When the journey dives in a direction that nobody saw coming, a topic that had long been taboo becomes a talking point.
Maybe chasing it can get everything back on track.
That’s where the Notre Dame men’s basketball team is heading into Saturday’s game at No. 20 Clemson. The Irish (13-6; 3-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) have played well enough to win but haven’t in two weeks. Close doesn’t count when building an NCAA tournament-worthy resume.
Typically at this time of year, any of that talk around Notre Dame is met with silence. From coach Mike Brey. From the players. There’s too much basketball remaining to ponder such scenarios. Don't wonder about what ifs. Don’t talk about it. Just keep working and winning and it would take care of itself.
It did. Notre Dame did enough the last three years to never sweat March. It won double-digit league games and earned double byes in the year-end conference tournament. It was a top-four team in the nation’s toughest league. It even won a conference tournament to secure the first automatic bid in school history.
This year may be way different. The Irish dreamed in the fall of chasing an ACC regular-season championship. That’s probably not going to happen. They dreamed of a top-four finish and another double bye. That’s also likely an option fading fast.
Injuries and inconsistency in close contests have forced Notre Dame to take a long look at the big basketball picture. Following two soul-crushing conference losses at home by a total of five points, including Tuesday’s double-overtime downer against Louisville, Brey strayed far from the script.
He skipped ahead to the end. He publicly acknowledged that Notre Dame has to win at least six more league games to have any chance of getting back to the NCAA tournament a fourth straight season.
“That’s the world we’re in and that’s how we’re going to manage it,” Brey said.
Notre Dame remains a regular in the assorted tournament Bracketologies. But maybe ticketed for a play-in game. Or as a No. 9-10-11 seed. Even as one of the dreaded “last four in.” And that’s with the toughest part of the ACC schedule remaining. Notre Dame is the only league team with road games against Duke, North Carolina and Virginia.
The challenges still to come are enormous. Just getting nine wins with a patchwork rotation would be an accomplishment.
But Brey had to give his guys something Tuesday night when he left the locker room. Something to chase. Something to believe in.
He gave them perhaps the last card he held.
He gave them the hope of Selection Sunday, now only eight weeks out.
“These guys fight so hard, man,” said guard Matt Farrell, seemingly near tears after playing 48 hard minutes in his first game back after missing nearly four with a sprained left ankle. “Hopefully, come tournament time, we can be a really good team.”
Is the NCAA tournament still a legitimate goal for a team without leading scorer and rebounder Bonzie Colson until March? A team that lost freshman swingman D.J. Harvey for a month with a bone bruise to his left knee? A team that can’t make shots and get stops when required to win a close game? A team searching for an identity? For success?
Yes, on all levels. Despite all of that, the Irish still believe. There’s no choice.
“We gotta,” Farrell said. “We gotta stay positive. We’re going to keep fighting every game. That’s all we can do.”
They’ll do it with an eye on their league record. Today. Tomorrow. Next week. Next month. Notre Dame currently sits in a three-way tie for seventh place. It isn’t basement bad like Wake Forest or Pittsburgh, but it’s also a long way from the ACC elite of Virginia and Clemson and Duke. The Irish have no wins to show for everything they’ve done the last three league games. Yet everything they’ve done — rebound, defend, compete — they’ve got to continue to do. Just do it way better. Just to have a chance.
And do it well enough to get to 9-9 in ACC play, then see how the league tournament in Barclays Center shakes out. Maybe Colson comes back. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe the Irish can play themselves into position to feel good on that second Sunday in March. Maybe they don’t.
“I’ve talked to them very honestly about where we are and what we would need to be considered for the NCAA tournament,” Brey said. “The older guys know it.”
The older guys also know that this is it for their collegiate careers. They aren’t part of the learn-tough-lessons-now-to-be-better-next-year plan. They won’t be around to see today’s struggles turn around with success tomorrow.
The senior class core of Colson and Farrell and Martinas Geben, who’s playing the best of his collegiate career at a time it’s desperately needed, is three wins from becoming the winningest class in school history with 98 victories. None of that matters if their final season doesn’t deliver a fourth straight NCAA tournament trip.
The NCAAs seem a remote possibility on the outside but a decent probability on the inside.
“I still believe in us,” Geben said. “I have full confidence in our team that we’re able to be better. We can make a deep run in the tournament. Our potential is large.”
The Irish have hope. What they need is a win. The last two losses have tested their character. Their leadership. Their resolve. They plan to be better in every phase. A road win Saturday against a ranked team that’s undefeated and rolling at home would be a good place to start the march toward March.
“We,” Farrell said, “gotta go get one.”