NEW YORK – Time sometimes seems to stand still when pushing through the grind of games in a college basketball season.
Just when it feels like it might never end – poof! – it does. Everything suddenly is over.
November becomes December. Conference play comes calling in January and the pace quickens. Before anyone knows it, February’s here and gone.
And then, it’s March, a time — THE time — that Notre Dame has waited on all along. The aches and pains and ups and downs of the previous weeks and months fade. Everything starts over — and starts with a fresh focus.
“It’s just like kind of a switch,” said Irish senior captain V.J. Beachem. “We know what time it is. We know what’s at stake now and the focus that it requires to do the things that we want to do.”
What the Irish want to do — plan to do — is run deep through the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament for the second time in three seasons. Two years ago in Greensboro, N.C., Notre Dame captured its first conference tournament championship in school history after winning three games in three nights. When it became reality, the Irish sported championship T-shirts and hats and cut down nets.
Weeks later after three big wins in the NCAA tournament, Notre Dame bounced into the Elite Eight for the first time since 1979. To prove that they weren’t a one-year wonder, the Irish made another deep run last season. Another solid conference showing. Another trip to the semifinals. Another Elite Eight experience. It was dizzying.
The third time around, they just want to settle in and embrace all this week and this month offers.
“This group may be a little hungrier,” Beachem said. “The first time we did it (in 2015), everything was kind of new to us. Last year, we felt like we wanted to live up to a certain expectation.”
By the time Notre Dame puts its four-game Barclays Center win streak on the line as one of only five league teams remaining, it will have been in metropolitan New York for nearly 72 hours from the time the Irish arrived until the time they go to work.
Notre Dame’s quarterfinal opponent was not determined until after the second round ended past Tribune deadline. Sixth-seeded Virginia, a team Notre Dame never has beaten as ACC colleagues, comes calling.
Can the Irish finally solve the Cavaliers and the ir pack-line defense? Doesn't much matter. Come this week, it’s less about who the Irish play and more about what they do.
“You get to this point in the season, it’s you,” said coach Mike Brey, who figured to first jump into the quarterfinal scout sometime during the team’s Thursday morning shoot-around.
Like it did two years ago on Tobacco Road, Notre Dame looks to win big as the tournament’s No. 3 seed. In the night session. Make that, the late-night session.
Thursday’s tip likely won’t be tossed until sometime after 9:30 p.m. Two years ago, Notre Dame’s quarterfinal contest against Miami started at 9:33.
It’s a return of the “night stalkers,” the term Brey used to first describe his team’s late-night postseason success in 2015. The later the game, the better the Irish.
“We know how to do this,” Brey said. “We do know the routine. You hang out all day and watch everybody play.”
And watch. And rest. And rest. And watch. The Irish practiced Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons at John Jay College. They likely had a small window both days of free time to explore the area around their Times Square hotel, but the majority was spent in their rooms, off their feet, binge-watching whatever they found interesting on NetFlix or tuning into the first two days of the tournament on TV.
“Playing late is nothing new for us,” Beachem said. “We kind of like being the night owl.”
And like the chance that everything starts over. Notre Dame rolls into postseason having won six of its last seven. It’s lost only once — Saturday at No. 10 Louisville — since Feb. 6. It found some success recently with a small lineup, and got something good out of playing two bigs.
Still, everything that happened in the days and weeks and months leading up to this week — the road wins, the home losses — don’t really matter.
“We finished up strong and had a real good regular season,” said senior captain Steve Vasturia. “(But) I look at it like it’s a new season. You flush everything that happened.
“We know after the last couple years, we’ve got a chance to play for a long time.”
“Know” being the operative word. In Notre Dame seasons past, with teams that may have won more games or were ranked higher, Brey often encouraged his guys to “dream big dreams.” Still does.
Those words too often rang hollow. As good as guys like Ryan Humphrey and Troy Murphy and Luke Harangody and Ben Hansbrough were, they didn’t know what it was like to cut down nets as conference champions. Didn’t know what it was like to advance into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Just didn’t know.
This core knows.
“That’s a huge, huge part of hopefully the psychological advantage that I hope we have at this time of year,” Brey said. “That’s 80 percent of the battle.
“Our guys believe it’s their time.”