Blue and Gold Illustrated

Nov. 27, 2020

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

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Page 46 of 55 NOV. 27, 2020 47 MEN'S BASKETBALL BY PATRICK ENGEL T he visibility ahead is limited to a few days, but Mike Brey knows at least one fact about his 21st Notre Dame basketball team. They have an edge that showed up late last season and is more pro- nounced this preseason. They're older. Stronger. Hungry. Still sore about an entire 2018-19 season and parts of 2019-20 spent as ACC punching bags. With that in mind, he set up a non- conference schedule that's the ulti- mate acid test. The Irish open at Mich- igan State Nov. 28, host Tennessee and travel to Kentucky all in the first two weeks of the season. That's three top- 15 teams. Throw in two December league games, Ohio State at home and Purdue on a neutral floor, and Notre Dame is going to learn plenty about itself before a month has passed. "We wouldn't schedule like this un- less you saw at the end of last year, the second half of last year, the light bulb go on for some of our young players, especially our junior class," Brey said in his first preseason Zoom conference. He understands, though, there's another opponent against whom the game never ends, one tougher to guard than Kentucky's star freshmen or Michigan State's men in the paint. It's the coronavirus. Brey, his staff and his players just hope to minimize the im- pact. There will be roadblocks. Games canceled. Player absences. Practice looks different. Road trips will, too. "I give our guys credit, they have been pretty darn resilient," Brey said. "Just coming in and understanding it, knowing we're going to be thrown some major curves. We're going to have games canceled. We're going to deal with it, be tough about it and move forward." That means vision in the here and now. Discussions about strength of schedules, ACC standings, must-win conference games and the NCAA Tournament ceiling are in the trash heap. In normal years, Brey allows his mind to mull all of those topics. In this season, Notre Dame's only going to get through the next five months by not looking ahead by even five days. "My feeling is your scheduling strategy for your résumé, that's all out the window," Brey said. "Stop, stop. Let's play, get our kids playing and hopefully we play most of the 27." There's the acceptance this is going to be a challenging, wonky, uneven year with obstacles largely out of Notre Dame's control. Two months of football in a pandemic and the more than 50 games postponed has set his expectations accordingly. Notre Dame will play some games shorthanded. The magic number is seven players, Brey thinks. It likely won't play some other games at all. Brey said the Irish have already had some players miss practice due to CO- VID-19 protocols and used assistant coach and former Irish player Scott Martin to play five-on-five. Players and coaches wear masks whenever they step into Rolfs Hall, and that includes during practice and scrimmages. They'll be worn on the sidelines during games, too. Once games be- gin, testing will increase to three times per week, up from weekly and bi-weekly during the preseason. "We're going to have disappoint- ments in our schedule and disap- pointments with guys unavailable, but we'll keep plugging and keep playing," Brey said. "My job is to keep them in that frame of mind for five months." In a way, the inevitability of can- celed games sparked Brey to load up the schedule. He may as well make the games count and make sure a group he believes in gets opportuni- ties to prove itself. Even if a couple marquee non-conference games are wiped out, there's plenty of juice left on the schedule. The résumé will take care of itself if Notre Dame is up to the task of winning some of those games. "I don't know what is going to hap- pen the rest of the winter after the first of the year," Brey said. "What are we like in February? Is there a March Madness? So to give our kids just an unbelievable experience — you've seen the non-league games that are out there. No one has ever had eight games like that to start the season." Junior guard Prentiss Hubb is the pulse of the locker room. Stanford transfer Cormac Ryan, now eligible, is a respected voice and an expected impact player at guard next to Hubb. As part of his task to fill John Mooney's minutes and production, fifth-year center Juwan Durham bulked up to 240 pounds. Junior forward Nate Laszewski also added some beef. The semester 's earlier start and season's delayed com- mencement gave players even more time with strength coach Tony Rolin- ski before practices started Oct. 14. No outside observer has laid eyes on any of the 20-plus practices. Ques- tions are still unanswered and have even less data with which to hypothe- size than is typical for this time of year. All that's known outside the pro- gram is the season will look different, from masked coaches to empty stands and hopefully a viable NCAA Tourna- ment to end it. Brey thinks this crew can be part of that 68-team field. Notre Dame has age and experience. Its nucleus has an entire Pringles can on its collective shoulder after taking the lumps for the better part of two years. Maybe there won't be too many lumps during the games if Brey is right about his team's potential. He's certain, though, there will be some with every- thing else. And he'd like to make sure he sees them coming as best he can. "You're really living day to day," Brey said. "When you think of five months and getting to March, that's a little too much to bite off, quite frankly." ✦ With all the additional COVID-related consider- ations, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey says his vision is only in the present. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS Rolling With The Punches Notre Dame is prepared for inevitable future pandemic challenges

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