Once a college basketball season that couldn’t end soon enough for one program finally did early last spring, one bit of business remained.
Upon arriving back on campus the evening of March 13, 2019 after being eliminated that afternoon in the second round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, coach Mike Brey and members of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team walked into an empty and end-of-year quiet Purcell Pavilion.
Brey led everyone toward the ND logo and shadowed shamrock at midcourt for a few minutes. That season had unfolded like none other — 14-19 overall, 3-15 and last place in the ACC, no postseason — so Brey planted an early seed for 2019-20.
Why do you think we’re here, Brey asked his players.
Blank expressions met the question. Nobody knew. Or wanted to say they knew. Brey plowed ahead, saying that if something was going to change, it would have to start there on that floor where opposing ACC teams have gotten far too comfortable in recent years.
“We,” Brey said, “have to have a better home identity.”
Notre Dame played nine league home games last season. It lost a school-record seven, be it by blowouts (27 points to Virginia) or close contests (two to Clemson). No league team finished with so few home wins. The Irish lost eight home games overall, most since 1992-93.
Many of the current Irish may be too young to remember when Notre Dame once held the mark for the nation’s longest home win streak (45 in a row from 2006 to 2009). That was back before Purcell Pavilion was named Purcell Pavilion, back when it was the old Joyce Center, when media seating stretched down one entire sideline and Duct tape held together some of the multi-colored seats in the lower bowl.
But these Irish are old enough to remember the program’s Elite Eight runs of 2015 and 2016. Those teams rarely let go of the rope at home. The 2015 team went 17-2, 7-2 in the ACC. The following year, they were 14-2, 7-2. Even in 2016-17, the last time Notre Dame made it to the NCAA tournament, Purcell Pavilion remained a tough get for visitors with the Irish going 16-2, 6-3.
That dominance has disappeared. The Irish were 11-6 overall and 5-4 in the ACC during the injury-marred season of 2017-18 before last year’s free-fall. And being better this year? Notre Dame was knocked back on its home heels by Boston College — a team that had never won an ACC game in South Bend — in the conference home opener last month.
Now at 10-5 overall and 1-3 in the ACC, Notre Dame still holds hope that this season can become something. That playing in the NCAA tournament isn’t as far off a dream as many insist. For the Irish to believe that and chase that, it’s simple — they have to win at home starting Saturday against No. 13 Louisville (12-3; 3-1).
This one will be difficult. Louisville’s good. Louisville defends. Louisville makes you uncomfortable. There will be no student body. No school band. No real juice. That means Brey might expend some additional energy waving his hands to get the crowd going. Same with associate head coach Rod Balanis. It’s up to the Irish to light the home fuse, and that’s often been a hassle at home.
What do the Irish think? Good question, one that couldn’t be asked or answered. No players were made available during Friday’s six-minute media session with only the head coach.
Winning at home in league play has been no given in this down season for the ACC. Less than two full weeks in the return of conference play, road teams are 18-13 in league play entering this weekend. Six of the ACC’s 15 teams have lost at least two home league games. Four league teams each have at least two league road wins.
There already has been a high level of road weirdness. That includes Notre Dame going into the Carrier Dome last week and getting out with an 88-87 victory over Syracuse. Earlier that day, Florida State won at Louisville. Earlier this week, PITTSBURGH won at North Carolina.
When it comes to homecourt advantage in this league this season, up is down and left is right and in is out. What once were wins then aren’t so certain now. But it can be Saturday for the Irish, who again feel good at home. Confident. Comfortable. More experienced.
That makes another Statement Saturday for Notre Dame all the more important. Protect home the rest of the way, and given how down the league is this season, that’s certainly doable. Notre Dame still can chase at least 10 league wins. That keeps everything the Irish want to do this season in play. Win Saturday and all the options open up. Slide to 0-2 in league play at home and there’s a growing sense that it’s again slipping away.
“This would be huge for us,” Brey said. “We need it bad.”
A win Saturday would solve two dilemmas for Notre Dame. Not only would it give the Irish a needed home win, it would give them a victory over a ranked team. Notre Dame has lost its last 17 against ranked teams. The last time Notre Dame beat a ranked team, Brey stripped his shirt and stalked into the locker room area of the Lahaina Civic Center with a lei around his neck following a victory over then-No. 5 Wichita State in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational Championship. The Irish rocketed the following week to No. 5 in the national polls. It’s been a long way down ever since that night.
The last time Notre Dame beat a ranked team at home in a regular-season league game? How about Feb. 11, 2017 against then-No. 15 Florida State. Maybe Brey’s karma odds are in the home team’s favor Saturday. Maybe this group can protect homecourt and win a big league game like it had done so many times in previous seasons.
Going back to the future sure would help the future.