CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Sitting alone still in uniform on the black leather couch in the players’ lounge after another double double for points and rebounds in an exhibition game late last week, Notre Dame senior power forward John Mooney thought for a moment and smiled.
It was a big one. A knowing one. While many look at the Irish season opener Wednesday and see an obstacle, Mooney sees opportunity.
Going on the road to start a season never is easy. Going on the road to start a season in Atlantic Coast Conference play never has been done. But going on the road to play at North Carolina, the nation’s No. 9 team? Some would say that given where the Irish program was last season, that’s downright dumb.
Don’t tell that to Mooney, a first team all-league preseason pick. Outside of his home gym of Purcell Pavilion, there may be no building he likes better than the Smith Center. So what if everything in the joint — from the outline of the state at midcourt to the baselines and the sidelines, the heating and air conditioning vents running through the concourse to the cotton candy at the concession stand, is Carolina blue. If there’s one place that the 6-foot-9, 245-pound Mooney would pick to play if not in South Bend, it would be here.
Last time in the place last January, he went for 16 points, 19 rebounds and four blocks. First time in the place as a sophomore, he tied the school record by making six 3-pointers without a miss. So he’s all for opening the season here.
“Johnny Mooney’s Larry Bird in that building,” Irish coach Mike Brey said.
Mooney first was asked last month about Notre Dame starting the season at Carolina. He was asked about it again Friday. His answers were verbatim. His feelings haven’t changed since the game was announced over the summer.
“You live for games like that,” Mooney said, again with that smile. “It gets your blood flowing a little bit and let it loose. I like playing there a lot.”
Confidence oozing off the best Irish player aside, this one has the feel of Notre Dame being set up by the league for a big fall. Given where these program finished in the league last season — North Carolina was tied for first; Notre Dame was tied for worst — this is a game that really shouldn’t have been scheduled. Not right out of the gate.
On paper, and maybe on the floor, it looks a mismatch. Notre Dame has the potential to be better than last season if all the pieces (and open shots) fall into place. North Carolina has the potential to be Final Four good based solely on its roster talent and pedigree.
Notre Dame has no business going into the Smith Center at this time and expecting victory. It’s too early. Too much to still work through coming clear of 14-19 and 3-15. Hard to imagine that this was the ACC tournament championship game matchup in 2015. That it was the NCAA East Region final pairing in 2016.
So why are the Irish here, in the Triangle, on a mid-week night in early November? Thank the league, and maybe even the head coach.
Knowing the ACC Network was set to launch in 2019-20, which coincides with a move to 20 league games, Brey had the bright idea two years ago at the league’s spring meetings to push for the league to begin with a bang by playing conference games right away. The likely one-year trial run would create a buzz in the ACC over something other than football. It would help build the ACC Network brand. Four of the seven opening matchups, including this one, are on the ACC Network, still with limited availability on cable systems around Northern Indiana.
Good call, the league seemed to say about Brey’s idea, here’s your ticket to Blue Heaven.
“It sounded like a good idea until about June when your schedule comes out and you’re looking like, man, that’s one heck of a way to start it,” Brey said. “It has your players’ attention more.”
Then again, if you’re going to get a team like Carolina, might as well get them early before they figure it all out and really get rolling. Freshman power forward Armando Bacot is a potential lottery pick; freshman guard Cole Anthony could be the No. 1 overall pick. But Wednesday, they’ll be two kids playing in their first regular-season college basketball game in front of 21,000-plus fans.
All the expectations, the demands, the pressure hangs over the home team’s bench. They’re expected to win and likely win big. They’re expected to race away while hanging 70, 80, maybe 90 points on the board. Nobody gives Notre Dame a chance, except Notre Dame.
Nobody sees the Irish coming, which may be good for this group. What better way to prove it than to make an early statement — the earliest statement any league team has ever had a chance to make — at the Smith Center?
Everybody knows what Notre Dame will get from Mooney, and likely from sophomore guard Prentiss Hubb who scored 18 points with six assists in his first visit to the Smith Center last season. He did much of that against eventual NBA lottery pick Coby White. But what about the rest of these guys? Time to be a defensive presence, Juwan Durham. Time to make shots Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski. Time to play like a senior guard, T.J. Gibbs. Time to show that senior leadership, Rex Pflueger, who’ll start but be on a minutes restriction while working his way back from reconstructive knee surgery. Time for the older Irish to play older. Even time for Brey to get back to having a Brey-like team.
Time to put the pride back in this program. Time to restore a little faith in Irish basketball.
“We’ve certainly got our hands full,” Brey said. “But it’s not like we’re taking rookies down there. I’m banking on some experience here.”
This team’s motto this season is “Run It Back.” What better way, what better place, to get it off and running? Let’s go.
“We’re going to go there,” Mooney said, “and take it to them.”