Busting Brackets

Notre Dame Basketball: Can John Mooney lead Irish to NCAA Tournament?

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - FEBRUARY 16: John Mooney #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish shoots over Jack Salt #33 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the first half during a game at John Paul Jones Arena on February 16, 2019 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - FEBRUARY 16: John Mooney #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish shoots over Jack Salt #33 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the first half during a game at John Paul Jones Arena on February 16, 2019 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images) /

Notre Dame Basketball had a tough 2018-19 season. Can the return of John Mooney spur a bounce-back year for the program?

Notre Dame Basketball’s back-to-back Elite 8 appearances probably feel like distant memories for Irish fans. After making the NCAA Tournament three straight seasons, Mike Brey’s program has now missed the tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time since a three-year drought from 2004-2006.

(Credit to KenPom, hoops-math, and sports-reference for statistics and ACC Digital Network for GIFS)

Injuries and inexperience contributed to last season’s 14-19 record. Starting guard Rex Pflueger suffered a season-ending injury in December, and the roster ranked 318th in experience (among 353 teams) per KenPom.

The Irish should definitely be better than last season in 2019-20, but the path back to the NCAA Tournament will be far from easy. ESPN’s early projected Bracketology doesn’t even have Notre Dame in the First Four Out or Next For Out. If Notre Dame does manage to break through, senior John Mooney could be the main reason why.

John Mooney

The 6-9 forward was the team’s best player last season, earning All-ACC 3rd team honors. The former 3-star recruit’s game doesn’t produce many highlights, but he’s starting to garner more respect nationally (49th ranked player in nation per one ranking).

Mooney is a double-double machine, tying for 9th in the nation last season with 20 (UNC Wilmington’s Devontae Cacok 1st with 24). His top skill is rebounding, as demonstrated by his 4th best defensive rebounding percentage in the nation last season (30.3%). This skill translates to the offensive end as well.

1. Devontae Cacok  –  UNC Wilmington  –  33.5%

2. Tyler Bey  –  Colorado  –  32.8%

3. Nico Carvacho  –  Colorado St  –  32.6%

4. John Mooney  –  Notre Dame  –  30.3%

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Mooney also fits perfectly in Mike Brey’s “no-turnover” culture, posting the 100th lowest turnover rate in the country. Notre Dame has ranked 58th or better in offensive turnover rate in every season since Brey took over in 2000-01.

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Mooney’s ability to score, rebound and not turn the ball over is actually fairly unprecedented. From the 2007-08 to 2018-19 seasons, only two players have averaged >=14.1 points per game,  >= 11.2 rebounds per game AND <= 1.3 turnovers per game.

DeJuan Blair –  Pitt  –  2008-09

John Mooney  –  Notre Dame  –  2018-19

Offensively, he’s efficient from inside-and-out, shooting 66.4% at the rim and making 34-91 (37.4%) shots from beyond the arc. Most of his long-range shots are catch-and-shoot attempts, with 88.2% of his made threes being assisted last season. He’s a capable “pick-and-pop” big-man as well, making things hard for opposing defenders.

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In terms of isolation possessions, Mooney might be most comfortable starting from the mid-range area. 39.0% of his field-goal attempts were 2-point jump shots per hoops-math, so this clearly a significant part of his offensive game. The issue is that he only made 30.8% of such shots last season, so perhaps he should focus more on attempts at the rim or beyond the arc.

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It’s worth mentioning, however, that being at least a threat from the mid-range forces defense to guard him out there, setting up occasional drives to the basket like below.

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As his All-ACC caliber season proves, Mooney is a really solid player. In terms of areas of improvement, he should probably replace some of his mid-range shots with 3-point attempts. He wasn’t super efficient in the mid-range, and his 3-point efficiency last season warrants more than 2.8 attempts per game.

Mooney will need quite a bit of help if the Irish are to make a push for the NCAA Tournament. As discussed, the team should definitely be better than last season, but it’ll be a challenging (although surmountable) mountain to climb.

Random Irish Note – T.J. Gibbs

In many ways, Notre Dame guard T.J. Gibbs had a tough junior season. In what was his first year truly running the Irish offense, Gibbs did average 13.4 points and had the 34th lowest turnover rate in the nation. On the other hand, however, his 34.7% field goal percentage and 31.8% 3-point shooting are hard to defend.

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There’s reason to expect a bounce-back season from Gibbs, but providing him more spot-up 3-pointers could definitely help him out. The 6-3 guard shot 40.3% on 3’s his sophomore season, so the drop-off to 31.8% is definitely a bit perplexing. If one takes a deeper look, however, it’s not all that surprising.

GIbbs’ 40.3% season coincided with 91.4% of his threes being assisted. Matt Farrell, Rex Pflueger and others were able to create quality spot-up looks for him, and Gibbs took advantage.

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This past season, however, he had to do a lot of the ball-handling, resulting in more difficult off-the-dribble threes and less spot-up attempts. His percentage of assisted threes consequently fell from 91.4% to 62.7%. This doesn’t completely explain the 3-point struggles, but it’s definitely a part of the story.

Hopefully Gibbs can simply shoot better this season, but if not, drawing up more spot-up attempts could be a good way to build confidence in his shot and game as a whole. He’s shown signs of being a really strong spot-up shooter, and it doesn’t make sense to let this ability to go underutilized.