Notre Dame men deserve parade after perfecting gauntlet

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — If anyone says they saw this coming 10 days ago, they’re lying.

Remember Miami (a 79-70 loss)? Uninspired. Unimpressive.

It was an awful start to a four-game gauntlet for the Notre Dame men's basketball team.

The situation seemed bleak.

After the Hurricanes came North Carolina at home, Clemson on the road, then Louisville at home.

That’s called make-or-break. Crunch time. Put up or shut up.

These Irish, with a newly-discovered attitude that defines intensity, defied conventional thinking and responded to the loss with three straight victories. They capped off the run Saturday with a 71-66 victory over the Cardinals.

“I would have been thrilled with 2-2,” said Irish coach Mike Brey, quite honest about his opinion. “So … uh … we’re going to have a parade.”

Reserve the fire engines. Call the band. Time for a big-time celebration.

But wait a minute, it’s only Valentine’s Day. It doesn’t really count until St. Patrick’s Day, right?

“I love the position we’re in,” said Brey. “These guys will remain hungry. They know they found something last Saturday (in beating Carolina). I won’t have to talk too much about it.”

The Irish have gone from finding a way to keep a season from unraveling to worrying about letting big-picture aspirations cloud the present.

Talk about a different set of challenges …

At 9-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference (Carolina leads with a 9-2 record), the Irish are in the hunt for a double bye (top four in the regular season) in the ACC tournament and, with a resume’ that includes wins over Iowa, Duke, North Carolina and Louisville, are a good bet for a nice seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Heck, it feels like just yesterday the Irish frittered away a big lead against Indiana and seemed destined for an NIT postseason.

Brey’s mandate now is to dangle the carrot in front of his players while not asking them to take too big of a bite.

“Now you’re getting into that double-bye territory,” Brey said. “You have a strong record for that. Why not talk about a regular-season championship? Last year’s team chased the regular-season title ‘til the last week or so. Why not chase that?

“One of the things I wasn’t sure about, and I’m so proud of, was our leadership. The job those four guys (Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia, Zach Auguste and A.J. Burgett) are doing, setting the tone and running our team, I’m so pleased.”

Louisville looked like a team with nothing to play for in the last 20 minutes. Oh wait, even though Cardinals coach Rick Pitino disagrees, maybe there’s something to that.

The school’s self-imposed postseason ban for what it construes to be NCAA violations may have had some residual affect.

Notre Dame was good, but … The Cardinals scored just 23 points in the second half; went more than six minutes without scoring as the game wound down; and were outrebounded by 11 in the second half, despite having a couple line changes of bodies 6-foot-10 or bigger.

There’s a killer instinct that can be cultivated by future possibilities. Without a future, sometimes it can be hard to get excited about the present.

The Irish have a future and it could be a pretty bright one. The test now is to not get ahead of themselves. Thirteen ACC wins aren’t out of the realm of possibility.

But, then again …

“We’re happy with where we’re at,” Auguste said. “We’re confident. We don’t get over-anxious. We prepare ourselves for each game. We’ve gotta focus on the here and now. It’s all we can do.”

“We’ve got hungry guys and we know there’s always room for improvement,” said Jackson. “I’m always on myself, ‘How can I improve myself? How can I get better?’ That’s been me ever since I started playing the game.

“I look at the stat sheet, I don’t see the six made (3-pointers), I see the four turnovers.”

An attitude like that from a leader can keep the Irish grounded.

We’ll see.

Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger battles for a rebound with Louisville’s Chinanu Onuaku, left, and Donovan Mitchell during Saturday's game.Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN