Notre Dame basketball: Irish receive respect in ACC poll

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

Sent to an unfamiliar city in the South for its first official appearance Wednesday in its new men's basketball conference home, Notre Dame saw its reputation as one of the most consistent programs over the final years of the old Big East follow to Tobacco Road.

Nobody knows what the Atlantic Coast Conference has in store for Notre Dame, one of three league newcomers with fellow former Big East colleagues Pittsburgh and Syracuse, but many believe the Irish will pick up where they left off in that other league based on Wednesday's preseason media poll.

Having won at least 10 Big East games each of its last four seasons and six of seven, Notre Dame should be just as strong in its first ACC run. On Wednesday, the Irish were picked to finish fifth in the 15-team league in a vote of conference media.

Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina and Virginia were picked first through fourth. The Irish finished tied for fifth, third and second it their final three years in the Big East, where they spent 18 seasons.

“It feels good that we're coming into the league with some respect,” said Irish senior point guard Eric Atkins, who along with classmate Jerian Grant accompanied coach Mike Brey to the 52nd annual ACC Operation Basketball media day at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Charlotte, N.C. “I've been here when we've been picked ninth in the Big East.”

When Notre Dame joined the Big East in 1995, the Irish were dismissed as a program that was a long way from respectability after wandering through the better part of a decade in search of an identity as an independent. It took six seasons in the league before Notre Dame finished with a winning conference record and made an NCAA tournament appearance.

By the end, few programs were as consistent as Notre Dame, which won at least 21 overall games its last seven seasons. Brey went from knowing little about the Big East to the fourth all-time winningest coach in conference history (146-97) behind only legends Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Jim Calhoun (Connecticut) and John Thompson (Georgetown).

Notre Dame established deep and respected winning roots in what arguably was the nation's toughest conference.

Expectations are high for Notre Dame's first foray in the ACC. With four starters back off last year's 25-10 teams and a solid recruiting class and depth chart and culture in place, the Irish aren't sneaking up on anyone.

“It's going to be different in our first year, but we're not going to change a lot,” said Grant, who was one of five players voted by media to the first team All-League squad. “We're going to have a new identity but we're going to do what we do.

“We're going to bring our Big East mentality into the ACC.”

That doesn't necessarily mean carrying over the league's grind-it-out, black-and-blue brand of basketball to what's considered more of a finesse and flow conference. What they will bring from the Big East is the ability to play a number of ways needed to be the steadiest, most consistent program from late-December to early March.

That may mean slowing the tempo at times, quickening the pace and spreading the floor at others. That may mean working as one of the taller teams in the league with a lineup that can feature two 6-foot-10 guys for stretches, and others with four perimeter players around one big.

The Irish are capable winning games in the 50s and 60s while also being able to hit in the 80s and 90s if needed. All that can help them get back to the NCAA for a fifth consecutive season, the longest streak since going for six straight years (1984-89).

Notre Dame will worry little this winter how it fits in the league.

“Teams are going to have to get used to how we play,” said Atkins.

For all the mystery that awaits Notre Dame — what's it going to be like to play a regular-season game in Chapel Hill, N.C.? Rekindle the rivalry with Boston College? Play the league tournament in Greensboro? — as much intrigue awaits league schools about playing the team from and traveling to South Bend.

Who is Notre Dame? Many around the ACC may not know.

“There's going to be a lot of teams that really don't know that much about us,” said Grant. “We're going to be a surprise team because we're a new team and we're not one of those big-name basketball schools.”

Notre Dame opens league play at home on Jan. 4 in a big way when it hosts perennial league power Duke, which likely will be a Top 10 preseason pick and also is the media pick to win the conference.

Notre Dame's four repeat league opponents of North Carolina, Virginia, Boston College and Georgia Tech are picked to finish third, fourth, eighth and 11th.

 Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant was selected to the preseason All-ACC first team. SBT photo/JAMES BROSHER