A climb that commenced five weeks into the college basketball season has been slow, sure and steady for Notre Dame.
The only team in the country to go to consecutive NCAA Tournament Elite Eights the last two years, Notre Dame started the season unranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. Stayed that way the first four weeks of the poll.
That’s just the way coach Mike Brey liked it. Wanted it. Needed it. Don’t tout his team, he often said in summer. Just let them grow and develop and work in the shadows while others shared the spotlight. Even in town, Brey’s annually OK with letting all focus fall on college football before fans free themselves of that fog in mid-January, then wonder when the Irish basketball program got to be so good.
Notre Dame opened at No. 23 in the season’s fifth AP poll, then went to 21. It retreated to 25 following consecutive losses to Villanova and Purdue in December, then bounced back with jumps to 23 and 20, its current poll position.
It’s time for Notre Dame (16-2 overall; 5-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) to jump on that exclusive express elevator to a high-roller floor accessible only by key card.
It’s spotlight time.
When the new Associated Press poll is released early Monday afternoon, Notre Dame deserves to see its name in the Top 10 for the first time since the end of the 2014-15 season.
The Irish are a Top-10 outfit doing Top-10 things. They’ve won seven straight. They haven’t lost in 30 days and counting. They’re good. Play-deep-into-March good. Maybe even once-in-a-program special good.
No league in the country boasts of such strength from top to bottom as the ACC. It’s loaded like never before in its 64-year history. As the second full week of conference play closed Sunday, one league team remained undefeated.
Five league schools all sat above Notre Dame in last week’s AP poll. Duke was at No. 7. Florida State, No. 9. North Carolina was at 11. Louisville was 14 and Virginia at 19.
All have league letdowns. Duke fell to 2-3 in league play and 0-3 on the road Saturday at Louisville. North Carolina opened league play with a loss to lowly Georgia Tech; Florida State lost at Carolina. Louisville has lost at Notre Dame and at home to Virginia, which already has two league losses.
What separates teams this time of year? Conference play. Who’s been better to date in the ACC than Notre Dame?
That may mean nothing come league tournament time or Selection Sunday (now less than eight weeks away), but for today, for this week’s games at Florida State (Wednesday) and home to Syracuse (Saturday), it means something.
Among the Power Five conferences – ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and Southeastern Conference – Notre Dame was one of only six schools (along with Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Oregon) still undefeated Sunday afternoon with at least five league wins.
Four of those – all but Notre Dame and Florida – are or have been in the Top 10 this season.
True, Notre Dame is 1-2 against current Top 25 teams, but so is No. 6 Kentucky, which is 2-0 on the road in SEC play and has lost at home (to UCLA).
Notre Dame’s five league victories are by a total of 23 points. Three have been on the road, each in dramatic fashion.
Notre Dame won in overtime at Pittsburgh after trailing by five with 2:43 left in regulation, then again by five with 2:13 left in overtime. On Thursday, Notre Dame snapped Miami's 21-game home win streak after scoring 10 of the game’s final 11 points over the last 2:54.
On Saturday, despite no practice the previous day following a long travel day, Notre Dame ended Virginia Tech’s 15-game home win streak with a 76-71 win. The Irish led by as many as 19 points in the first half, and were up 14 with 12 minutes remaining. Notre Dame trailed by one, 67-66, with 1:52 remaining before scoring six unanswered points in 71 seconds.
Three league road games, three league road wins. Heading into Sunday’s matchup between Georgia Tech and North Carolina State, the other 14 ACC teams combined were 8-25 on the road in league play.
One of the many college basketball metrics now measures a team’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) for road/neutral games. On Sunday, Notre Dame carried a road/neutral RPI of 1 according to ESPN.com. No team in the country has played a more powerful neutral/game schedule. The average road/neutral RPI for last week’s AP Top 10 was 15.
Following Saturday’s latest magic act, popular opinion had it that there may not be a more underrated coach – or program – than Mike Brey and Notre Dame. It’s quickly becoming a feel-good national narrative.
But has anyone paid any attention? It’s been feel good for the last two-plus winters.
Wipe clean a forgettable 2013-14 season — Notre Dame’s first in the ACC — and this program has been elite-level good.
Since going 6-12 in its first ACC run, Notre Dame is 30-11. Duke is 28-13. Louisville is 27-14. North Carolina is 29-12. Only Virginia (32-9) has been better.
Of Notre Dame’s 30 league wins, an ACC-best 14 (tied with North Carolina and Virginia) have been on the road — seven in 2014-15, four in 2015-16 and three this season. The Irish have wins in 11 of 14 road arenas.
Road Dawgs, indeed.
Inside another joyous road locker room Saturday, Brey proclaimed his team the toughest group in the country for how they delivered the previous three days.
Time for the poll to reflect it.