SOUTH BEND, IN. — A loss was bound to happen eventually for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and they suffered their first blemish of the season on Thursday night, losing 81-63 to the Michigan State Spartans in the final game of the 2017 ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Just as the Fighting Irish were coming off of a tournament championship win, beating the then sixth-ranked Wichita State Shockers, Michigan State also found success in early tournament play, winning the Victory bracket of the inaugural PK80 Invitational against the then ninth-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels.
In their game against the Tar Heels, the Spartans showed dominance both defensively and offensively, which transitioned into their tilt with the #5 team in the country Thursday night.
Michigan State threw Notre Dame off their offensive rhythm they showed during the Maui Invitational, keeping them out of the paint, limiting their points on the fast break, and forcing them to take unbalanced shots. The Irish were no better on defense, as their transition defense failed to stop the Spartans, and they were out-manned down low with Michigan State getting too many second chances.
While it is one loss and it came from a team that one could argue is the best in the country, Notre Dame is starting to show us who they really are.
Here are three things we learned about Notre Dame in their loss to Michigan State.
1. No Depth
Mike Brey has always been known to favour using a small rotation. This year he has been using his main five starters with freshman D.J. Harvey, and forwards John Mooney and Elijah Burns coming off the bench. The only other times you will see three addition Irish bench players check in are if the games are out of reach for Notre Dame or their opponent.
So, don’t let the box score fool you.
Where the problem lies is beyond Notre Dame’s starting five. Their bench has become irrelevant, contributing only six points in the last two games; games against top 10 teams in the country.
The lack of production from reserves has forced Notre Dame to rely too heavily on their starters for the entire game, giving them minimal rest. Brey has not been able to take Bonzie Colson or Matt Farrell off the floor at the same time, as Notre Dame’s bench is not capable of holding off opponents while the starters take a breather.
If you look at the box score of Thursday night’s game, you will see that Notre Dame and Michigan State did in fact play the same number of players from the bench. The difference is that the Spartans’ bench contributed 16 of their total 81 points and had many players contribute in other areas like assists and rebounds while playing meaningful minutes.
Their reserves were still able to maintain that defensive intensity, and held off Notre Dame just as well as the starting five did.
Notre Dame’s bench scored two points.
If Notre Dame wants to be competitive in a tough conference that is the ACC, Brey is going to have to start giving more meaningful minutes to key reserves to get them more comfortable playing and involved with the game plan. Guys like Mooney, Burns, Torres, and even Canadian Nikola Djogo cannot be getting a combined 18 minutes of playing time.
Teams like the Duke Blue Devils, the Miami Hurricanes, and the Tar Heels will easily take advantage of a Notre Dame team that really only plays seven guys.
2. D.J. Harvey Must Step Up As Sixth Man
While he does get good minutes every game and a chance to contribute to Notre Dame’s offensive attack, Notre Dame needs more from D.J. Harvey.
As Notre Dame’s sixth man, he is averaging 6.9 points, 2.6 rebounds and 0.9 assists per game, scoring only seven points in the last three games and going scoreless against Michigan State.
For a guy that came into South Bend with a lot of hype and recruited by all of the blue blood programs in college basketball, D.J. Harvey started out strong, with his best game coming against the Chicago State Cougars in which he scored 16 points, but has slowly become a non-factor in the Irish game plan.
With him averaging about 19 minutes per game, Harvey is going to need to step up and give Notre Dame another scoring option in addition to Farrell, T.J. Gibbs and Colson. While Rex Pflueger did have a great showing against Michigan State, dropping 15 points, and three assists, he is still slowly becoming an offensive threat.
I know Harvey is a freshman, but if this is the role that Notre Dame wants him to play, he needs to mature fast.
3. Bonzie Colson Needs Help
It was evident even before Notre Dame and Michigan State tipped off that the Spartans had the advantage when it came to the front court. Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, and Jaren Jackson Jr. all highlight a scary front court that the Irish could not handle.
But the reason why they could not handle them is because their front court consists of only Bonzie Colson. While Martinas Geben has been improving, contributing eight points, five rebounds, and 1.3 assists this year compared to his three points and 3.4 rebounds he averaged last season, he is still not a big threat to other teams.
Geben tends to disappear during games, leaving the onus on Colson to produce down low. But it’s easy for teams to defend Colson when they don’t have to account for any other giants in the paint.
And as mentioned before, beyond Colson and Geben, Notre Dame does not get much production out of forward bench players, like Mooney, Burns and Torres.
If teams successfully throw Bonzie off his usual game performance like the Spartans did last night, with no one else to turn to down low, Notre Dame will be forced to hit their shots. Given the Irish can’t shoot their way out of every contest, they need guys to step up.
After last night’s loss, Notre Dame will move out of the top 5 and likely even out of the top 10.
But, after playing lesser competition for their first slate of games and then struggling against top ranked opponents, Mike Brey has got some adjustments to make fast or else, come ACC conference play, it might be a repeat of last night’s contest.
– R. Scarfone