfer and former top-100 recruit is safely penciled in as a starter next to Prentiss Hubb in T.J. Gibbs' vacated spot after sitting out last season. Ryan is going to play, and if Brey sticks to his guard usage habits, play a lot. Expectations are projected high for what he can bring in those 30-plus minutes. He was a three-point specialist during his lone season with the Car- dinal, taking nearly 80 percent of his shots from behind the arc and mak- ing just 31.6 percent of them. Notre Dame will hoist plenty of treys this year, but it's counting on Ryan to be a complete guard if it wants to return to the NCAA Tour- nament. He's a sturdy 6-5 and 195 pounds, which has served him well as a multi-positional defender and rebounder. Can it help make him a go-to scorer, too? WHAT DOES NOTRE DAME HAVE AT THE FIVE? Fifth-year senior Juwan Durham will start at center, the same desig- nation he had last season. His us- age and importance will be nothing like 2019-20, though, when he was a defensive-minded big who could get away with quiet offensive games in John Mooney's shadow. This year, Notre Dame will push him to be a daily double-double threat. He showed physicality and post scor- ing ability in spurts last season, draw- ing an impressive 4.7 fouls per 40 minutes and making 56.8 percent of his two-point attempts. Becoming an individual creator in the paint and a meaner rebounder are his next tasks. Durham will consume only about 60 percent of the minutes at the five. Will one of the three-star freshmen big men, Matt Zona or Elijah Taylor, emerge as a dependable backup? If not, a small lineup with junior Nate Laszewski shifting to the five might be the only trustworthy move when Durham is out. WILL NATE LASZEWSKI BREAK OUT? The former top-60 recruit should see a bump in minutes and, presum- ably, scoring. Laszewski averaged 7.4 points in 21 minutes per game and is the favorite to slide into Mooney's vacated starting spot. For him to play anything like Mooney — Notre Dame's centerpiece and go-to for a bucket a year ago — he must become more than a 6-10 stretch four who takes a lot of threes but doesn't make enough of them (31 percent), even if he hit two buzzer- beating triples in victories. Two-thirds of Laszewski's shots came on three-pointers last year, but he has the skill set to do much more. He can face up and has an off-the-dribble game. He's a three-point or at-the-rim scorer, a good mix for a big man. Upticks in his rebounding num- bers (a paltry 3.9 percent offensive re- bounding rate, a decent 19.8 percent defensively) would help him account for more of Mooney's production. HOW GOOD CAN THE DEFENSE BE? Brey hasn't had a top-flight defen- sive team in a while, and that's not the expectation with this group. But it'll have to overcome the loss of its two best perimeter defenders in Gibbs and Rex Pflueger. Even with them last year, Notre Dame still finished 13th in the ACC (among 15 schools) in defen- sive efficiency in conference games. Gibbs, Pflueger and Mooney had the three highest individual steal rates for an Irish defense that wasn't great at forcing turnovers. Notre Dame is not going to foul its opponents much, but the defensive ceiling would rise if the Irish could generate more havoc. Right now, the lone certainty is Durham's shot blocking ability. CAN NOTRE DAME WIN A COUPLE MORE CLOSE GAMES? Last year the Irish went 6-8 in games decided by five or fewer points, which comprised more than 40 percent of their 20-12 season (10-10 in the ACC). Win just a couple more of those, and Notre Dame is in real contention for a tournament bid, especially if one was against ACC regular-season cham- pion Florida State. Two of those wins came against bad teams, courtesy of Laszewski three-pointers. An 8-6 record in those games would have been fortunate, but not fluky. The theory is close games are a toss-up, and records should largely reflect that. The best way to overcome any questions surrounding close games is to pull away and finish off opponents with a bit less drama. If the Irish can do that, it likely means the ceiling is higher than an- ticipated, and they can emerge from the quagmire that currently is the ACC's middle tier. ✦ Junior forward Nate Laszewski will be tasked with taking John Mooney's place in the starting lineup. PHOTO BY KEN MARTIN Notre Dame Begins Preseason Practice With Several Areas To Address

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