Today is the day that Rutgers men’s basketball takes on Notre Dame in the First Four round of the NCAA Tournament! The two No. 11 seeds will play at 9:10 p.m. ET in Dayton, Ohio and the game will air live on truTV.
To gain a better understanding of the Irish, who finished in second place in the ACC this season, I was fortunate to speak with Patrick Sullivan, who is an editor for SB Nation’s Notre Dame site, One Foot Down. He gave great insight on the roster, trends with this team, keys to the Irish clicking compared to why they struggle, the vibe of the fan base ahead of this old school Big East matchup and much more. This is definitely one of the best Q&A’s I’ve ever done with another SB Nation site and highly recommend you read what Patrick has to say about Notre Dame basketball ahead of tonight’s game.
AB: It appears Notre Dame is reliable in the sense they have beaten teams they are better than on paper but struggle to win against top competition with the exception of that December win over Kentucky. Is that a fair assessment and if so, what’s the ceiling for this team?
PS: I think you nailed it with that assessment. There’s a reason — other than the ACC just being down in general — that the Irish were able to go 15-5 and finish 2nd in the conference and still manage to be the last team to make it into the NCAA Tournament field. They took care of just about all of the bad/mediocre teams they faced this season, especially in conference play. But almost every time they were met with an opportunity for a nice win over a tourney/bubble-caliber team, they choked it away by either surrendering a lead down the stretch (St. Mary’s, Indiana, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest) or never really showing up at all (Duke, Illinois). If it weren’t for that Kentucky game in December and the UNC and Miami games in January and February, ND would’ve had legitimately nothing to point to as a good win and would have been left out of the field completely.
Thus, I think it’s safe to say the ceiling is pretty limited for a team that, on paper heading into the year, should have had a lot higher ceiling considering the 6 seniors/grad students in the rotation and the freshman phenom Blake Wesley added into the mix. They’re a team that probably won’t get blown out and certainly has the offensive firepower to pull off a nice win if they’re feelin’ it, but for the most part they’re not a particularly tough or defensively-minded team, don’t exactly have oodles of athleticism, and are more likely to come up short against tourney-level competition than not.
I think there’s about a 50/50 chance they can beat Rutgers, just because Rutgers appears to be inconsistent enough that maaaaaybe the Irish catch them on a bad day (although if they get the good version of Rutgers, I’ll take Rutgers 8 out of 10 times in that scenario). But even if they get past the Scarlet Knights, I just don’t see the Irish making any sort of run against teams like Alabama and Texas Tech, who will have the athletes and defenders necessary to give them trouble, force them to go on long scoring droughts, etc. I think the absolute ceiling is winning one or two games before being unceremoniously knocked out, but I guess weirder things have happened in March.
AB: Blake Wesley has been a difference maker for this team. How vital is he to the success on the offensive end and for them overall? What makes him so effective and what are factors that gives him trouble?
PS: He’s been a game-changer, just because he brings an athleticism, aggression, and skill set that no one else on the Notre Dame team really has. This Irish roster is full of guys who are good spot-up shooters (Dane Goodwin, Nate Laszewski, Cormac Ryan, Trey Wertz) plus a natural distributor in Prentiss Hubb and reliably-good low-post guy in Paul Atkinson Jr. Wesley is the only one who can really create his own shot off the dribble, breaking his defender down and driving into the lane to either attack the hoop and/or dish it to an open teammate when the defense collapses on him. He’s just a long, quick, gifted slasher who is a good (not great) finisher at the rim and has just enough ball handling ability to be pretty effective.
With that said, he’s been prone to making some freshman mistakes with his drives to the hoop, especially of late. He’s not always able to make the right shoot/pass decision when charging into the paint, and oftentimes settles for three-pointers despite hitting just 32% from long range on the season. And, he leads all Irish perimeter players in turnovers, which is going to happen when you’re handling the ball so much, but can be a problem when he gets a bit out of control and sloppy with his drives to the hoop.
Overall, Wesley is absolutely key to ND’s success. Without him, the shooters are less open, the big guys get fewer open layups, and there’s no go-to-guy when a big bucket is needed (and then it becomes “let’s hope Prentiss Hubb’s fadeaway, contested three goes in” time). Furthermore, he’s a pretty good defender and has a knack for using his long arms to deflect passes and occasionally pick people’s pockets, so it’s a worse ND defense and fewer forced turnovers and transition opportunities as well without Blake Wesley on the floor.
AB: How much does Notre Dame live and die by the three-point shot? When they aren’t shooting well, are they able to overcome it and if so, how do they do it?
