Notre Dame men’s basketball: ACC, identity tests await Irish

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Motivation to master a seven-month season stocked with plenty of potential streaks and slides should be a breeze for the Notre Dame men's basketball team.

The Irish will find plenty of ways to push through the toughest of times coming on the calendar by knowing that everything about the program is new and exciting and different. Notre Dame now calls the Atlantic Coast Conference home after 18 seasons in the Big East.

Establishing the same consistent identity, particularly in league play and at home, that the Irish confidently carried through their latter days as one of the best in the Big East will allow coach Mike Brey's team to take a big early step into their new surroundings.

For many, how Notre Dame fits in the ACC will be a central theme for 2013-14. For the head coach, any outside noise is just that.

“I'm totally distracted and engaged,” said Brey, set to enter his 14th season as head coach. “Our whole thing has been, can we create a consistent presence in the ACC like we had in the Big East?

“We've been as good as anybody at delivering in regular-season play.”

Talk of chasing that ACC identity was common Wednesday during Media Day, which had long marked the unofficial start to the season before the NCAA pushed the first day of practice this year to late September.

Now four workouts into preseason — Thursday will be practice No. 5 before a weekend off — the Irish were quick to insist that the way everything crumbled last March during another second-round NCAA tournament loss, where Notre Dame trailed by as many as 27 points to Iowa State, also can serve a purpose.

The Irish aren't going to hold routine players-only meetings to discuss that loss. They may go a day or a week or a month without even thinking about it. But if they need a boost here or a pick-me-up there, they know how to find it.

Watch that game and they'll realize they need to be better. Today. Tomorrow. Next week.

“You never know what made us lose; we just lost,” said sophomore Cameron Biedscheid. “We can't ever lose like that again.”

Junior swingman Pat Connaughton uses that night as a reminder of how quickly a season that seemingly has a chance of being so special can go so sour. It's not enough to talk a good game against a quality opponent be it November, January or March. You also have to play one. This Irish didn't.

“It's something that kind of eats at you,” Connaughton said. “It's something that kind of fuels your fire, especially the guys that have been together the last two years.”

Brey insisted once the dust from the end of the season had settled last spring that the move to the ACC cleared the slate in terms of thinking too much about the program's NCAA tournament shortcomings — Notre Dame last advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2003.

He echoed similar sentiment Wednesday, but also believes that looking back on how it all went wrong against an Iowa State team that simply was better in every conceivable area could be good for a veteran group that returns four starters off last year's team that finished 25-10.

“You can overanalyze that until the cows come home,” Brey said. “(But) it's been a great motivator for our guys. It put a little chip on their shoulder — a pretty good regular season kind of got diminished with the way we got smacked in Dayton.”

Last fall, guard Eric Atkins admitted that he would occasionally watch a copy of the 2012 tournament loss against Xavier. Seeing the Irish bumble away a 10-point lead with 12 minutes remaining helped fuel him to be better as a junior.

On Wednesday, Atkins again admitted that if he feels his game getting stale, he'll study how the Irish competed — or in many ways didn't compete — against Iowa State. He viewed the first half just a few days ago.

Answers that night at University of Dayton Arena didn't come easily — or for some players, at all. But the more Atkins watches empty possession after empty possession with little or no emotion evident, he knows how it all unraveled.

“I think we were there with them, but it was just a lack of focus and leadership,” Atkins said. “I felt like I should have brought us together and made us focus more and get us back on track.”

Leadership should be a strong point this season. Atkins will be the first three-year captain in program history. Entering their third season as starters, Atkins and fellow guard Jerian Grant and Connaughton have combined to win 47 games their first two seasons. Power forwards Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman are fifth-year seniors whose work and words are respected. There's talent deep into the depth chart, including former Marian guard Demetrius Jackson, who will be a key contributor as a freshman.

There's plenty of potential pieces that can cause other teams problems.

The Irish can play fast with a three-guard look that bumps Connaughton to the second big. They can put five scorers on the floor. They can play slow. They can go big. They can go small. They can play old. They may carve up teams in the halfcourt with their passing ability or get out and let the young guys run.

Nobody knows what Notre Dame's inaugural run through the ACC might bring, but all involved are ready to find out.

“We know we have to be better as a team,” Grant said. “We know what it takes.”

Having turned 21 on Wednesday, the normally quiet and reserved Grant offered a bold birthday wish.

“Final Four,” he said. “Let's start there. We've got to go big.”

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey speaks to the media on Wednesday at Notre Dame.