Notre Dame men's basketball: The big shift: Hoops king in ACC

South Bend Tribune

Life was a blur that late-March day in 1999 when he was introduced for the first time as a college basketball coach, but Matt Doherty still remembers those first hours on the Notre Dame campus as if they unfolded last week. Spring had arrived early in Michiana with clear skies, a gentle breeze and temperatures that raced toward 70 degrees. Following his introductory press conference, Doherty toured some popular campus spots with his family. At one point, he glanced at the administration building and was struck by how the sun reflected off the Golden Dome against the blue skies. Life was good. Less than a week into a position he held for one season before answering Michael Jordan’s plea to return to North Carolina, Doherty eased into the front seat of his car for an early-morning drive to campus. The picture-postcard day of his press conference had given way to a biting, gloomy chill. There were even reports that it might snow. In April?!? “I’m thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’ I went from the air conditioner to turning the heat on in my car,” Doherty said with a chuckle earlier this month. “Who does that?” Somebody reminded the rookie head coach of South Bend’s proximity to Lake Michigan, and the tendency for lake-effect snow showers to stir even in April. Doherty’s first reaction likely will be one mirrored by Atlantic Coast Conference coaches who bring their teams to Purcell Pavilion for the first time as a fellow league member during the 2013-14 college basketball season. What the heck is lake-effect? “Coaches that come from the sunny south are going to learn about lake-effect really quick,” Doherty said. “Notre Dame is going to have a great homecourt advantage.” Most ACC schools — forget fellow winter warriors at Boston College, Pittsburgh and Syracuse — may wonder if it’s the Arctic Coast Conference when they have to deal with the snow and the cold and the wind and seemingly no sun anywhere in sight during a South Bend winter. There may be times when teams have more on their minds in the middle of conference play than winning at Purcell Pavilion. “They’ll learn about the weather when they have to fly in there,” Doherty said. “It’s not easy. Yeah, everyone charters, but you still have to deal with the snow. And the plane’s going to be getting in there late.” Doherty believes that can be good for the Irish. “They’re going to win a couple games a year because of lake-effect.” A two-sided coin If getting to South Bend for basketball will be an adjustment for the majority of ACC schools, so will it be for Notre Dame venturing from home. The new conference road looks nothing like it did in the Big East, where the Irish won at least four league road games in four of the last six seasons, including three years with a winning road record of at least five wins. For the past 18 seasons, Notre Dame played a chunk of league road games in professional arenas. Games in those massive buildings unfolded in front of seas of empty seats. Crowds often were split 60-40 — and not always for the home team. As a result, league road wins sometimes were a little easier to secure. In the ACC, all schools but one — North Carolina State — play in their own on-campus building where tickets are at a premium. Even schools expected to be near the league basement this season (Miami, Wake Forest) may see ticket sales soar when the Irish head to town. “I’m excited about playing in the places that I remember,” said Irish coach Mike Brey, who spent eight seasons (1987-95) as an assistant at Duke. “I’m kind of energized about that. It’s going to be neat to go back through those venues.” Big East teams were allotted 230 tickets for road games. In the ACC, visiting teams get 70. “Road victories are difficult to get,” said David Glenn, editor of the ACC Sports Journal and a syndicated radio host in Raleigh, N.C., who has covered the league for 25 years. “The Irish will visit more places where college sports are king — by a lot — than what they dealt with in the Big East. “Notre Dame will visit more places where the event is front-page news, even if it’s just a regular-season game.” That wasn’t always the case in the Big East. Many times when Notre Dame played in larger cities — New York, Philadelphia, Washington — advance news of its games rarely made the front page of the sports section. Or the second page. Or the third page. Not so this season. “In most of ACC country, you are on the front page of the sports section, if not the front page of the newspaper,” Glenn said. “If you do great things in this league you’re going to get great coverage. “It’s a different animal.” How different? At a time on the calendar when talking college basketball sits somewhere behind cutting the lawn in importance for the average sports fan, the arrest of North Carolina forward P.J. Hairston dominated Glenn’s talk show for hours. And days. “There’s a pretty savvy college basketball fan here in North Carolina where college basketball isn’t front and