An awesome opportunity awaits.
Think back on the 2014-15 college basketball regular season for Notre Dame, and one Atlantic Coast Conference game jumps out — the one where it won at North Carolina for the first time in program history. The next year produced another trip to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight. The regular-season high point? Arguably the first-ever win at Duke.
The 2016-17 team separated itself by winning two ACC road games (against Miami and Virginia Tech) in a quick three-day window. The 2017-18 team tapped into history by winning the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. That’s the night Mike Brey stalked through the locker room shirtless, but that’s a different column for a different day.
Last year’s Irish made the wrong kind of ACC history with a school-record low three league wins. Wipe that one clean. Pretend it never happened.
History’s again knocking on the ACC door for Notre Dame (15-8; 6-6 ACC), which visits defending national champion Virginia (15-6; 7-4) late Tuesday (9 p.m., ESPN2) with a chance to finally kick it in. Another league win would do more than push Notre Dame’s streak to five straight. Since joining the ACC in 2013-14, Notre Dame has won at every stop along the league road but two.
The Irish had their chance last month at the Donald L. Tucker Center in Tallahassee. Redemption down Florida way will have to wait. But Notre Dame gets another crack at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Va.
The Irish are 0-4 in that building. They’ve been close. The last three games there (2016, ‘18, ‘19) have been decided by an average of 7.3 points, but close doesn’t cut it against the Cavaliers. It’s time for this group to close. Like Notre Dame did in the Dean Dome; like the dudes did in Durham.
Seniors T.J. Gibbs and John Mooney and graduate student Rex Pflueger have the chance to do something guys like Bonzie Colson and Pat Connaughton and Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia didn’t do. In the process, add another layer of ACC respect to the program.
“Man, it would be huge,” Brey said. “For us, in the midst of this run to get one there would really grow confidence to even another level.”
Sunday’s success at Clemson sets the stage for Notre Dame to get greedy. If there’s ever a time to get one at this particular place, Tuesday’s it.
Virginia isn’t the Virginia that has previously tormented Notre Dame, and basically every other ACC team, for so long. When the teams met last season in South bend, Brey admitted the Cavaliers took the Irish in handing them a 27-point loss. That payback bill’s overdue. The Cavaliers are still good. But not good enough that they can’t be beaten.
Notre Dame feels about as good as it has about itself since maybe those Elite Eight tournament days. The Irish are confident. They’ve got some road swagger. They believe they can play any style — run up points or grind it out — coming off their latest win Sunday at Clemson.
Winning the way Notre Dame won was another in several big steps the program has taken over the last four games. Winning back at home, the Irish did it with offense and scored at least 80 points in all three games. On Sunday, points and possessions were at a premium. Brey cautioned his club with 10 minutes to play that they weren’t getting 80. Maybe not even 70. They finished with a league season-low 61. But none of it mattered. Only winning did.
So did the way the Irish went about it. Once frazzled, they were focused. It showed.
“Can we just hang on in there and make some plays down the stretch?” Brey said. “That’s where we’ve really grown. We’ve had trouble doing that.”
Last season, the Irish likely would have lost that game. Last month, the Irish likely would have lost that game. But this program’s at a different place. Sunday’s game couldn’t fit any more perfectly to prepare the Irish for what’s coming Tuesday. It’s going to be a grind. It’s not going to be easy on the eyes. First to 60 might win. Maybe even first to 50. The Irish embraced that Sunday. Can they do it again Tuesday?
Another rock fight, just like Sunday, is expected. Notre Dame has a few stones on its side. Finally.
Brey first looked last week far enough down the college basketball road to where he can spot postseason. Where chances exist for the Irish to play their way into NCAA tournament consideration. Who thought that at 1-4 in the league. Well, nobody.
A whole lot still has to happen, and the Irish numbers have to get better. On Monday, their NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) number was at 51, but the strength of schedule was 146. Their non-conference strength of schedule was, gulp, 317.
A still-thin tournament resume can thicken with a win Tuesday. And yet ...
“You feel like you’re getting better,” Brey said. “At the right time of year.”
Notre Dame’s nowhere near NCAA worthy yet, but at least it’s trending toward the discussion. Brey’s not ready to dust off his famous quote from February, 2018 — “If you squint real hard, you can see the (NCAA tournament) bubble.” That was when the Irish seemingly had no shot at an at-large bid. Then the 68 teams were revealed, and Notre Dame was 69th.
“Two years ago, we saw that you’re just never out of it in this league, Brey said. “We got our hearts ripped from us Selection Sunday, but we hung around, hung around.
“Just when the thought we were done, oh, they got one.”
Here comes the chance to get one. A big one.