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Notre Dame Men’s Basketball: Quick Season Recap and A Look Ahead to 2024-2025

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Well folks, for the sixth time in seven seasons, another March Madness period has come and gone with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball team sitting at home watching instead of participating. With the Irish in rebuilding mode following the downturn for the program in the final Mike Brey years, head coach Micah Shrewsberry continues to do his best to right the ship as quickly as possible.

And with UConn, Alabama, Purdue, and NC State all advancing to the Final Four this coming weekend, ND fans are certainly wistfully looking back on the golden years of the Brey era and wondering if their team is on the right track, and hopefully eventually headed toward being able to compete with teams like the above for the ultimate NCAA hoops prize.

With that said, let’s hit the highlights of the 2023-2024 men’s hoops season for our beloved university, recapping how an expectedly tough year went, what building blocks may be in place for future success, and then what Shrews and his staff will be working on in order to keep building the program back up into an ACC contender in short order. It’s certainly a happier outlook right now than a 13-20 record this past season would indicate on the surface, but there’s still a long way to go before we can entertain the notion of this program getting back to that 2015-2017 stretch of excellence.

The Ugliness Was Expected — So, There’s No Need to Panic

As a quick reminder to anyone who repressed the memories — the 2022-2023 Fighting Irish went 11-21 overall and 3-17 in conference play despite being an EXTREMELY old and experienced team. That performance, of course, led to Mike Brey stepping down and the Irish hiring Shrewsberry after a really nice run in March 2023 for Penn State under his direction.

From there, ND went through exactly the kind of attrition you’d expect from a team at a low point who was now switching head coaches. Blue-chip freshmen J.J. Starling and Ven-Allen Lubin transferred out to Syracuse and Vanderbilt, respectively, and freshman big Dom Campbell also bounced for a team more readily able to earn an NCAA Tournament bid (Howard). Nate Laszewski, Dane Goodwin, and Marcus Hammond finally moved on from college hoops, and Cormac Ryan took his COVID year of eligibility to North Carolina. Add in that two of the three recruits Brey had signed in the 2023 class asked for a release from their letters of intent, and Shrewsberry was basically starting from almost a bare cupboard when he took over mid-spring.

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The promising young coach did an admirable job piecing together a squad with transfers, his one-time Penn State commits, and in retaining the lone remaining Brey signee in hometown hero guard Markus Burton. But even with those moves, it was clear this team would need a couple years at minimum to get back to being a consistent threat to make the Big Dance.

And so it was especially no surprise how the majority of this latest season played out, and absolutely no reflection on Shrewsberry as a coach or what he can accomplish in South Bend. The team lacked offensive talent — especially when it came to creating/scoring/shooting, and with it being a piecemeal team built out of freshmen and transfers, the team chemistry was obviously not going to be perfect for most of this first run. The Irish faced some rough non-conference opponents early (Auburn, Marquette, South Carolina) and struggled mightily, but even had some rough games against lesser opponents too. An early loss to Western Carolina put that reality on display, and then a 20-point loss at home to The Citadel about a week before Christmas was likely the low point of the year and really made clear how far this team would need to come.

There was a stretch of ACC play when the team lost 7 straight, and of course they had a handful of blowout losses by 15-30 points. The Irish offense ranked in the 200-250 range of KenPom ratings for essentially the entire season.

We don’t need to say any more, but the gist is: it was a tough season and there were TONS of bumps and learning experiences and failures. But the key thing to remember is that that was wholly expected and explainable heading into the year, and certainly addressable as the Shrewsberry era gets into years 2, 3, and 4. So let’s not dwell on the negative, because there’s enough there to drown in from the last 6 years of ND men’s basketball.

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Notre Dame

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

A Newfound Focus on Defense Was Refreshing…and Paid Off Handsomely

One super refreshing change from the Brey era that was implemented almost immediately was a renewed focus on defense. This was probably partially because in year one, with that roster, Shrewsberry probably couldn’t do a lot of the things he likes to have his team do as the offense-minded coach that he is. So instead, he knew the one thing any basketball team can do and focus on immediately is just giving all-out effort on the defensive end, working hard to slow down competitors while needing to rely less on skills they might not have like shooting, ball handling, passing, etc.

This new focus on that end of the floor started to show early on, but also kept getting better and more evident as the year progressed and began competing regularly with better teams, as the Irish ranked in the top 30 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings for basically the final two months of the regular season. With a few teams obviously still playing, those rankings are not finalized yet for the full year, but the Irish are currently rated 35th defensively and thus pretty likely to finish right around there. Not too shabby for a team whose previous decade of defensive rankings included: 255th, 69th, 203rd, 100th, 107th, 68th, 61st, 158th, 99th, 185th. 35th nationally would be the best defensive finish for Notre Dame men’s hoops since the beginning of KenPom’s stats in 2002, with only the 25-8 2008 team coming close (43rd).

