What does ACC have in store for Notre Dame hoops second time around?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

A team that was easy to feel sorry for when everything that seemingly could go wrong did last winter has bounced back to become one of the feel-good college basketball stories as Atlantic Coast Conference play awaits.

Notre Dame has rocketed from the irrelevance of a 15-17 showing to the No. 14 team in the country. The Irish (13-1 overall; 1-0 ACC) have won nine straight games. They’ve gotten confident with 11 home wins by an average of 28.2 points. They’ve beaten nine opponents at home by at least 20 points, four by 30 and two by 40. Only top-ranked Kentucky has dropped a heavier hammer on opponents (+27.5 scoring margin) than Notre Dame (+25.3).

For all the good vibes and happy times, two numbers keep the Irish from feeling satisfied through the season’s first seven weeks as they prepare for the tough stuff of league play, which resumes Saturday at home against Georgia Tech.

Last season’s 6-12 league record serves as a slap to the senses for everything the Irish didn’t do during their first spin through the ACC.

“Six and 12 keeps you hungry and poor,” said coach Mike Brey. “It’s really easy to remember that we haven’t earned any respect in this league yet. That’s what we’re digging and scratching and fighting for.

“Now you’re kind of in survival mode in this league.”

Can Notre Dame survive? Thrive? Following are 10 questions and answers for what awaits in the ACC over the final 17 regular-season games.

What can separate Notre Dame from repeating another sub-par league showing?

The obvious answer is to be better at home, where it staggered to a 5-4 league finish last season and lost a handful of conference contests (North Carolina, North Carolina State, Pittsburgh) that were there for the taking. But all good teams protect the homecourt. Really good teams, NCAA tournament-caliber teams, elite conference teams, ignore the noise of the road and win.

That was but a rumor last season for Notre Dame, which went 1-8 in league road games. Road wins were an Irish staple during their latter days in the Big East. TheY won in places (Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Villanova, West Virginia) that few believed they had any business doing so. Time for Notre Dame to return to those “Road Dawg” roots.

Where does Notre Dame fall in the league pecking order?

Three conference teams all ranked in the latest Associated Press top five — Duke (2), Virginia (3) and Louisville (5) — ave separated themselves from the rest of the pack. All three can win the league and get to a Final Four. It’s going to be hard to push past that troika.

After that, the fourth spot is up for grabs for a number of schools — Notre Dame, North Carolina, Syracuse, Pittsburgh. Finishing fourth after last year’s grease fire likely puts Brey out front in the ACC coach of the year conversation.

Once you slide past those seven, it really gets muddled. Can someone emerge and become this season’s North Carolina State? The Wolfpack rode the wave of league player of the year and eventual NBA first-round NBA draft pick T.J. Warren to grab the sixth and final NCAA tournament bid last spring.

Are there at least another six bids in this league come March?

So the idea that this is the greatest basketball conference ever is a bit overstated?

The best college basketball conference in history merits no mention when its teams lose non-league games to the likes of Gardner Webb and Winthrop (Clemson), Radford (Virginia Tech), South Carolina Upstate (Georgia Tech) and Wofford (North Carolina State). While the top third of the league has Final Four-caliber clubs, the back of it is down. Way down. Like can’t afford to lose to those schools if you have NCAA tournament dreams down.

Notre Dame finished last season 5-6 against teams picked this year to finish Nos. 8-15. Better flip that script the second time through, or the Irish will sweat Selection Sunday.

How good is Virginia?

Really good. Good enough to repeat as league champion and make a deep run through March good.

Virginia ranks second in the nation for scoring defense (48.2) and field goal percentage defense (32.6) and third for rebounding margin (+14.4). The Cavaliers have twice held teams to 27 or fewer points — FOR A GAME. It limited Harvard to one first-half basket. Unfair.

The Cavaliers are the definition of a grind. They chew up teams with their pack-line defense, then spit them up with a methodical offensive attack that forces teams to play at a pace that voids all poise.

It’s not just leading scorer Justin Anderson. The parts and pieces fit really well for coach Tony Bennett with Malcolm Brogdon, Anton Gill, London Perrantes and Mike Tobey. The Cavaliers are deep. They’re determined. They’re ugly and they’re beautiful.

And they dominate. They’ve won at Maryland. They’ve won at Virginia Commonwealth.

Notre Dame’s most important home game may be the Jan. 10 test against Virginia. Get that one, and this season really has a chance to be something for the Irish.

Where does Notre Dame’s backcourt of Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson rank among the league’s elite?

Brey planted a seed in each player’s mind earlier this season during a film session. He pieced together clips of the way Grant and Jackson worked together and added a little something at the end of the montage that flashed on the screen and read, “Best backcourt in the ACC?”

Brey’s been down this best backcourt road before, long touting former three-time team captain Eric Atkins and Grant as not only the best in the old Big East, but in the country. The two never came close to delivering for myriad reasons. But these two have a chance to be different. Special.