PS: I wouldn’t say they COMPLETELY live or die by the three just because they still have Wesley’s slashing ability, Atkinson’s low-post offense, and Goodwin’s mid-range game to fall back on (and they’re barely top 100 nationally in total three-point attempts), but I’d also be lying if I said the Irish can easily or typically find success without the three-point shot. It’s a pretty critical part of their offense, keeping the paint open for Wesley and Atkinson by spreading the defense out and forcing them to respect all the shooters around the perimeter, with ND oftentimes going 4-around-1 with Atkinson down low or even going with Laszewski and 4 guards, giving ND 5 capable three-point shooters on the floor at once.
Notre Dame is 16th in the country in team three-point percentage at 38% as a team, with Laszewski (46%) and Goodwin (44%) leading the way and Ryan (39%) and Wertz (39%) serving as nice complementary shooters. Then, Hubb and Wesley are your typical streaky high-confidence guys — they both shoot 32% from deep but won’t let that stop them from launching, and if they’re feeling it, they’ll look like 50% shooters on those nights (and on their bad nights, will look like 15% shooters).
The Irish are 32nd in the nation in 3-pointers made per game at 9.2 (averaging 10.2 made threes in wins and 6.9 in losses), and are 14-1 in games where they hit 10+ threes — meaning they’re 8-9 in all other games. That’s kind of intuitive, considering 30+ points from three-point land means any team getting that is probably shooting pretty well, but the fact the Irish have a losing record when not getting 30+ points from deep means Rutgers can really improve their chances in this one by running Notre Dame off the three-point line and forcing them to win with twos, or at least forcing them to hit contested shots. At that point, Mike Brey will probably try to run the offense through Paul Atkinson Jr. post-ups and getting Wesley ball screens so he can drive to the hoop, but those aren’t always consistent options and need the threat of the three to help them find the room they need to maneuver.
AB: From what you know of Rutgers, do they compare to any team Notre Dame has played and how have they done against more physical teams this season?
PS: I’m not sure there’s a perfect comparison, but the Irish have played some teams that muck it up a bit with good, physical defense and less of a reliance on beautiful offense — teams like Saint Mary’s, Virginia Tech (although they’ve got the potential for very efficient offense at times), Texas A&M, Florida State, etc. And to answer the second half of your question...
Besides teams that have stellar big men like Duke, Illinois, etc., any physical/athletic/tough-defending team is the worst type of matchup for the Irish, just because ND isn’t an inherently tough or physical team and that style can really make them uncomfortable, push them off their game, etc. All those similar teams I mentioned above, as you might have noted, are teams that Notre Dame went winless against this season.
Of course, the Irish are a pretty good free throw shooting team, so fouling them a lot won’t help, but as long as you can get away with it, hounding ND players and winning the physical battle defensively and on the boards is exactly how a team can defeat or even dominate the Irish. They don’t want to play that kind of game, and the results so far this year speak for themselves.
AB: When Notre Dame plays at their best, what is clicking for them? When they are struggling, what are typically the biggest issues?
PS: At their best, this Notre Dame team takes care of the ball (tied for 23rd nationally in turnovers per game — 10.3) and uses good ball movement and an early establishment of a post presence (Atkinson) to find open shooters and knock down threes. Simultaneously, Wesley and Hubb are breaking their man down off the dribble and getting into the lane (poised and under control), forcing defenses to either help off shooters or give them layups. Meanwhile, the Irish defense isn’t stifling by any means, but they get stops more often than not and absolutely clean up the defensive glass, allowing few second chances for the opponent. They’ll force a few turnovers to get some points in transition when possible, but also won’t be a super up-tempo team by any means.
When struggling, it’d be simplest to say it’s the exact opposite of the above. The Irish get sloppy with the ball, don’t establish any sort of inside game with Atkinson, and fail to penetrate into the lane in order to set up lots of open threes. Instead, there’s a little less ball movement, more forced threes (especially early in the shot clock), and their shooters often miss the good opportunities they DO get. Drives to the hoop from Wesley and Hubb are a little more erratic and end in blocked shots, wild misses, and turnovers. And defensively, the Irish not only fail to string together any significant amount of stops, but they give up 2nd and 3rd and 4th chances via opponents’ offensive boards, erasing any stops they do get and giving their opponents every opportunity to build a big lead that the Irish won’t be able to come back from, no matter if they eventually catch fire offensively or not.
Your guess is as good as mine as to which Notre Dame will show up. If I was forced to predict, I would say we will see some of both, with the struggling Irish either showing up early and forcing the good Irish to try to come back (which usually ends with a close loss), or showing up mid-game with some classic Irish scoring drought that allows Rutgers to pull ahead down the stretch and win by 8-10 points in the end.
AB: What is the general feeling from Notre Dame fans about this game? Any nostalgia or care in playing a former Big East foe? Does having the opportunity to beat a Big Ten team make it more fun or a bigger deal locally?
PS: I think it’s equal parts relief (that ND made the Tournament — even the play-in game — after 4 straight seasons of missing it), pessimism (I can’t imagine most Irish fans are very confident in this team winning any tourney games), and a “prove it” attitude, considering this team has largely not shown up against the good teams and instead made it here based on just taking care of business against meh teams. ND fans won’t believe until they really see these guys pull it all together.
As for how Irish fans feel about Rutgers as an opponent, there may be a little nostalgia about a former Big East foe, although during ND’s time in the Big East, Rutgers really was mostly an afterthought (and some years, ND was too). I think when Irish fans think wistfully back to the Big East days, they think about battles with Pitt and UConn and Louisville, etc. I honestly can’t remember many memorable matchups with Rutgers during those days, although I’m sure there were one or two. And I guess the Big Ten matchup is sort of fun locally considering all the IU and Purdue and other Big Ten fans in the area, but I wouldn’t say it adds a ton.
I think more than anything Irish fans are just excited to see their team face another good team in an NCAA Tournament game, because they’ve been missing that for years now and that was really tough after such a nice run from Brey and the boys from 2015-2017.
AB: Do you expect a big turnout in Dayton from Irish fans? How much fun is it as a Notre Dame fan is it to play in March Madness on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day? Any personal routine or plan for this year’s celebration?
PS: I think there will be a decent contingent there just because Dayton is so close to Indy, Cincy, and other Midwest cities that probably have a decent number of Irish fans nearby, but considering this basketball program hasn’t made a tournament since 2017 and this time they BARELY made it, I wouldn’t expect any sort of huge turnout for a team a lot of ND folks don’t care too much about, even in good times (the unfortunate effect of being a football school).
I will say it’s fun to play on St. Paddy’s Day Eve and the holiday certainly drums up memories of past years when the Irish had some success around this time of year (I can remember being at a bar in Chicago in 2015 for St. Patrick’s Day while the Irish won the ACC Tourney, and it’s a wonderful, hazy, Hamm’s-soaked happy memory), but considering this ND team just hasn’t managed to feel all that magical or wildly fun this year, I’m not sure I’m all that pumped about it aside from it just being ND’s first tourney appearance in years. The holiday isn’t adding much for me, but that might also be because all the holiday festivities happened last weekend (at least here in Chicago, where I live).
Personally, I’ll just be watching from my couch, covering the game for OFD and probably drinking some bourbon or beer or something in honor of my namesake — but it won’t be anything too wild for a play-in game, at least on my side.
AB: What is your prediction for this game, what are the keys for Notre Dame and how confident are you in making it?
PS: I believe Rutgers will win this by a final score of something like 71-66.
I think the keys for ND will be to not come out flat and dig themselves into a huge hole early, and also to not settle for bad shots from deep just because it’s tough to attack the hoop against a physical, defensive-minded team. Also, the Irish NEED to rebound, especially defensively, if they want to win this game. And they’ll need two of their three All-ACC honorees (Wesley - 2nd Team, Goodwin - 3rd Team, Atkinson - Honorable Mention) to have really good games, unlike the ACC Tourney showing against VaTech (they got about 0.5 good performances from the three combined).
Unfortunately, I’m not super confident in this team doing all of that. I don’t think they’ll get blown out or anything, but I do think they will probably start a little flat, make a 2nd half run to close the gap, but ultimately fall short. That’s been this team’s M.O. all year and I see no reason it will change now, other than a tiny bit of hope in my heart stemming from the idea that this ND team always plays best when no one believes in them and they’re expected to fold. It happened after the Maui Invitational, it happened after the Boston College loss, it happened after the IU loss, it happened after a near-loss to Howard, and it happened after the Duke loss — the Irish responded with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove, and played a great next game.
I don’t think that’s necessarily going to happen tonight, but that’s a reason for Irish fans to believe — and as I always say over on OFD about this basketball program: BELIEVE IN SOMETHING!!!
Thanks so much to Patrick for giving such great insight on Notre Dame basketball ahead of tonight’s NCAA Tournament First Four game against the Scarlet Knights. You can follow him on Twitter here. For complete coverage of Notre Dame athletics, visit One Foot Down here. To read my answer’s to Patrick’s questions about Rutgers basketball, click here.