At different junctures of a college basketball season, coaches and their teams reach points where there’s really nothing else to say. Just go play.
That’s where Notre Dame finds itself leading into Tuesday’s rare weekday afternoon tip (4:30 p.m., ACC Network) against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The Irish are coming off a tough one — maybe their toughest one — three days ago in midtown Atlanta. Having done so much right in the first half against Georgia Tech — scoring 50 points, shooting 65.5 percent from the field and leading by 15 points at the break — the Irish did so much wrong in the second. They allowed the Yellow Jackets to score 47 points, shoot 62.5 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from 3. They committed nine turnovers.
They were sloppy and suspect. Their dig-and-defend mentality didn’t travel as they were handed a gut-punch 82-80 loss.
Irish coach Mike Brey spent all of 120 seconds in the locker room with his team. He was in with a few words. He was out with fewer.
“It’s up to them, man,” Brey said. “I’ve got no speeches for them, baby. See how they do circling back and see how we play Tuesday. There’s no rah-rah BS. Grow up and get another chance on the road.”
It wasn’t that Brey was fuming over the complete collapse — he was — as much as little needed to be said to a veteran team that knew it didn’t play like one. Notre Dame has smart guys who know the score and the drill and the big basketball picture. There’s no other choice but to flush one tough loss because another tough league game is closing quickly.
Monday morning on the weekly Atlantic Coast Conference coaches call, Brey’s belief of work over words didn’t much change. This next one’s all about practicing and preparing and playing. Pontificate? Not in February.
“You can kind of come back (Sunday) and address some things one-on-one with some guys,” Brey said. “Then you’ve got to move forward and see if you can get one out of this tough road swing.”
If there’s one game that could fall into right place, right time on the schedule for Notre Dame (7-10; 4-7 ACC), it’s this one. It’s a chance for the Irish to erase the lingering sting from the other night in Atlanta. It’s a chance to play well in a place (Cameron Indoor) where they’ve won only once in the series. It’s also a chance to get a second crack at a repeat league opponent.
This is the one league game that Brey wishes the Irish had back. First time the teams played was Dec. 16 back at Purcell Pavilion. Notre Dame was four days removed from one of the season’s high points — maybe its highest — with its first win at Rupp Arena. Kentucky may not be Kentucky as we’ve known it, but Rupp Arena still is Rupp Arena. To win there was big for Notre Dame. To possibly piggyback that with a league win over Duke, well, that would be a first. And likely a last.
A long night
The Irish never put up much of a fight that late night in December. Duke led almost from the time its bus pulled up to the arena’s receiving garage door. Notre Dame never led and spent the entire game in scramble mode before a 10-point loss.
With another game three days later against Purdue in Indianapolis (and another loss), Notre Dame had little time to dwell on Duke. The Irish knew they’d see them again.
“It’s the one game this year where I was really disappointed with how we fought,” Brey said. “We were back on our heels and hung our heads. I didn’t think we dug in and adhered to our compete drill mentality really good.
“I’ll take more responsibility than the guys on that.”
As for the responsibility of letting Saturday slip away and playing better Tuesday, that’s on the guys. Notre Dame was too loose with the basketball than it needed to be against Georgia Tech. It treated the second half like a noon pickup game — just run up and down the floor and get up some shots and score a lot of points. Getting in a defensive stance and racking up stop-scores were optional. Notre Dame’s not good enough to go that route.
Payback’s never part of the plan in this league, but Notre Dame is overdue against Duke. The Blue Devils have won seven straight in a series that’s again grown decidedly one-sided. Last time Notre Dame was in Cameron, it left with the most lopsided loss (34 points) in Brey’s tenure.
If there’s any good time to get the Blue Devils, it’s Tuesday. There may be no better chance. At 7-7 overall, 5-5 ACC, Duke’s a decidedly average outfit. The Blue Devils have lost two straight and five of seven. If Selection Sunday were today, Duke wouldn’t be in the NCAA tournament.
Playing at Cameron never is easy. It’s a 40-minute assault on your sanity. It’s difficult for anyone to think straight let alone shoot straight with the building sold out and the air hot and the Crazies, well, crazy. But there are no Cameron Crazies this season and Duke’s an OK 6-3 at home. It’s just another gym with fake fans and fake crowd noise and not much intimidation for a place that thrives on all of it.
There’s a reason media hang in the press room until just before the final seconds of pre-game drain away. The place is a circus. For media. For visitors. For everyone.
With none of that part of this equation, Notre Dame can be good enough and old enough to snag one of those league road wins that no one sees coming. It would ease the aggravation of the other night. Question is, is this team mature enough to see through everything that Cameron and Duke aren’t?
In January, the thought of Notre Dame winning there against that team was preposterous. Now? Anything’s possible.
“Maybe we’re due to play better in here,” Brey said of Cameron.
Despite Saturday’s disappointment, Brey likes how his team’s playing. They’d won two straight and four of five before Georgia Tech. If they can recommit to defense and continue to get good efforts from power forwards Juwan Durham and Nate Laszewski and the guards take better care of the ball and no key guy disappears, there’s a chance to salvage this two-game league road swing.
“We just gotta get back to competing and getting stops,” Laszewski said. “We just have to stay locked in, keep holding each other accountable.”
No more words. This one’s about want-to and work.