Notre Dame, past, present converge in latest hoops run

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

RALEIGH, N.C. – A continent away and nearly four years removed from helping the program set a modern-day record for wins, they remember how it all happened as they watch what’s happening now with the Notre Dame men’s basketball program.

Like with this year’s group, the 2010-11 Irish were dismissed as just another team when fall arrived. They weren’t ranked, but after ripping off a slew of early-season wins, including the Old Spice Classic championship with a victory over Wisconsin, Notre Dame climbed into the nation’s Top 10. It would go 27-7 and be ranked as high as No. 4. It was under serious consideration for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Those are places the Irish have been only once during the 15-year tenure of coach Mike Brey, but it was a place then, as now, they felt comfortable. Like they belonged.

“I wouldn’t say there was more pressure, but it was definitely cool,” former forward Tim Abromaitis wrote in a Twitter direct message from Germany, where he is in his first season playing for Braunschweig. “Every game became that much bigger as a Top 10 team, especially on the road.”

That road life as one of the nation’s most-hunted is something No. 8 Notre Dame (18-2, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) learned about earlier this week. Its first visit to Virginia Tech in 10 years was touted as a big deal. A sellout was expected, though that fell some 3,000 fans short. Still, the Irish refused to get caught up in any cacophony coming from the Cassell Coliseum stands and ran away with their most-lopsided league win – 85-60 – as a member of the ACC.

The atmosphere will be a little more electric Sunday when Notre Dame, which is ranked in the Top 10 for the first time since 2010-11, visits North Carolina State (13-7, 4-3). Students ring the PNC Arena court and squeeze close to the Irish bench. It can get loud. It can get noisy. It can be borderline crazy, as it was when State sent then-No. 2 Duke back down Interstate 40 with their first loss earlier this month.

This road test can be much like 2010-11 when also then-No. 8 Notre Dame went to West Virginia and was handed a 72-58 loss. The unranked Mountaineers won the Big East tournament and went to the Final Four the previous year, but beating a Top 10 team was plenty to get fans to rush the court and celebrate the playing of “Country Roads” over the public-address system.

“It obviously sucked to lose, but it was neat to get that sort of reaction and recognition,” Abromaitis said.

Recognition of what the current Notre Dame team is doing has come in waves this month. It really picked up when the Irish visited North Carolina on Jan. 5 and won for the first time-ever in Chapel Hill. A whole lot more people are talking about the overall floor game of senior Jerian Grant (and how about that dunk?), the steadiness of Pat Connaughton, the emergence of sophomores V.J. Beachem, Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia and the low-post presence of Zach Auguste.

For players involved in the long grind of a season, it’s all just talk. The Irish have been good, but to a man, just like in 2010-11, they believe they can be really good.

“Coach Brey did a good job with our team always to remind ourselves that we still have to get better and be true to the reasons that put us in this position,” former Irish guard Ben Hansbrough, the 2011 Big East player of the year, wrote in a direct message from Spain, where he’s in his first season with Laboral Kutxa. “You have to be ready to play every night and know that every team is trying to get that big ‘W’ against you.”

Notre Dame has handled its rise through the polls – from 25 to 21, 16 to 14, 13 to 12 and now inside the Top 10 - in part because it’s been better away from home in league play. Last season, its first in the ACC, Notre Dame staggered to a 1-8 road record. The Irish have already tripled that road league win total. Confidence gained by winning in two places – Georgia Tech and North Carolina – where it lost last season has given Notre Dame (3-0 on the road in league play) more of a swagger in places – Virginia Tech on Thursday and North Carolina State on Sunday – where it had/has yet to play as a member of the ACC.

The Irish never set foot inside PNC Arena prior to Saturday’s scheduled practice, but they sure know what to expect Sunday with that number next to their name.

“When you’re the eighth-ranked team in the country, you’re going to get people’s best shot in their own gym,” Connaughton said. “You have to have a different mentality. You’re not trying to get that crowd riled up, you’re trying to get them as silent as you can.”

In 2010-11, Notre Dame rolled into some pretty crazed places – Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Providence – and ran out with the win. Led by a core of five senior starters like Abromaitis and Hansbrough, that group relished going on the road.

Now, even after last season’s struggles, so does this team. The times the Irish have been at their conference best – jumping to a quick 10-point lead at North Carolina, efficiently erasing a 12-point deficit at Georgia Tech, moving and cutting and sharing it at Virginia Tech – have come outside their Purcell Pavilion cocoon.

“Usually, you’re not supposed to be happy to go on the road and play, but we’re a team that likes to get out there and kind of shush the crowd up a little bit,” said Auguste. “It’s fun to get hyped with the crowd. We stay together and play our basketball.”

That brand of basketball faces a tough test this week. Back in 2010-11, Notre Dame rode the wave of losing one game in 53 days. It enters Sunday having lost only one game (to No. 2 Virginia) in the last 63 days. Win or lose against North Carolina State, there’s little time to rest or recover. There’s a sold-out showdown back home Wednesday against No. 5 Duke before a road trip Saturday to Pittsburgh.

The Irish vow to take it the proverbial one game at a time. And the former Irish have vowed to keep tracking a team that could be in line for a special season, whatever that might mean come March, following last season’s 15-17 showing.

“It’s great to see them turn it around like this,” Abromaitis said. “They’re so fun to watch.”

Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton (24) smiles at the end of the game with Jerian Grant (22) Saturday, January 17, 2015, during the Notre Dame-Miami men's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ
Senior captain Pat Connaughton and Notre Dame embrace the challenge of playing away from home. After going 1-8 on the road in ACC plays season, No. 8 Notre Dame is 3-0 heading into Sunday's game at North Carolina State.SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ

WHO: No. 8 Notre Dame (18-2 overall, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. North Carolina State (13-7, 4-3).

WHERE: PNC Arena (19,722), Raleigh, N.C.

WHEN: Sunday at 6:30 p.m.


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at

WORTH NOTING: Abdul-Malik Abu scored a career-high 19 points for North Carolina State in a 75-70 loss Thursday at Miami (Fla.). … The Wolfpack have gone win-loss, win-loss their last 12 games, including their first six ACC contests. … North Carolina State is 1-3 against ranked teams. … The Wolfpack is ranked 15th – last – in the ACC in steals (3.6). … They average 72.1 points and allow 64.2 points a game. … Guard Trevor Lacey, a transfer from Alabama, ranks fifth in the league in scoring (16.7 ppg). … Power forward Beejay Anya, who played at DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School, is first in the league in blocks (2.8). Anya has a 7-foot-9 wingspan. … Irish swingman Pat Connaughton ranks first in the league in 3-pointers made (2.8 per game). Wolfpack guard Ralston Turner, a transfer from LSU, ranks second at 2.7. … North Carolina State returns three starters off last year’s team that finished 22-14, 9-9 and tied for seventh in the league. …. The Wolfpack were picked this preseason to finish ninth. … The series is tied at 4-4. North Carolina State has won the last two and three of four. This is Notre Dame’s first visit to Raleigh since a 43-42 victory on Feb. 12, 1983, the year the Wolfpack won the national championship. … Notre Dame is 3-0 all-time in Raleigh. …. The Irish have never played in PNC Arena, the only split college/professional sports venue in the ACC. … This is the only regular-season meeting between the teams. … The Irish return to action Wednesday at home against No. 5 Duke. The game is sold-out.

WORTH QUOTING: “This team had great confidence coming into the season knowing we could do stuff. But proving it to ourselves really goes a long way.”

-Notre Dame senior guard Pat Connaughton.