Don’t look now, but the college basketball regular season that everyone considers a marathon has become a sprint.
Notre Dame edges toward its finish with a constant side stitch that won’t subside. Its calves are cramping. Its knees are aching. Its mind is mush. Its resolve? Maybe a little rattled after Saturday.
The final full month of the regular season is more than half over. Many teams have only a half dozen regular season games to go. Selection Sunday — the ONLY day that really matters — is only 27 days away.
Four consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference wins recently allowed the Irish to dream tournament dreams. Maybe after a two-year absence, the Irish could and should and would do enough to snag one of the 36 at-large bids. Maybe a program that had looked so lethargic and oftentimes lost the previous two seasons had finally figured out. The Irish were getting good senior leadership. They were getting good guard play. The highly-touted sophomore class had grown up. Notre Dame finally looked like Notre Dame.
All that hoops hope offered a study in numbers and rankings and league standings and other metrics that determine a team’s postseason fate. What’s the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) ranking? How about the Basketball Power Index (BPI)? Even Mike Brey as recently as last week had designs on chasing down one of the league tournament’s double byes, awarded to each of the ACC’s top four teams in the final league standings.
Optimism ran that high in and around the program. Now? Ignore the NET. Bag the BPI. Burst any possible bracket and/or bubble talk. Don’t keep checking the standings and doing the math. None of that matters.
All that matters now is one number. Six. Notre Dame (15-10; 6-8 ACC) needs to win each of its last six games starting Monday at home against North Carolina (10-15; 3-11) to have any sort of shot at getting to the NCAA tournament. Even then, it might not be enough.
First, though, get there. Do what tournament teams do and win your final four home games. Do what tournament teams do and go get the final two road games against Boston College and Wake Forest, two teams with losing league records. Do what tournament teams do and finally beat a ranked team on March 4 when No. 8 Florida State comes calling.
That would be a huge leap. Notre Dame is 0 for its last 20 in games against ranked teams. Tournament-worthy teams get at least one or two or three of those, don’t they?
The Irish have talked a lot the last few weeks about having chances. Those chances are about exhausted. There’s no more maneuver room. It’s basically win Monday and again next week and the next or see ya.
Getting going at the best time may erase some of the lingering sting from Saturday’s 34-point loss at No. 7 Duke. It wasn’t that it was the most lopsided loss for Mike Brey during his tenure that cut so deeply. It wasn’t that Cameron Indoor Stadium again proved way too intimidating for a veteran team that shouldn’t be that intimidated. It was that when Notre Dame needed its veterans to show up and be veterans, to be composed, to compete, they didn’t.
A day earlier back on campus and still brimming with some semblance of confidence that Notre Dame might wrap arguably its most trying week of conference affiliation in school history (three road games in seven days) with a second win, Brey praised of his veterans. A lot.
“Our captains have done a great job setting the tone this month,” he said of T.J. Gibbs, John Mooney and Rex Pflueger. “They want it. They play the right way. They understand what’s on the line.
“They’re just very focused on trying to make a run at the NCAA tournament.”
They had funny way of showing it Saturday. Mooney was typical Mooney. He went for 19 points and nine rebounds. He would’ve locked down his 21st double double of the season and 42nd of his career had he not gone to the bench with six minutes left and the Irish down 29.
Gibbs and Pflueger have been around too long, have seen too much, have done a lot more, to both combine for as many points as the chemistry major/freshman/dork painted blue in the sixth row of the “Cameron Crazies.”
No baskets. No free throws. No points. No difference made. Pflueger’s on track to set the school record for games played. He can’t go to Cameron with no points his previous game out and again finish with no points. Gibbs is the leading active scorer in the entire league. Doesn’t matter if Duke guards him with all five guys on the floor at the same time. Surely he’s smart enough and savvy enough and old enough to figure it out.
Instead, both disappeared. It wasn’t their day. OK. Duke had a lot to do with it. But it’s time to make Monday their night. Even before the Irish charter home from the Triangle landed around 9:15 Saturday night, that loss had to be erased. Can’t let it linger if you want to end the season on your terms.
Six games — six wins — await. Notre Dame has a solid chance to triple its league win total from a year ago. It has a good chance to win double-digit league games (just win at home) for the fourth time in seven ACC seasons. It has a chance to muster a little momentum moving into whatever next season might hold.
All of that would be massive leaps after 3-15 last year. But without getting all six wins, it won’t be enough to really matter. Anything less than 12-8 — 11-9, 10-10, etc. — brings a March of, meh.
There’s the finish line. The Irish can see it. They can feel it. But can they cross it with one final, forceful kick?