Pay only some attention to Pittsburgh sophomore swingman Justin Champagnie, currently on a monster roll while leading the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring (20.2) and rebounding (12.2).
Don’t dwell on the all-time series statistics, which include a good run when both teams were colleagues in the old Big East West Division, back when the Panthers played further on up the hill in Oakland at ancient Fitzgerald Field House.
To get a gauge on what Saturday’s game (8 p.m., ACC Network) at Petersen Events Center means to Notre Dame (5-9; 2-6 ACC), it’s not about stats or series history or any of that stuff. One need only to look at the current conference standings. There’s a good clue. There’s an answer.
The ACC standings say that Notre Dame currently sits in 12th place in the 15-team league. Pittsburgh, after losing its last two, is sixth. End of analysis. End of story.
Recent history hollers that if the Panthers (8-4; 4-3) are above the Irish in the league standings, and may well finish above them when this crazy season eventually ends, then Notre Dame has little chance of returning to Indiana early Sunday morning (weather permitting) with a win.
Why? Notre Dame has had such little success in beating anyone in the league that currently sits or eventually finishes higher in the standings. Since Notre Dame beat a North Carolina State team that went 11-7 in ACC play on Jan. 3, 2018 — the game that saw Mike Brey become the winningest coach in program history — it has beaten exactly one conference team (Georgia Tech) that eventually finished higher in the league standings.
Last season, Notre Dame twice beat a Georgia Tech team that went 11-9 for fifth place in the ACC. That’s it. The Irish are overdue for the law of averages to kick in, so why haven’t they?
“I don’t know,” Brey said. “We’ve not been able to do that. That has frustrated all of us, our players included, that we haven’t been able the last two years (really three-plus) to get anybody above us.”
Notre Dame labored 23 league games (from January 2018 to January 2020) between wins against teams that finished above it in the league standings. Since that second Georgia Tech game last year on Feb. 2, 2020, Notre Dame has played 17 regular-season conference contests with zero wins over teams above it.
The most recent opportunity arrived Wednesday at home against No. 20 Virginia Tech, a 62-51 loss as Notre Dame scored a season low for points. That dropped the Irish to 0-6 against teams above them in the ACC standings. Those six losses have been by an average of 9.5 points. Four have been by double digits.
The closer you look, the further away the Irish seem from the top. From the middle. From almost everyone.
If the opponent isn’t Boston College or Miami (Fla.) or Wake Forest or another league team having a bad year, odds are Notre Dame isn’t winning. It’s hard to watch it all unfold knowing the margin of error for the Irish is so slim while the gap between them and good league teams is so wide.
“It’s kind of where we are,” Brey said. “We’re kind of pigeon-holed in this league right now, the last year and a half.”
More like the last three and a half. Notre Dame hasn’t sniffed the top half of the league standings with a winning record since finishing 12-6 and in third place in 2016-17. That also was the last year the Irish made the NCAA tournament, a streak that should stretch to four years and running.
What can Notre Dame do to beat a good league team?
“We just gotta play hard,” said junior point guard Prentiss Hubb, “and make shots.”
Sure sounds simple, but easier said than done. Teams above Notre Dame are there for a reason. They’re better. They play harder and smarter and make shots when shots have to be made. Such was the case against Virginia Tech. It was clear in the opening eight minutes that the Hokies were the more complete — and competitive — team. See how they took it to the Irish right from the opening tip? Expect more of the same from the Panthers at the Pete.
Champagnie is on his push to earn all-league honors. Maybe even player of the year if Pitt wins enough ACC games. He’s a problem, one that the Irish don’t really have an answer for. Same goes for guards Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney. Pittsburgh’s as tough as the town where it sits.
One year at the Pete, Brey walked over to a drum set in the band seating section during shoot-around and started banging away. He held his own. Think the Irish could do the same Saturday?
Like the other night against Virginia Tech, this one might become another ACC rock fight. The Irish didn’t have enough of them Wednesday. Did they pack a few in their carry-on?
The deeper we venture into league play, the more opponents are going to understand how to beat the Irish — get up into them, get physical, get them uncomfortable. It wears them down, then, eventually, out.
“It’s not any secret weapon,” Brey said after Wednesday’s game.
There’s also no secret on how to push past it. Notre Dame’s not combing the waiver wire and signing guys. It’s not pulling anyone off the practice squad. This roster is going to be this roster today and tomorrow and the rest of the way.
Find a way to win some of these games with these guys, or remain irrelevant. At least until another league team near the basement surfaces on the schedule.