It jumped off the page or the screen or however the information was relayed last fall like a punch to a place that men prefer to protect.
There was little time for anyone on the inside of the Notre Dame men’s basketball program to ponder it then and there. November and December offered so many challenges that worrying about what was coming in the middle of winter was useless. File it away. Put it on a back burner on low heat and go get better.
Even as recently as last month, when the Irish lost consecutive league home games — violation of Rule No. 1 for Atlantic Coast Conference survival — and lost four of five, it didn’t much matter. It couldn’t. Notre Dame had so many other immediate issues that the coaches and players and anyone else associated with the program couldn’t put much thought toward it.
Now it’s here. A four-game ACC stretch over nine days that basically determines if this season is one of redemption and success for Notre Dame (14-8; 5-6 ACC) or another of what could have been. Four conference contests that include three in a row on the road starting Sunday at Clemson (11-11; 5-7). Then it’s straight to Virginia for a late-night Tuesday test (9 p.m.) against the defending national champions, home for a couple days of practice and a change of clothes before going back out to No. 7 Duke.
Notre Dame’s collective ACC record at those three places is a combined 2-6. After those three, Notre Dame gets one day to catch its breath or pick up the pieces before a nationally-televised home game against North Carolina.
Three wins in a row have some wondering what it would take for Notre Dame to climb back into consideration of a certain Sunday of selections next month. Eleven league wins is the starting point. Twelve might be needed. That means winning at home against North Carolina is a must. So might be getting two of three on the road.
“It’s a big week for us,” said senior guard T.J. Gibbs.
Big doesn’t even begin to do it. What’s beyond big? Massive? Enormous? Seismic? Any of those descriptions will do. They have since the fall when the Irish first looked at the schedule and thought to themselves, “What in the world…”
Three in a row on the road are common in this league. This is the fourth time for the Irish in their seven ACC seasons. Six teams, including Notre Dame, have that this year. Only one team was handed three in a seven-day window, then allowed only one day before a fourth league game.
Notre Dame has had some doozy league schedules. This one’s the dooziest.
“People brought it up as soon as the schedule came out (but) I didn’t really want to look at it,” said coach Mike Brey. “We’ve never had anything like this. This is unbelievable.”
Brey didn’t want to be believe it when he first saw it in the fall. November and December, he ignored it. Last month, too.
“I certainly didn’t want to look at it through January,” he said, “because we were just trying to make left-handed layups.”
Notre Dame made left-handed layups. It made right-handed layups. It won a critical league road game (at Georgia Tech while teetering on the conference brink at 1-4) and it won at home (three times culminating in Wednesday’s 80-72 victory over Pittsburgh). This stretch of schedule that at first and second and third glance seemed so overwhelming now is seen as something entirely different by a team that’s found its conference sea legs.
Instead of viewing these next four games as daunting — it also includes two turnarounds of only one day of prep time in between — the Irish approach it as a chance to make a statement, to use it as a springboard that can take their season from suspect to special.
“I know it’s the toughest stretch we’ve ever probably had in the history of our program,” Brey said. “I’m excited about it, especially because of how we’re playing.”
The Irish are different than they were November and December. Even in January. They’ve found their offensive flow and have scored at least 80 points in each of their last five ACC games. They’ve never done that before, not in this league. That will keep them in league road games. That will win them league road games. On Wednesday, they also learned a little something about themselves, something we haven’t seen from this program in too long.
That was a Pittsburgh team that was difficult to deal with in terms of what it did defensively. The ball pressure. The man defense. It bothered the Irish, who allowed a lead of 11 points to slide to five early in the second half. One more basket, and it would be a one-possession game. Then it would get interesting.
Notre Dame didn’t let it. The lead ballooned to 19 with more John Mooney, more Gibbs, more Juwan Durham and more really good offense. Notre Dame won by eight, but it felt more like 18 as the Irish took another step in the poise department.
“We’ve grown in that area,” Brey said. “It’s been collectively. It’s been everybody. My assistants get more nervous than I do. I do think we’re going to figure it out.”
Notre Dame now must figure it out this week in three buildings — Clemson’s Littlejohn Coliseum, John Paul Jones Arena at Virginia and that bandbox of bedlam known as Cameron Indoor Stadium — where this sophomore core has never played. All three arenas are uniquely different. Challenging. Intimidating. None of that can matter. Not now.
As good as the Irish veterans — Gibbs, Mooney and Rex Pflueger — were in the three-game home win streak, they better be better on the road. More poised. More patient. More like leaders. The sophomore class is the future, but the next nine days will shape the present.
“We’re on a three-game win streak,” Gibbs said. “That’s the first time we can say that since. … I don’t know how long.
“We’re not going to let anything get us down. We’re not going to let up now.”