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Former NBA champion believes Notre Dame men’s basketball is in good hands

One part of one practice one day last fall was enough for former Notre Dame basketball player John Paxson to come to one conclusion.

The future of the program is in good hands under head coach Micah Shrewsberry.

Last year’s record (13-20; 7-13) may not inspire optimism among the Irish, but Paxson was there and saw enough in the game to understand that the foundation for future success had been laid.

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It started with that training in September at Rolfs Hall. Pax had little in common with Shrews other than their NBA background, but it didn’t take long for the former Irish guard to understand the man in charge of the current Irish guard.

Paxson knew little about Shrewsberry that day he walked into Rolfs and left knowing more. And he loved what he learned.

“The first thing that struck me was how good of a teacher he is,” said Paxson, who was on campus for a non-basketball event late last month. “He knows how to teach.”

Paxson watched as Shrewsberry outlined a specific defensive drill he wanted his boys to do. He talked. They listened. Then they went to work. The teaching aspect stood out because teaching in today’s basketball, especially in today’s NBA, is a lost art.

There are too few teachers. Shrewsberry, Paxson discovered, is a teacher.

“To me, that’s a good sign for the future,” Paxson said.

Like Shrewsberry guiding a young team through difficult and often unsettling waters early in the year. Notre Dame wasn’t particularly good in November and December and part of January. As February approached and unfolded and became March, Notre Dame looked like a legitimate team while winning six of its last ten.

That’s not nothing. That is something.

“They struggled early, but they found their groove,” Paxson said. “They played hard, connected and together.”

That’s hard: staying connected and staying together. Especially in college basketball 2024, where a head coach’s roster can, and sometimes does, change completely from one season to the next. There is always something to tackle – game time, NIL, transfer portal – sometimes all of the above on a given day.

“I wouldn’t want to navigate through this portal and NIL and everything else,” said Paxson, a two-time All-American who graduated in 1983. “It must be so hard to try to develop young kids and then they can be gone in a year (Carey Booth).

“It’s crazy.”

So crazy that Paxson watches college basketball and wonders what the game will ultimately be like. Forget 10 years. What is college basketball – what are college athletics – In five years? In two years?

Whatever it is, it’s probably not healthy.

“None of this is good for college athletics,” Paxson said of the likelihood of pay for playing slowly becoming a reality. “I don’t know how it’s sustainable and I don’t know how coaches want to stay in this thing for decades if you’re constantly having to find ways to build a roster.”

Mike Brey was in it for decades. He coached at Notre Dame for 23 years and left after the 2022-2023 season as the most successful coach (483 wins) in program history. He won in the Big East. He won the Atlantic Coast Conference. He won with rosters that did not contain top talent, but did produce top results.

There was no greater admirer than Paxson.

“He got the best out of his kids,” Paxson said. “He was as good an ambassador for the university and the basketball program as anyone. He was the type of guy I would like to play for.

“That’s not a knock on Digger (Phelps) either.”

As for Shrewsberry and the Irish, Paxson will continue to watch — and root for — from his home in suburban Chicago. He might come over for training or a match, but he doesn’t want to be a burden. If Shrewsberry needs advice, Paxson will give it. If not, that’s cool too.

“I just want to support him,” Paxson said. “My experience tells me he will be successful.”

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on X (formerly Twitter): @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.