When coronavirus issues remain relatively quiet and the Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball schedule stays status quo, game life comes at you fast.
How fast? On Sunday, Notre Dame was able to build off its most complete conference home game (a win over Boston College) with its most complete conference road game (a win at Miami, Fla.). The Irish did a lot right and there was a lot to like.
The Irish had mere minutes to soak in success. They didn’t get a chance to shower and change or breathe in a refreshing South Florida evening. They didn’t get a chance to enjoy the win (and likely a needed nap) on the long charter flight home.
They barely had time to catch their collective breaths in the locker room before coach Mike Brey already turned the ACC page. Great effort, great win, Brey likely told his team, but remember what’s coming next in the second of three league games over seven days.
That would be Wednesday’s home game against No. 20 Virginia Tech (11-3; 5-2 ACC). If there’s one league game that Notre Dame would like to have back, one league opponent that it would like a second crack at, it would be Virginia Tech. The teams met 17 days ago in Blacksburg, Va., when Notre Dame played a solid first half, then played a sorry second.
That was the night that the Irish led by seven at intermission after doing a whole lot well. They moved the ball and had 10 assists at the break. They shot 55.2 percent from the field. They knocked down five 3-pointers and scored 42 points. Everything they did right, they then did wrong. Notre Dame managed only two baskets — those over a 1:44 stretch — and finished 1-of-10 from 3 in the second half.
What had been workable/manageable seven-point lead flipped to a 14-point loss, Notre Dame’s most lopsided this season.
As good as the Irish (5-8; 2-5) felt the other night in South Florida, Brey wanted to make sure they spent the next few hours and days thinking about what awaited back in South Bend. The Irish were OK hearing less about the Hurricanes and more about the Hokies.
“I’m really looking forward to that,” said power forward Juwan Durham. “We let it get away from us. We’ve got to continue to play hard and compete.”
There’s that magic word again — compete. It’s been the program’s mantra since that loss to Virginia Tech, and subsequent setback three days later at No. 8 Virginia. It was after that second league loss that Brey delivered some cold truths. The teams the Irish had dropped consecutive league games to? They were just better. In all phases. They were deeper, more talented, tougher. Mostly, they just competed harder and longer.
That had to change.
It has. A daily part of the practice plan has been the team’s compete drill. That’s where guards go one-on-one against guards. That’s where bigs go one-on-one against bigs. The goal? Guard your guy and get a stop. Chest up the other guy, dig in and defend. Play strong. Play tough. Don’t let the other guy score. If you do, you stay in the drill until you don’t. One time last week, one Irish was in that spin cycle eight times before he got his stop.
“We needed to try and remind our guys that they do have an edge,” Brey said. “Nobody gets to this level of college basketball without being a competitor and having an edge about them. We’ve got to stick our nose in there a little bit in our compete drill every day the rest of the way.
“It’s kind of like therapy.”
Yet it only helps the mind and body and basketball soul if the Irish see an end benefit. In other words, a win. Brey wondered how his team would respond the other night at Miami, a night when he said would be “the rubber hitting the road.” Could they build on the success of the Jan. 16 win over Boston College?
They handled it. They built on it. It may have taken a drastic/desperate step by the head coach — benching all five starters because he didn’t care for their compete effort the day before that game. But the Irish still did something they hadn’t done in nearly a year — win consecutive league games. Now they’ll try to do something they also haven’t done in a year — throw together a three-game league win streak.
Wednesday offers Notre Dame the chance to snap a 27-game losing streak to ranked teams. It’s been too long since it beat a ranked team (Nov. 22, 2017 over No. 6 Wichita State). It’s been too long since the Irish beat a ranked team at home (Feb. 11, 2017 over No. 14 Florida State). It’s about time both those streaks go away.
Given what this team’s done the last two times out and given the chance to be better against a league opponent it’s already played, Wednesday’s the right time to do it.
“We get another shot at a group of men and athletic guys,” Brey said of the Hokies. “They put it on us in the second half. They treated us like the J.V. in the second half.”
The Irish want to show that they can carry varsity status. A two-game league win streak isn’t all that special, but winning three in a row and beating a ranked team? That’s cause for a little more optimism around a program that 12 days ago basically had none.
The Irish have done a lot since, but they’re the first to admit that there’s a lot more to do.
“We did take a step in the right direction,” junior point guard Prentiss Hubb said of Sunday’s win. “It’s nothing really major. We still have a lot of basketball to play and a lot of stuff to prove and we only have two (league) wins under our belt.”
A third would be nice. And needed.