center only during March Madness,” Glenn said. “College basketball is among the favorite sports menu items.” That works in Notre Dame’s favor. While some may wonder what an Irish program offers a league as steeped in basketball tradition as the ACC, long-time league observers know well of Notre Dame and its recent run of sustained conference success — double-digit league wins in each of the last four seasons and six of the last seven — under Brey. “I’m really proud of that consistency,” Brey said. Why Notre Dame in the ACC? Why not? “People here are far more likely to appreciate the consistent success of Notre Dame basketball,” Glenn said. “If you want to list 20 consistent winners in college basketball, ACC fans in this area would eventually list Notre Dame.” Nothing like it To understand the pull of the Big East tournament, one needed to wait each March for the semifinal Friday night at Madison Square Garden. The pulse of a city like no other often quickened, something fans could almost feel as they made their way to the corner of Seventh Avenue and 33rd Street. Of course, it often took four full days once tournament week commenced to capture that essence, something that rarely is the case whenever the ACC tournament returns to its most popular home in Greensboro, N.C. In New York, the Big East may hold the attention of the city for a day. Maybe two. Not in the ACC. Especially not in North Carolina, where the ACC tournament has been played 49 of the 60 seasons the league has been in existence. “When it’s played in Greensboro, the entire state of North Carolina stops to watch,” said former sports writer Al Featherston, who has covered ACC basketball since 1974. “The ACC tournament is the granddaddy. You can’t compare it when it comes to excitement or history or drama.” The ACC will hold its conference tournament in Greensboro in 2014 and 2015. After that, there’s a chance the league will rotate tournament sites. One possibility is Madison Square Garden. “That might be good for the league for national and worldwide exposure,” said Doherty, who played on the 1982 North Carolina national championship team. “There’s a lot to be said for that (but) the traditions and the southern feel of ACC basketball is unique.” At the Garden, it’s common for the beers — and subsequent curses hurled toward the floor — to flow freely, even during the weekday noon games. In Greensboro, fans may tuck a flask of bourbon in their back pocket and keep any disagreements a little more civil. After games in New York, fans tumble noisily out to Seventh Avenue. In Greensboro, they’ll head for Stamey’s next door to the Coliseum for some Carolina barbecue and sweet ice tea. Both environments are unique. But … “The ACC tournament,” Featherston said, “puts the Big East tournament to shame.” An exciting future Having played and coached at North Carolina and coached at Notre Dame, Doherty insists he’s not surprised the schools became conference colleagues — not in today’s world of conference realignment, which became a high-stakes game of musical chairs. “There’s a fit there,” said Doherty, who spent last season as an analyst for ESPN. “There’s more of a fit than there are differences in terms of what the institutions stand for — class, integrity. It’s a shame what happened to the Big East, but I don’t know if Notre Dame could have landed in a better place basketball-wise.” Conventional thinking had long held true that without bringing football, there was no way Notre Dame would even be accepted by the ACC as a partial member. Featherston first heard talk about adding Notre Dame when Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech were accepted into the league nearly a decade ago. Without football as a full member, Notre Dame would never get in. Ever. Yet here the Irish are, ready to officially join the league Monday. “Most people can be averse to change, especially in the age of realignment,” Glenn said. “But especially in basketball, the overwhelming majority of ACC fans have more than warmed up to the idea of Notre Dame joining the league.” “Notre Dame is going to find it’s a tough, good league,” Featherston said. “Notre Dame will do well.” But how well? Can the Irish add to their current run of seven consecutive seasons of at least 20 victories? Can Notre Dame do enough to earn a fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament? Will being part of the league allow the Irish to find a way to squeeze into their first Sweet 16 since 2003? There should be no shortage of opportunities to do something special. Something more. “It’s a good thing for the ACC that Notre Dame is joining the conference,” Doherty said. “The Big East for years was really, really good. The ACC in past years was really, really good. “When this comes together, this will be the best basketball conference in the country.”

South Bend Tribune/JAMES BROSHER Notre Dame guard/forward Pat Connaughton and teammates take the floor for a second-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament on Friday, March 22, 2013, in Dayton, Ohio. via FTP