Let’s play a quick game of “Name that season of Notre Dame basketball!” See if you can guess the Irish squad known for…

  • Terrific guard play and 3-point shooting
  • Spacing the floor and passing as well as any team in the nation
  • Struggling to rebound and defend in the paint

Stumped? Or have you #woke readers realized this is a rigged exercise? Because I just described almost every ND team since Luke Harangody graduated in 2010. And I especially just described the three most recent teams, which made back-to-back Elite 8’s and began this season 9-0.

The Elite 8 runs were led by brilliant backcourts – and each ended at the hands of teams (Kentucky & UNC) that ultimately overwhelmed the Irish with size. Even with Zach Auguste, ND’s most talented big man since Harangody, the Wildcats and Tar Heels dwarfed them. And yet both games were winnable. The Irish even took undefeated UK down to the final possession.

But in both games, foul trouble, easy buckets inside, and a maddening inability to grab defensive rebounds at key moments were the difference.

Then after this year’s hot start, ND dropped two straight very winnable games to #1 Villanova and #15 Purdue. In both, they gave away double-digit leads. In both – especially vs. ‘Nova – they squandered résumé-boosting wins and chances to throw their hats in the ring as legit Final Four contenders

And in both, ND showed, once again, that they can beat absolutely anyone when they’re clicking. But when they’re not… when the shots stop falling… when teams make defensive adjustments… the Irish are susceptible in a big (pun intended), all-too-familiar way.

Villanova’s Josh Hart paved an unobstructed sidewalk to the rim as he poured in 37. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue’s big man, got looks wherever and whenever he wanted on his way to 26 and 10. The Irish were out-rebounded, out-sized, and out-muscled in both contests.

This year’s team doesn’t have the NBA-caliber talent (Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton, Demetrius Jackson) of its predecessors. V.J. Beachem is a mid-second rounder, at best. They have a lot of the right pieces, though, and they know how to play together.

Point guard Matt Farrell is a human spark plug and one of the most improved players in college hoops. Beachem and Steve Vasturia are knockdown shooters and have valuable tournament experience. Mike Brey has an arsenal of 3-and-D guys off the bench and a knack for getting the most out of his teams.

Size matters, though, and the Irish simply don’t have it. Martinas Geben has been starting at the 5 – and bless his heart, but Geben’s top three strengths, in order, are: 1) fouling, 2) rebounding, and 3) fouling hard. With that probably in mind, Brey likes to move Bonzie Colson to the 5, where the 6’ 5” power forward creates a matchup challenge and has the athleticism to hang with bigger bodies.

But dammit, I can already see 8th year senior Kennedy Meeks snatching offensive rebounds from over Colson like the kid who hit puberty two years before everyone else. Except in this case everyone else hit puberty six years ago, and the Irish are still waiting. Roy Williams and Coach K are in the bathroom shaving, while Mike Brey is in the corner giggling at the sketches in the “Your Body is Changing” pamphlet.

As the calendar turns to 2017, we’ll have to see how Brey’s team manages its lack of size in the always-tough ACC. Coming off two of the most successful seasons in program history with comparably built teams, they more than deserve a chance.

But the gap – literal and figurative – between the Irish and the best of college hoops only widened with the departure of Auguste. And this year’s Irish don’t have a singular talent like Grant or Jackson to bail them out when the offense sputters. The close losses to ‘Nova and Purdue may have proved that ND has the potential to beat anyone in America, but viewed through a less optimistic lens, they also showed where that potential hits its ceiling.