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Syracuse

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

That kind of performance on defense can help keep the team in most games, which is why the final stretch of the season saw the Irish looking competitive in almost every game they played, save a couple outliers. If ND can add a little more offensive capability to go along with a similar defensive effort, that’s how you quickly become a contender for the tourney and maybe even make a deep run in March, considering the teams who do so almost always rate well on both offense AND defense.

The Team Got Better Throughout the Season

The noticeable improvement as the season went on wasn’t just on the defensive end, however, and so that’s another key takeaway for all of us as we assess the long-term outlook for Micah Shrewsberry’s program. A young, often over-matched team could have absolutely wilted with the losses piling up, but instead we saw the team continue to bounce back and always keep fighting — whether it was a gritty early-season overtime win over a not-good Oklahoma State team just to get a win over a P6 team under their belts, or responding to that Citadel loss by blowing out Virginia two games later.

Later in the year, the team really got into a groove and began not only competing, but winning games — they won 5 of 6 as they neared the end of the regular season slate, including victories over future Elite Eight squad Clemson and over a decent bubble team in Wake Forest. The Irish also took down Georgia Tech in the first round of the ACC Tournament, sweeping the 3-game season series against them and earning the first ACC Tourney win for the program since 2021.

Furthermore, the individual players began to more consistently show flashes of real skill — Markus Burton was good from the start, but seemed to play more within himself and more under control as the year went on. Kebba Njie finally started to have some nice games down low after injuries and some rough nights earned him more than a few doubters. Guys like J.R. Konieczny and Julian Roper II and Logan Imes all started to find their games a bit and step up during some key moments, too.

Carey Booth did too, flashing fantastic potential, but as we learned earlier this week, he likely won’t be back for the Irish next season — he joined Matt Zona and Alex Wade in the list of Irish players hitting the portal this off-season.

And then, of course, there was Micah Shrewsberry’s son Braeden, who began the year as a trigger-happy gunner who didn’t seem to hit enough shots to justify either the volume, or his playing time. Through the first 13 games of the year, Lil Shrews shot just 26% from long range (20-of-77).

However, he really started to adjust to the college game, and by the end of the year he was absolutely deadly from long-range and giving Irish fans a lot of hope for the ND backcourt the next couple years between him and Burton — he shot 58-of-133, i.e. 44%, from three over the final 20 games of the season (bringing his season average up to 37%), including four separate performances when he hit 5+ threes. That was a marked improvement, and bodes very well for the rest of his career in South Bend and for the Irish having capable long-range shooters, which is of course a necessity in today’s game.

The Young Talent is Already Accumulating — Now They Just Need Further Development and Some Help

Despite the fact this team certainly needs MORE and BETTER talent, especially offensively and especially down low (doubly so with Booth’s likely transfer out), it’s now very clear after year one that Shrewsberry’s already started to put into place some nice young talent who will help drive this program to success over the coming years.

Burton, of course, is the headliner. He won ACC Rookie of the Year over plenty of blue chip guys from his class at Duke, North Carolina, etc., averaging 17.5 points, 4.3 assists, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.9 steals per game in his first season despite being one of the only real scorers and offensive weapons ND had (meaning teams could key on him and his small stature quite often).

If he can get a bit stronger and keep developing his three-point shot to become a bigger threat from deep (30% from long range in his freshman season), he will be a no-doubt candidate for All-ACC First Team over the next few seasons.

And he definitely has the makings of one of those ballsy, talented, experienced point guards who makes big, clutch plays in crunch time of exciting March Madness games.

NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at Notre Dame

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Shrewsberry looks like a promising starting shooting guard for the next few seasons, as we covered (and can be even more lethal if he can work on ball handling and continue developing his mid-range game and his ability to finish at the hoop), and forward Tae Davis was a revelation in terms of being a tough, strong wing who could make plays as a creator while also being a lunch-pail guy doing all the dirty work on defense and on the glass — somewhat of a Tyrone Nash for this new generation of ND player.

The loss of Carey Booth is certainly tough from a “promising young talent” standpoint, as he was the highest rated guy in the 2023 Irish signee class and flashed multiple times why that was the case this past season, with tantalizing length and athleticism and a streaky but occasionally “on” three-point shot. If he can keep putting on muscle over the next couple years, he will be a MENACE for other teams to try to contain as an upperclassman, and so it’s definitely a loss for Shrewsberry’s program.

