Time to get back to basketball.
Following Saturday’s one-point loss at No. 5 Florida State, there was about a 40-hour stretch where it was about everything but scoring and defending and playing for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team. It was about public reprimands of the head coach and the Atlantic Coast Conference handing down a $20,000 fine for Mike Brey’s post-game comments. It was about ridiculous conspiracy theories of how the league’s officials have it out for Notre Dame because the school’s football program isn’t all in.
Whatever Brey’s motives were for his weekend outburst, they worked. His crazy-coach act shifted the spotlight away from what Notre Dame didn’t do — regardless of circumstance — in another close conference loss.
What do the Irish need to do better this week? That’s a good question, one that went unanswered Monday and Tuesday. For one of the few times during Brey’s tenure, the Irish hoops program closed down media access for the two full days heading into Wednesday’s game against last-place Wake Forest (9-10; 2-7 ACC). Doing so eliminated any questions about closing close conference games, about confidence, about winning at home, where the Irish remain winless in league play. Circle the hoops wagons. Close ranks. Keep those nosy/negative media creatures on the outside. Focus only what’s on the inside.
That’s fine. Honestly, we’re about out of questions for seniors T.J. Gibbs and John Mooney and Rex Pflueger before and after league home games. It’s all been asked and answered and asked and answered again the last few weeks. They’re tired of answering it and understandably so. We’re tired of asking it.
Something new needs to happen to inject some adrenaline into everything. And everybody. An offensive explosion like the guys in this program haven’t experienced. Pflueger paying tribute to one of his basketball heroes, Kobe Bryant, and playing Mamba-like. A career scoring night from Gibbs. Someone flirting with the second triple double in school history. Twenty-plus rebounds from Mooney. Ten-plus assists from Prentiss Hubb. Juwan Durham threatening Jordan Cornette’s school record for blocks in a game (11). A breakout night from sophomores Dane Goodwin or Nate Laszewski. We’ll snap up any of those storylines.
As Notre Dame (11-8; 2-6) embarks on its longest league homestand this season — three games in eight days — not much is riding on this stretch. Only the rest of this season and maybe the future direction of the program. That’s all.
Protecting homecourt — something Notre Dame hasn’t done since the start of last season where it’s a combined 2-10 in league games at Purcell Pavilion — the next eight days and the rest of this season would pull the Irish out of the bottom third of the league standings and offer hope that March may mean something.
With 12 league games remaining, including seven at home, there’s still a long way to go. That February road will mean little if the Irish don’t start winning at home. Get Wednesday, get Saturday against Georgia Tech when program great Kelly Tripucka goes into the Ring of Honor and get next week against Pittsburgh and 2-6 becomes 5-6 with some real momentum to push through the regular season’s final full month.
Protect home court and secure the last seven at home, then steal two on the road and that’s an 11-9 ACC finish. By no means does that put Notre Dame anywhere near IN come NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday, but at least it would be in the discussion.
“We’ve got a chance to make a little move here,” Brey said Monday during the league’s head coaches’ teleconference. “I love how we’re fighting. I love how we’re scratching. I love how we’re putting ourselves in position.
“I don’t think that will ever change.”
Brey’s long let that “loosest coach in America,” moniker hang above his head. It’s one that he tagged himself with for being as carefree and relaxed as anyone in the profession over the last decade. Look at him laughing in huddles during close games. See him cutting up with his guys in the locker room. What a cool dude. But don’t be fooled. As laid-back as he looks, Brey’s insides are going at Tilt-a-Whirl speed as he agonizes over every missed shot or defensive breakdown. Or missed opportunity to get a league win.
Though it’s worn on him, he’s been able to hide any lingering frustration from his players. Then came the Tallahassee tirade.
For the Irish to get going in the right direction, that weekend frustration has to be flushed. By the head coach. By the players. By everyone around the program. Close doesn’t count.
“It starts with me and my demeanor so it doesn’t carry over on to the court,” Brey said. “We actually talked about it when we got back here the other night. Just controlling your emotions. Overall, I’ve been pretty good at that through my 20 years of not letting them get the best of me.
“They did the other night and I paid for it.”
Has Notre Dame played better in the league than what its record says? Yes. A defensive possession or two against Louisville and that’s a win. A shot falls against Syracuse, that’s a win. Maybe Florida State’s a win. Then 2-6 becomes 5-3 and everything around the program changes. Instead, they’re searching.
For success in the league. For success in a close game. For a win at home.
One would go a long way to avoid another long homestretch.