The Notre Dame men’s basketball program is in a time warp from 13 years ago.
In 2005-06, the Fighting Irish experienced their first losing season in the Big East (6-10) since the turn of the century while finishing 16-14 overall.
Senior guard Chris Quinn enjoyed a sensational campaign, earning first-team All-Big East honors while getting out of the shadow from former backcourt mate Chris Thomas. Now an assistant for the NBA’s Miami Heat, Quinn parlayed that outstanding individual season — 17.7 points and 6.4 assists per game — into a seven-year NBA career that many might not have envisioned from the baby-faced basketball assassin.
It was one of the most snake-bit seasons in Notre Dame basketball annals, even though the team was quite seasoned with Quinn, senior classmates Torin Francis and Rick Cornett, plus juniors Russell Carter and Colin Falls — who would earn first-team All-Big East recognition the next season — as complementary pieces.
Unfortunately, the proclivity to lose close games resulted during a gut-wrenching campaign that saw the Fighting Irish start 1-8 in league play. A foreboding began in the league opener with a 100-97 loss at No. 22 Pitt in which Quinn totaled 37 points, including 16 consecutive for the Irish in a span of 3:27.
From Jan. 4 through Feb. 4, Notre Dame started 1-8 in the Big East (10-10 overall), and the eight setbacks were by a total of 26 points. In those final five games, head coach Mike Brey’s squad lost 67-65 at Marquette, 85-82 in double overtime at home to No. 21 Georgetown, 72-70 at home to No. 6 Villanova, 71-70 at No. 11 West Virginia and, finally, 89-86 in overtime at Louisville — after the Cardinals hit a desperation three at the horn to send the game into OT.
The campaign fittingly ended with a double-overtime setback at Michigan (87-84) in the second round of the NIT.
It was the third straight season for sixth-year head coach Brey the Irish wound up in the NIT, and years later the self-proclaimed “loosest coach in America” admitted he seriously wondered whether his tenure had run its course and it was time to move on elsewhere.
In the ensuing two years, the Irish would win 49 games, finish the regular season among the top 15-20, and the top 3-4 in the Big East.
Fast forward 13 years later, and a similar tumult is occurring for the 11-8 Irish who began conference play with 1-5 ledger. The new Quinn is junior forward John Mooney, who has averaged 14.4 points and a league high 10.8 rebounds per game. Meanwhile, the inability to finish in the closing minute has been acute in the three most recent losses at No. 11 North Carolina (75-69), No. 21 North Carolina State (77-73) and on Tuesday night at Georgia Tech (63-61). Similar heartbreak occurred in December versus Oklahoma (85-80) and at UCLA (65-62).
The tumult has included the loss of two senior captains in Elijah Burns (transfer) and Rex Pflueger (torn ACL), who was the glue of the team, another injury setback (ankle) to 6-11 center Juwan Durham, one of the nation’s top shot blockers who could be out for a few more weeks, and freshman guard Robby Carmody also medically redshirting (shoulder).
Don’t look now, but the next two contests have the Irish hosting No. 3 Virginia on Saturday and No. 2 Duke on Monday. A 1-7 start in league play would be the worst since that 1-8 beginning in 2006, which would also drop Notre Dame to 11-10 — the worst after 20 games since 11-10 in 2006 and 11-10 in 2014 (the year prior to back-to-back Elite Eight finishes).
There are no delusions of making the NCAA Tournament in this transition year that, barring any transfers, will have everyone returning in 2019-2020. The short-term goal is not about scoreboard watching but day to day progress in team basketball acumen, resilience, health (physical and mental) and strength and conditioning.
Instant gratification is not and will not be on this year’s menu. The five-man freshman class is the most promising of the 19-year Brey era, but especially crucial in the future will be the health of Durham and sophomore wing D.J. Harvey, who had to overcome microfracture knee surgery.
If lessons can be learned from 13 years ago, it’s that a trying, soul-searching present can sometimes still result in a beneficial future with the right mind-set and some blessed health.