However, along with Burton, Lil’ Shrews, and Davis, guys like Imes, Roper, Njie, and Konieczny all showed they can be capable role players — especially if they keep getting better. But their limitations also showed us that this ND program is going to need some more help to go from a 13-20 team who was new and fun and refreshingly tough, to a team with a winning record competing for the NCAA Tournament bubble.

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Notre Dame

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

So, Whom Are the Irish Targeting for Next Year’s Squad (and Beyond)?

Part of that help is going to come in the form of classic high school recruiting, with Shrewsberry and his staff focused on restocking the pantry with some nice young talent. The 2024 signing class is a nice start there, led by Top-100 combo guard Sir Mohammed.

The son of Nazr Mohammed, the 6’7”, 205-pounder from Charlotte is ranked 40th nationally by 247sports and 65th nationally in the 247sports composite rankings, and seems like a guy who can contribute right away when it comes to running the offense, distributing the ball to scorers, defending with some nice length/athleticism, and doing a bit of scoring himself.

Top-100 shooting guard Cole Certa, a 6’4” sharpshooter from Illinois who played at IMG Academy, will be able to immediately provide Braeden Shrewsberry with some help in bombing threes, and he looks to be able to handle the ball a little bit as well.

Top-150 forward Garrett Sundra will need to put on some muscle and develop a bit before being a huge contributor, but at 6’10”, the big man from Virginia may still be able to help early on just due to need down low. He will at least be capable of running the floor well, providing some rim protection/length, and stretching the floor a bit on offense.

That trio seems to be it for the 2024 class, but Shrewsberry and co. are also already hot on the trail for their 2025 class, going after a number of really nice prospects. They’re mainly focused on big men, with 4-star forwards and centers like Niko Bundalo, Trent Sisley, Cam Ward, Christian Gurdak, and Malachi Moreno garnering plenty of time and attention from the Irish staff.

There are a couple other key targets, though, including 5-star wing Jalen Haralson, who plays for La Lumiere not too far away from South Bend (same school as J.J. Starling). Haralson is admittedly a long shot just considering how highly-rated he is and who else is after him, but the Irish made his top 9 the other day and Haralson has visited ND a couple times now, so his interest seems sincere.

Indiana recruits like 4-star shooting guard Braylon Mullins, 3-star point guard Azavier “Stink” Robinson, and 6-8 small forward Brady Koehler round out the list of targets in the high school ranks.

Of course, in today’s game, arguably just as important as high school recruiting is Transfer Portal recruiting, and so it’s no surprise that Notre Dame is also looking at a number of potential targets to add to the squad for some immediate help next season — mainly down low, but also when it comes to experienced guard play.

The biggest emphasis early was on UMass transfer forward Josh Cohen, who showed plenty of interest and visited ND. However, he committed to Arkansas just last week, taking him off the board.

The Irish, like many schools, cast a wide net in the guys they initially reach out to — players that have reportedly heard from Shrewsberry and his assistants include SLU G Gibson Jimerson, Miami C Mike Nwoko, ECU F Brandon Johnson, Mount Saint Mary’s G Dakota Leffew, Drexel F Amari Williams, UC San Diego G Bryce Pope, Rutgers G Gavin Griffiths, Hampton F Jerry Deng, Hofstra G Darlinstone Dubar, Rice G Mekhi Mason, and Texas Tech F Rob Jennings.

Of course, Notre Dame “reaching out” to these guys, or any other Portal entrants, does not mean too much — usually you can consider the interest very baseline and just “kicking the tires” until a visit is set up, indicating mutual interest. For example, ECU’s Brandon Johnson just put out his Top 6 schools on Tuesday, which did not include Notre Dame (and it’s unclear if he ever gave the Irish any serious consideration).

Additionally, with the Transfer Portal staying open until May 1st, there will be plenty more really good players putting their name in between now and then, so in no way is this an exhaustive list of potential options for ND (nor is it necessarily likely that anyone listed above will end up as a serious transfer candidate at ND).

It should be interesting to see the next month+ play out via the Portal, though, as the Irish were already going to need to reel in at least one big man and were looking interested in guards as well. With Booth leaving, they may need to go grab two forwards to really bolster their talent down low, as it will otherwise be Njie, Sundra, and then guys like Davis and Konieczny having to contribute more to rebounding than may be ideal to ask of them.

We’ll keep you posted as all of this develops — it’s a near certainty that Shrewsberry and his staff will plug the holes in some way or another, but the level of talent he can reel in could make the difference between another losing season and a team who manages a winning record and maybe even finds itself as a dark horse bubble team.

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