Grant was supposed to be the guy with the ball in his hands on every important possession, but Jackson’s ability to make the right play at the right time (an absolute in Brey’s system) has allowed the two to complement each other nicely. They know how to play with and off the other. Grant leads the league in assists (6.2), while Jackson is fourth in steals (2.2). Each is a threat to go for at least 20 points every night out.

Both also rank in the top 10 in minutes and likely will seldom leave the floor in league play.

The ACC is loaded with big-time backcourts — Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook at Duke, Brogdon and Perrantes at Virginia, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier at Louisville. Grant and Jackson have a good chance to be the best of the bunch.

How about an early all-league team?

Grant’s been a two-time all-league pick in preseason and leads all active ACC players in scoring (1,355) and assists (524), yet he’s played only one league game in his career. Heading into conference play, he’s made the strongest case to date for ACC player of the year. He’s been that good. Steady. Rumblings from the NBA back to Brey that he's a likely lottery pick have grown with each passing week. Other sure-fire first team guys if the season ended today would be Virginia’s Justin Anderson, Montrezl Harrell of Louisville and Duke freshmen Jones and Jahlil Okafor.

Syracuse big man Rakeem Christmas and Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey at North Carolina State are guys who could emerge. Same with Sheldon McClellan at Miami (Fla.).

Is Okafor that good?

Yes. He entered the season the likely No. 1 pick in the NBA draft come June and cemented that by earning league rookie of the week honors each of the first three weeks. He’s won the award four times and could be one guy to seriously challenge Grant for league player of the year.

Okafor leads the league in scoring (18.3), is second in field goal percentage (66.9) and sixth in rebounding (8.8). He’s already had one game of 25 points and 20 rebounds and routinely shreds teams that have tried to play him man-to-man. He’s a matchup nightmare, but the good news for league coaches is that nightmare will end whenever this season does for Duke.

Will senior captain Pat Connaughton finally get his due?

Probably not. There likely aren’t 10 better all-around players in the league than Connaughton, an honorable mention all-league pick last season. Brey admitted last month that Irish fans are spoiled watching him and he’s been spoiled coaching him. Why? He’s the same every day, and really has been for four seasons. He’s never too high after a big effort, never too down when it’s not going well. He’s just there, every practice, every film session, every game.

Connaughton led the league last season in defensive rebounds (5.9) and currently ranks second (7.0) to Wake Forest’s Devin Thomas. No active ACC player has more career rebounds (656) than Connaughton. There have been times already when every missed shot seems to belong to the 6-foot-5 Connaughton.

Only Harrell and North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks have more double doubles in the ACC this season (5) than Connaughton (4). Only Harrell (17) and Thomas (13) have more career double doubles than No. 24 (11). Nobody in the league goes as underappreciated.

What teams have been toughest to figure out?

North Carolina sailed into the regular season ranked in the top five before being bounced by Butler in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis. It wasn’t that the Tar Heels lost, but the way in which they were simply outworked caught many off-guard. Butler outrebounded a taller, more athletic and simply more talented team by 17. A home loss to unranked Iowa followed. North Carolina has arguably the league’s second-most talented freshman class behind Duke and guard Marcus Paige was the slam-dunk pick for preseason player of the year. If a re-vote occurred, Paige probably wouldn’t make the first team. Maybe not even the second.

Miami (Fla.) rocketed into the polls after winning at then-No. 8 Florida. Miami climbed to as high as No. 15 before being smoked by Eastern Kentucky (a 28-point loss) at home. So long national rankings.

Who are these guys? The same can be asked of several teams — Wake Forest? North Carolina State? Clemson? — in the league.

Who needs to be more of a factor for Notre Dame in league play?

With Connaughton and Grant as constants, the easy picks are power forward Zach Auguste, Jackson or fellow first-time, full-time starter Steve Vasturia. But all have been main rotation guys since the foreign tour of Italy and through non-league play. What they can do and have offered has come to be expected. Their roles aren’t going to change much in league play.

Same for sophomore V.J. Beachem, who missed five games last month with a plantar fascia tear in his right foot. Beachem returned five days ahead of schedule and jumped right back into the mix. Brey considers him a sixth starter, so it’s hard for him to be as a surprise.

Someone who can be the proverbial X-factor (why is it X and not A, B or C factor?) is junior power forward Austin Burgett. The Irish are going to be size-challenged in league play, especially on the backboard and in transition — get back, put a body on someone and block out or get dunked on. Burgett’s potential to do something as the stretch-four that Brey covets in his system could push this season from good to really good. Potentially great.

He has the bounce to compete at a high level in the league (see last year’s swat of future NBA lottery pick Jabari Parker), but spent a good chunk of non-league play looking like someone scrambling to catch up after arriving with five minutes left in a final exam.

Auguste has become yet another player in the program who has seen the light bulb finally come on as a junior. The 6-9 Burgett is still trying to flip that switch in his third season. If he can’t, sophomore Austin Torres might be ready and willing to grab that role as the energy/hustle/dirty work guy.

Jerian Grant has done enough work heading into conference play to merit serious consideration for Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year.SBT File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN