No time for No. 12 Notre Dame to coast as regular season winds down

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It matters this time.

When the final week of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season arrived last March, Notre Dame played the part of casual bystander. The Irish lost at North Carolina before getting a league-mandated bye the rest of the week. While other schools jockeyed for conference tournament seeding and played to enhance respective postseason resumes, Notre Dame sat and watched.

It was almost fitting, considering Notre Dame had very little left on the line. The Irish were on their way to their first losing record (15-17) in 15 seasons and would miss all of postseason for the first time since 1999.

A lost year could not end soon enough.

That's not the case now as No. 12 Notre Dame (24-5, 12-4 ACC) closes the regular season with two important league games — Wednesday at No. 16 Louisville (23-6, 11-5) and Saturday at home against Clemson.

Win or lose this week, Notre Dame already knows what awaits next week at the ACC tournament. The Irish will receive one of four double-byes, which means they won't open tournament play until Thursday, March 12 against an opponent to be determined. Notre Dame can finish anywhere from second to fourth place. Logic strongly suggests that barring any late-season league wackiness, Notre Dame is ticketed for the No. 3 seed.

But there remains much motivation. A win Wednesday would build on Notre Dame's school-record six league road victories. Two wins this week would tie the school record for most conference victories in a season (14) and press third-ranked Duke for second place after being picked seventh in preseason. And there's an NCAA seeding to chase. Finish strong, and the Irish could be as high as a No. 3 seed. Continue to struggle - Notre Dame is 4-3 since beating Duke in late January - and a No. 5 seed could become reality.

Wrapping a seven-day break from game action following the second of their two bye weeks, the Irish understand this is no time to coast. Not after last week's home loss to Syracuse. Not with a Louisville team now seemingly finding its winning footing waiting.

“This is a huge game, so it's not something that you can take for granted or look past or not think about,” said Irish senior guard Jerian Grant, closing in on possible league player of the year honors. “We have to focus on this game. It's going to be a huge game going on the road against a great team.

“To get a win there, a place where we've done it before, would be exciting.”

It's also going to take some work for Notre Dame to avoid losing a second straight game for the first time all season. Last time out, while still ranked within the Associated Press Top 10 for what would be a sixth and final week, Notre Dame looked very little like Notre Dame. One of the country's most efficient offenses sputtered through 40 minutes of frustrating stops and starts against a 2-3 zone whose length and athleticism and ability to get up and guard never let the Irish get on track. From anywhere.

Notre Dame shot 34.7 percent from the field and 13.6 percent from 3 in connecting on three of 22 attempts behind the arc. Eliminate a 3-for-7 effort from senior Pat Connaughton, and the Irish combined to go 0-for-15 from long distance. They also had more turnovers (14) than assists (11) for the first time in league play and the first time since way back in late November in a double-digit win over Massachusetts.

A week away allowed the Irish to get even more rest before getting back to work with four practices that carried one main goal – be better against zone. The Irish got plenty of reps against it in the four days of practice between games. That included plenty of high-post touches and probing of gaps in the zone.

“The days we've looked good, we've made shots,” said coach Mike Brey.

Like Syracuse, Louisville will fall back Wednesday in a 2-3 matchup zone and dare Notre Dame to make shots over the top of what can be a long and athletic defensive look.

“It's tough to get to the rim,” Grant said of operating against a zone. “If you have a good look, you take it. Our offense, we usually pass up good shots for great shots. Against the zone, you just gotta take the ones when you're open.”

Unlike Syracuse, Louisville will unleash a large helping of fullcourt pressure. Grant and fellow guards Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia have to be ready to handle the pressure that's coming inside the pressure-cooker that will be KFC Yum! Center.

Jackson and Vasturia have never played against the type of defense that awaits Wednesday. The Cardinals will pressure them. Grab them. Bump them. Be physical with them. Be strong with the ball, or it will be a long night for the Irish.

“That's kind of a double test of your mental toughness,” said Brey, who planned to add to the practice plans dealing with some crowd noise that could rattle the visitors.

Executing for the Irish means doing a better job of moving and cutting and slashing through the center of the defense. When the Irish are unable to stir up the zone and get the defenders moving away from their designated areas, it forces them to start their offense further from the basket to the point where the only look is from 20 feet and beyond. Not exactly the highest of percentages.

“When you're two, three, four feet behind the arc, the zone can settle back and watch you reverse it around,” Connaughton said. “We've got to put a little more pressure on the zone like you do in man-to-man defense.”

One reason Notre Dame has been so efficient this season has been the ability and the want-to to find the open guy, to make the extra pass and to constantly seek out a teammate for a higher percentage shot. That's easy against man, harder against zone.

“Maybe you overpass a little bit,” Brey said. “You don't have to dump it down on the baseline for the layup all the time. That's where people get into trouble.”

Coming off last week's sluggishness against Syracuse, Brey believes it's easy for Notre Dame to set aside any thoughts of Greensboro for the here and now.

“I don't think it changes our mindset,” he said of having the tourney double-bye wrapped up. “We're going to have to attack zone and we're going to have to be better. That keeps us away from, 'OK, we're in the top four.'

“The biggest thing is, how will you play after a loss?”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

WHO: No. 12 Notre Dame (24-5 overall, 12-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 16 Louisville (23-6, 11-5).

WHERE: KFC Yum! Center (22,090), Louisville, Ky.

WHEN: Wednesday at 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

WORTH NOTING: Wayne Blackshear scored 18 points and Montrezl Harrell added 16 as Louisville led by as many as 26 points in an 81-59 victory Saturday at Florida State. The Cardinals tallied 37 deflections, forced 21 turnovers and had 10 steals, including six from guard Terry Rozier. … Louisville went 6-3 on the road in its first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. … The Cardinals have won three in a row and four of six. … Louisville is 14-3 at home with losses to Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina State. … The Cardinals rank third in the nation behind Syracuse and Kentucky in average home attendance (21,325). … Rozier leads the Cardinals in scoring (17.5 ppg.) and steals (58). A first team preseason All-American, Harrell averages 15.4 points and 9.3 rebounds. … Louisville has fielded eight different starting lineups this season and has been ranked as high as No. 4. …The Cardinals are playing in their third league in as many seasons. … Louisville leads the all-time series 20-12 and has won the last two meetings with Notre Dame. This is the first time the teams play as ACC colleagues. … The Irish are 2-10 all-time in Kentucky against the Cardinals, 1-1 all-time at Yum! Center. That includes a 73-57 loss on March 9, 2013 in their final Big East regular-season game played in front of a crowd of 22,815, largest in Yum! Center history. Notre Dame’s lone win at Yum! Center was 67-65 in double overtime on Jan. 7, 2012. ... Seven meetings in the Big East, including four in a row and five of six, went to at least one overtime. That includes a 104-101 Irish victory in five overtimes on Feb. 9, 2013. … A win Wednesday guarantees Notre Dame an ACC finish no lower than third place. … The Irish are 3-2 against ranked teams with wins over Duke, Michigan State and North Carolina and losses to Duke and Virginia.

WORTH QUOTING: “It’s just been great basketball games. It’s just one of those great rivalries where every game’s exciting, a lot of anxious moments. We’ve always enjoyed playing there as well as at home against them.”

-Louisville coach Rick Pitino on playing Notre Dame.