Swagger lost, then found for Notre Dame men's basketball team

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It slipped into the shadows when the season started a slide south during Thanksgiving weekend and since remained out of reach for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

It’s as if it stayed stuffed in a cardboard box somewhere in some office alongside knickknacks and assorted items (gloves, hats, glasses, etc.) that people leave behind for some reason only to come back around and grab them again one day.

It sat there waiting to be reclaimed at just the right time.

Now’s the time.

For the first time this season, Notre Dame plays an Atlantic Coast Conference home game Saturday. For the first time this season, it will be against a ranked team when No. 24 Pittsburgh and its high-octane offense comes steaming into Purcell Pavilion. And for the first time since everything started counting for real in mid-November, Notre Dame feels really good about its collective game.

Coming off a record-setting effort Thursday against Boston College, a certain something that disappeared outside Disney World has been rediscovered.

The Irish have found their once-lost swagger.

Winning a conference contest by 28 points — the most lopsided league win in school history — was an elixir for a team that had spent the previous four days wondering just where it was all headed. Determination replaced doubt before Notre Dame (10-4; 1-0 ACC) bounced back from its league-opener loss at No. 4 Virginia with as complete an effort on both ends as it has offered all season.

Didn’t happen much in a stronger-than-average non-league schedule. Happened little during the exempt holiday tournament in central Florida. Didn’t happen much after Christmas until Notre Dame ventured to Boston and returned home in the wee hours of Friday morning — less than 40 hours before its next game — one confident club.

“We’re just trying to find our edge, get our swagger back, play hard and be consistent, turn one game into two games and just keep plugging, find our way,” said junior guard Demetrius Jackson. “We have to be as confident as we can be and just go for it.”

Confidence should not be a concern for a Pittsburgh team that has lost only to Purdue this season and comes to town having won nine in a row, including its first two league games against Syracuse and Georgia Tech. This isn’t the typical blue-collar bunch that Notre Dame came to know so well during its days together in the Big East. Those Panthers seemingly were always ready to go out in the alley and scrap, then play games in the 50s and 60s. Scoring 70 points often was cause for celebration.

Thanks to three graduate transfers all immediately eligible, Pittsburgh got old and good in a hurry. It now wants to get out and go, go, go. The Panthers have hit for at least 90 points six times this season. They’re averaging a staggering 85.3 points per game, up more than 18 points off last year’s output.

Pittsburgh is ranked this week for the first time this season. Notre Dame's season has made zero national splash. As a result, coach Mike Brey figured his bunch would be shoved into the underdog role Saturday in their own building. That’s quite a place for a program that owned the fourth-best home win percentage (89.9; 153-17) in college basketball since 2006-07 heading into the season.

But it’s also a challenge the Irish want and almost need at this point in the season. Playing in front of the home folks for only the third time in the last 27 days and playing really well can allow for some needed separation from the rest of the ACC pack.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to make a statement on how this team will play at home in league play,” said Brey, whose Irish went 7-2 at home in ACC play and 8-3 overall against ranked teams last season. “Who are we going to be at home against one heck of an offensive team? A ranked team.

“It’s set up great for this group.”

It was a unique start to league play. Notre Dame opened with two road games against arguably the league’s best (Virginia) and worst (Boston College). It was banged around but good in Charlottesville before taking out that frustration in Boston, which ended in an 82-54 victory.

In one Commonwealth on Saturday, the Irish left their locker room in a somber stream. They talked in near-whispers. They stared a path through the floor on the way to the team bus. On Thursday in another Commonwealth, it was a group buoyed by the belief that maybe they had turned an important corner. They were a happy bunch heading home.

“Anytime you win a game in this league on the road, it’s going to give you a lot more confidence,” said junior captain Steve Vasturia. “After you get beat, you kind of have to look at yourself and figure it out.”

Might the Irish have it figured out?

Notre Dame defended differently. It moved the ball differently. It shot it differently. It rebounded differently. It substituted differently. It looked different. Why? The Irish just played. There came a time during the three full days of practice this week that the Irish core decided it was time to stop worrying and wondering and just play. Defend. Pass it. Shoot it.

Notre Dame finally looked like the Notre Dame of old. Now it wants to do it again in a game that would do a whole lot for its ever-evolving NCAA tournament resume.

As well as the Irish worked as a group Thursday, they know it has to be more of the same again Saturday. Do it like they did it in Boston, and something good can happen. Do it like they did it Charlottesville, and something bad can happen.

All the good accumulated Thursday will be wiped away without another all-out, all-around effort Saturday.

“We can’t just do it for one game,” said senior captain Zach Auguste. “It’s something we have to do consistently.”

Time to make a move.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

WHO: Notre Dame (10-4 overall; 1-1 ACC) vs. No. 24 Pittsburgh (13-1; 2-0).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at 4 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: RSN (Comcast Channel 101). The game also can be seen on the internet via ESPN3 and WatchND.TV.

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: Jamel Artis and James Robinson each scored 18 points to lead five in double figures Wednesday as Pittsburgh beat Georgia Tech, 89-84, at home. The Panthers shot a season-best 62.1 percent from the floor in the first half and finished with a season-low four turnovers. … Saturday is Pittsburgh’s first true road game and only second time out of the state of Pennsylvania this season. … Pittsburgh finished 3-6 away from home last year in league play. … Three starters return off last year’s team that finished 19-15, 8-10 and ninth in the ACC. … Pittsburgh was picked this preseason to finish 10th in the league. … The Panthers lead the nation in free throw percentage (79.0). … A four-year starter, Robinson opened the week leading the nation in assist/turnover ratio (6.25-to-1). Robinson is second in the league in assists (5.36) and leads all active ACC players in games started (116). … The Panthers outrebound opponents by an average of 11.0 per game. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 31-28, including 17-10 at home. Pittsburgh has won both matchups as ACC members after Notre Dame had won five straight and six of seven. … Notre Dame returns to action Wednesday at home against Georgia Tech.

WORTH QUOTING: “Now we’ve got a little bit of momentum going into Saturday and that’s what we need. We need to get on a roll, get on a little bit of a win streak and build our identity in the ACC for home games.”

-Notre Dame sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson