That turned in a hurry.
Barely three weeks ago after the Notre Dame men’s basketball team staggered to an 0-5 start in the Atlantic Coast Conference, there seemed no easy way back to break-even. But everyone had an answer for what ailed the Irish.
Fire the coach. Bench the point guard. Go with the freshmen. Start over. Do something to shake what had become the status quo of losing league games, and losing to ranked teams and just losing.
Now here we are at the midway point of the final full month of a regular season that few figured would be played without serious stoppage. Only seven regular-season games remain. That might be followed by the annual ACC tournament. Media received their tournament credential request forms last week with the wording of a “scheduled” tournament the second week of March in Greensboro, N.C.
It remains to be seen if we get there. As for everyone with those answers about this Irish program last month, they now ask one question.
Can Notre Dame make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017?
That’s how quickly everything flips when Notre Dame rips off wins in five of its last seven. Impossible becomes possible. A lost season might be found. The coach can coach. The players can play. Just when you thought this season was headed nowhere, it might go somewhere.
Following are five ways that Notre Dame (8-10 overall; 5-7 ACC) can keep everyone thinking basketball beyond this month.
Stay the course
Remember 10 days ago when the stop-score defensive stat became paramount? Yeah, scrap that. As WSBT’s Pete Byrne mentioned in a text message during the back-and-forth tennis match that was the Duke game, Notre Dame’s stop-score stat is more like score-score. Great line.
And that’s fine. Notre Dame can play average defense if it continues to be above average on offense. In the highlight clips that coach Mike Brey compiled for his team to watch pre-Duke, he even titled it, “Stay the Course.” When the Irish defend like that and score it like that, it’s beauty.
“Last four games now we have kind of played at a different level,” Brey said. “We’re playing pretty darn well.”
One reason is the Irish are back to being that offensive outfit of yesterdays. Going for 80 and 93 points in two road games, that’s the way this program long has played. Getting in a stance and grinding out 60-55 rock fights? That’s not Notre Dame.
“We gotta get up to 85 and 90 (points),’ Brey said. “I marvel at what we do on the offensive end.”
Now averaging 73.0 points per game, the Irish hit for at least 73 four times the first 11 games. Notre Dame has scored at least 73 in six of the last seven. That includes four games of at least 80. Brey said earlier in the year that there’s no reason why his five starters can’t all average double figures for points. It took 18 games, but all five are there and averaging at least 10.1 ppg. All have become secure in their roles. And their stats. Who’s hot? Find them. Who’s not? It will turn their way.
These guys can do stuff on the offensive end that few league teams can match. That will keep you in a lot of games, and win you a few more.
Ride this rotation
When coronavirus wiped out the back end of the 2020 spring semester and all of summer school, then forced the Irish into isolation for a good chunk of the fall, it buried the program under the proverbial eight-ball in terms of rotation cohesion.
How would the pieces fit? Instead of putting them together in the confines of Rolfs Hall, Brey had to do it between games. Sometimes during games. Did the Irish work best with two power forwards? Were they better suited to play four perimeter players around one central big? Who was a starter? Who was a reserve? Who knew?
Brey shuffled four starting lineup combinations to figure it all out. That doesn’t count a fifth lineup change when the head coach walked on the wild side and started two freshmen (Tony Sanders, Matt Zona) and a walk-on (Elijah Morgan) last month against Miami (Fla.).
Notre Dame is at its best with Dane Goodwin, Prentiss Hubb and Cormac Ryan on the perimeter with Juwan Durham and Nate Laszewski up front. Bring off the bench graduate student Nik Djogo for some jack-of-all-trades help and Santa Clara transfer Trey Wertz as a secondary handler/offense initiator. That’s it. That’s the rotation. All seven average at least 18.5 minutes per game.
It took longer than anticipated, but Brey finally got seven to operate as one.
“Those seven guys, when they’re in the right frame of mind physically and mentally, they’re pretty good together,” Brey said. “It’s really fun to watch.”
Go be cruel
After watching Hubb take over in the final minutes at Duke, Brey dusted off a word that’s sat unused in his quote closet for too long.
To describe the way Hubb worked, Brey used the word assassin. He’s used it before to describe many a former Irish. Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant. Demetrius Jackson. Steve Vasturia. Brey hasn’t used the term since the days of Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell. He used it earlier this year, but that was to describe guys on other ACC teams.
To go where they want to go and do what they want to do, the Irish can use more of that assassin-like mentality. Don’t be such nice guys. Be cruel competitors. It’s in all of them. We’ve seen it. How Goodwin went for 25 points in the first game against Duke and Wertz erupted for 27 against Purdue. How Durham has elevated his game to never-known levels. How Laszewski has become one of the league’s best shooters. Why Brey has compared Ryan to former Irish guard Ben Hansbrough.
It comes back to the team’s compete drills. It’s a two-fold exercise — to remind the Irish to guard, yes, but also to remind them to keep that edge.
“We’ve gotten physically and mentally tougher,” Brey said. “That’s rewarding to see.”
Of the 15 teams in the ACC, Notre Dame is one of only four to maneuver through the coronavirus minefield and not seen its season blown up. The Irish have had seven games affected by the pandemic, none by their own doing and zero since the Jan. 18 game at Howard was scrubbed. They haven’t lost a league game to the virus since Jan. 6.
Twelve league teams have been placed on pause or shut down for extended periods. Two future opponents — Florida State and Louisville — have been on extended shutdowns. Only Duke and Miami (Fla.) in addition to Notre Dame have not had any extended coronavirus issues.
Up until last week, it had been relatively easy for the Irish. Classes were not in session. The student body was home. The spring semester is under way and the students have returned. Temptations increase, especially with the Irish having been in off-campus isolation since basically before Thanksgiving.
“I really respect to date their discipline for us to be able to keep plugging,” Brey said. “It certainly gets harder with the student body back.”
The virus is getting closer following Friday’s news of contact tracing, quarantining and positive tests in the Irish women’s program.
Notre Dame needs to keep doing what it’s doing. Do that and get these last seven games in and the season’s already a success, no matter the end won-loss result.
This one’s the easiest of all, mainly because it answers the unanswerable question of what the Irish need to do to return to the NCAA tournament discussion. Don’t go there. Too early. Too unknown. It’s not a gray area, it’s pitch-black. Thinking about March now is an exercise in frustration and futility.
Just play. Just win. Of the seven remaining regular-season games for Notre Dame, four are against teams above it in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET). Opportunities abound for an Irish team at No. 66 in the NET.
With the conference tournament still sketchy at this point, the only way the Irish can feel good about what next month might mean is to run the table. Win out. String together seven more league wins starting Sunday at home against Miami (Fla.) and finish 15-10 and 12-7.
Do it and the math might make March matter.