Every time you think the Notre Dame men’s basketball team turns the corner, it backs deeper into it.
Sustaining success has been a struggle for the Irish, for myriad reasons. One issue that’s hard to ignore is that Notre Dame won’t play consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference home games until the final week of the regular season. Maybe. For the Irish, it’s been a lot of out and back and out and back. Even without many fans in opposing arenas, it’s difficult to sustain any semblance of a schedule rhythm.
The schedule hasn’t cooperated. League home games often have been afterthoughts. Play one, then don’t play another for a week. Sometimes two. Get one postponed, then another. Don’t have a makeup date for either. That’s not how this should work. But the Irish have had to make it.
Sure enough, less than 48 hours after returning from another gut-punch road loss — this team has had a few of those — guess where Notre Dame (9-11 overall; 6-8 ACC) was early Monday evening? Back on a bus headed back out to the airport and back to another road game. On Tuesday, the Irish wake in Louisville in preparation for an evening meeting with the Cardinals (11-5; 6-4) at KFC Yum! Center. It’s the second of three straight league road games over eight days.
Tuesday is Notre Dame’s ninth league road game, currently most in the 15-team ACC. As long as we’re at it, road game No. 10 — the last one — surfaces Saturday against Boston College. Tuesday also is the 12th game this season away from home — road or neutral site. Only one league team (North Carolina) has played more (13).
Notre Dame is 4-7 away from home.
“We’ve not had the best of luck with the cancellations of home games,” said coach Mike Brey. “It seems like I keep packing my bag every 48 hours. We are Road Dawgs, and here we go again.”
Road Dawgs, indeed. But in a way different way than when the nickname was adopted about 18 years ago. Back then, it was about going out time and again and winning. Now it’s about surviving. The league. The virus. The ups and downs. The everything.
If this recent run is an indication, Tuesday’s time for another of those didn’t-see-that-coming wins.
Notre Dame road games have followed a particular pattern since the Jan. 30 contest at Pittsburgh when it led nearly all night and at one time by 29 points. Next time out, the Irish were again up big but let it get away in a two-point loss to Georgia Tech. Next time out, a win at Duke. Take that, K. Then the Carrier Dome collapse.
Notre Dame’s due to play well. Due to put together a full 40. Due to decipher fullcourt traps and pressure and everything else. With March closing quickly, there’s no other option after Notre Dame led by 20 – 55-35 – with 16 minutes remaining.
For the Irish, that one ran 16 minutes too long.
What the @#$%@# happened? The Irish got careless, the Orange got confident and there went the 20-point lead. Afterward, Irish guard Trey Wertz simply shrugged when asked in various ways about how what had happened just did.
It’s a make or miss game, Wertz surmised. The Orange made shots. The Irish missed shots.
“I don’t know how else to put it,” Wertz said.
For whatever reason, these Irish are at their collective best when backed into that previously-mentioned corner. Doubt them, and they deliver. See the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Down by 15 early, how many knew that the Irish would roar back and win? Show of hands. Yeah, sure.
Brey said after that one that the Irish have been on life support so many times this season that last rites seem to be the only remaining option. Just when you count them out, back they come. Four times at Brey’s last count, everyone was prepared to pull the proverbial plug on him. On them. Do they have a fifth resurrection-like response where they wind up playing with the collective confidence that nobody showed in the second half Saturday in Central New York?
“We’ve done this before,” Brey said. “We have been pretty good on the road.”
The only consistent aspect of this program this season has been inconsistency. Just when you think you know, you don’t. Watch Saturday’s first half. Watch how the Irish moved and cut and shot it. It was beautiful basketball. It was what this program can and should and has to be. Play that way for that half in that building and there’s no reason not to do it again and again.
Why hasn’t it been done? Too many disappearing acts. By the main guys. By the head coach. By everybody. Everyone’s here one game, then somebody’s gone the next. Strange dynamic in a strange season.
It leaves fans beyond frustrated. One minute, they want to fire the head coach (not happening) and play the freshmen (also not happening) and believe the future is bleak (not quite). The next, like after the win at Duke, they dream of sneaking into the discussion for the NCAA tournament (long shot) and the days when they see a number next to the Notre Dame name (someday).
Then Saturday happens and the cycle restarts. Fire everyone (again, not happening) and start fresh. It’s dizzying. Just when you think Notre Dame has it all figured out, nothing about it or this season makes sense. Up is down. Right is left. In is out. A win is a loss. The Irish that look so good today don’t look so good tomorrow.
This season’s been hard for so many reasons. The Irish haven’t made it any easier on themselves. The coach hasn’t made it easier on himself.
Notre Dame likely isn’t good enough to get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017. It likely isn’t good enough to climb over the break-even mark in league play for the first time also since 2017. Maybe next year. Again. Maybe.
But say this for this bunch — they’re resilient. They showed it after starting league play 0-5. They showed it at Miami and at Pittsburgh and at Duke. Time to show it again Tuesday. Time for Notre Dame to get out of the corner and turn it.