Analysis: Road win could mean special season for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Something about February forays into the state of South Carolina agrees with the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

For the second straight season, the Irish traveled to the Palmetto State during the early days of the calendar’s second month. And for the second straight season, the Irish delivered a big-time league road win, a potential season-making win.

On Monday, Notre Dame was in Greenville to face Clemson in an Atlantic Coast Conference contest that many figured it had zero business winning. Not in its lone Saturday-Monday league swing. Win a big one on Saturday and it’s almost OK to lose on Monday.

“Everyone woulda given them an excuse to lose,” former Irish swingman Pat Connaughton told the Tribune in a text message. “Couldn’t be happier for them to have gotten it.”

Notre Dame had invested so much energy and effort barely 48 hours earlier back in Indiana to beat then-No. 2 North Carolina. That high point in a season that really had yet to see its share surely would follow with the recent Irish road woes where they talked a good game, but forgot to play one.

Such was the case the two previous times out at Syracuse and last week at No. 12 Miami. Notre Dame was dumped into early double-digit deficits in each, eventually trailed by 20 in both and returned home wondering where it all went wrong. Others wondered where it all was headed.

Monday was not supposed to be much different. The Irish weren’t expected to turn around so soon after such a big win and get perhaps an even bigger one.

But coach Mike Brey counseled his club in the few hours they had to prepare for Clemson to get greedy. An average team would feel all fat and happy and satisfied after beating North Carolina, even though that’s become somewhat routine for this program. An average team would find too many reasons why it wouldn’t win. An average team would not go all-in on being just as good and even better at Clemson.

Don’t ... be … average, Brey told the Irish. Monday was their chance to be special. Special teams ignore the noise and find a way to get the next one. Special teams find ways to win games they’re not expected to win.

Special teams have special moments when nobody sees them coming.

Notre Dame led nearly start to finish in an 89-83 victory to improve to 17-7. It controlled tempo, made shots from the field (50.9 percent), made shots from the foul line (21-of-25, 84 percent), scored a school-record for an ACC game 54 points in the second half, took care of the ball and never seemed fazed playing on a foreign floor.

The Irish committed four turnovers the first 10:13. Same, old road Irish? Nope. Notre Dame committed one turnover the final 29:47 on a night when all five starters again scored double figures.

It all helped the Irish survive a four-league-games-in-nine-day meat-grinder in going 3-1. Following the loss at Miami a week ago, Notre Dame was staring at the real possibility of being 6-6 in the ACC and scrambling for their postseason life after the North Carolina-Clemson swing. Instead, the Irish are 8-4.

When the heads of the coaches and players finally hit their pillows sometime after 3 a.m. Tuesday, no league team had as many conference wins as Notre Dame. Chasing down a conference tournament double bye now seems possible. Why not a regular-season ACC championship?

Average now may be an afterthought.

The win ranks right there with victories over Duke, Iowa and North Carolina. Why? Clemson already had corralled wins against the likes of Miami, Pittsburgh and Syracuse – three teams that each had their way with Notre Dame.

The Irish proved something to everyone, and maybe to themselves.

Then again, visits to Clemson have become known as the “no-business” business trip for Notre Dame.

It was around this time last year –— two days to the day later –— that Notre Dame came to a crossroads in a 32-6 season. Barely 72 hours before its first-ever regular-season game at Clemson, Notre Dame had been kicked around and kicked out of fabled Cameron Indoor Stadium with a 30-point beat-down by Duke. The most lopsided loss in Brey’s tenure pushed the program on its heels. Forget a top-four league finish or deep postseason run. Could the Irish even win again on the road? All they had to do to regroup was go back out to a place they had never played (Littlejohn Coliseum).

Again, similar long-shot circumstances.

Led by Connaughton and Jerian Grant, the Irish answered the challenge and quieted critics with a 60-58 victory. In a season filled with big moments, that night in Littlejohn ranked right there. It may not have carried the wow factor of the home win over Duke or the road win over North Carolina, but it was big. Defining.

“That definitely let us throw away that Duke loss and move forward,” Connaughton said. “Last year’s team prided itself on taking things game by game. Helped us bounce back after losses and not get too confident after wins knowing there was more work to do.”

Winning in South Carolina gave Notre Dame new life, gave it renewed hope that a really good season could chase greatness. Following that win, Notre Dame lost only once the rest of the way –— at home to Syracuse –— while ripping off 10 wins before the NCAA tournament near-miss against Kentucky.

Might a similar run be near for a Notre Dame team that has spent a good part of the season treading water? Six regular-season league games remain –— three at home starting Saturday against No. 13 Louisville and three on the road. Any of the six could go either way and no one would be that surprised. It’s the nature of the league, of the sport this season, when anyone can beat anyone.

Notre Dame went 4-2 through the first third of the league schedule, 4-2 through the second. Close 4-2 and it’s a 12-6 finish after a 1-2 start.

The Irish currently carry a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 22, a Strength of Schedule (SOS) of 21 and a Basketball Power Index of 26. It owns wins over three teams in the BPI Top 10 –— North Carolina (1), Iowa (4) and Duke (9). Barring a complete collapse, Notre Dame has no reason to sweat Selection Sunday, now only 32 days away.

There was something different about the way this Notre Dame team worked Monday. The Irish played like one that may be on the verge of figuring it all out, one that has the look of being poised and prepared, one seemingly positioned to make a big move heading toward March.

Again.

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BONUS: Listen to Tom Noie list five things he has learned about the Notre Dame men's basketball program thus far in the 2015-16 season.

Guard Steve Vasturia and Notre Dame beat the odds in beating Clemson on the road Monday.Photo provided by Clemson University/ALLEN RANDALL