Miami loss was ACC basketball "wake-up call" for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Nearly 1,200 miles separate the Atlantic Coast Conference outposts of South Bend and Coral Gables, Fla.

When No. 19 Notre Dame was handed a 79-70 loss by No. 11 Miami (Fla.) on the night of Feb. 3, the Irish had a long plane ride home to wallow in it. But the team that left South Florida that night searching for something has since come an equally long way. Maybe longer.

The loss to the Hurricanes dropped the Irish to 6-4 in the ACC as they headed back to Indiana for a critical conference stretch. It included a home game against then-No. 2 North Carolina, a trip to Greenville, S.C., to play Clemson, which had been undefeated in league play at its home away from home, and a home game against nationally-ranked Louisville.

If Notre Dame wasn’t careful, its league record was in serious jeopardy of falling below the break-even line at the midway point of the final full month of the college basketball regular season. That’s not the place NCAA tournament teams care to be.

But Notre Dame erased a double-digit deficit in the second half to beat North Carolina, led from nearly start to finish against Clemson and again rallied from being down double-digits Saturday against No. 18 Louisville for a 71-66 victory.

When all is seen and said and written about this 2015-16 Irish team, many will point to that run of three games over eight days as the turning point. It’s when a season that was average turned toward potentially being really good.

Yet it really all started as the Irish (18-7; 9-4) trudged out of BankUnited Center knowing they had to improve. Fast.

“That was probably the wake-up call,” said junior guard Steve Vasturia. “They really took it to us and beat us in every facet of the game that night. We did a really good job of putting that behind us and knowing that we had to get better.”

Instead of scrambling to stay afloat in the ACC, Notre Dame now is talking about chasing down a double-bye in the league tournament, even making a push toward a regular-season championship. Notre Dame entered Monday night tied for third in the ACC with No. 7 Virginia.

The Irish have won eight of their last 10 and have seemingly come from nowhere, something that would be a surprise to many, except those in the locker room. They knew what those eight days could mean to their season. They knew they had to deliver.

“It was going to be a gut-check week for us,” said junior guard V.J. Beachem. “We were going to have to come to play every night.”

Now they need to continue to get better with five regular-season games remaining starting Saturday at Georgia Tech (13-12; 3-9). No let-up. No easing off the accelerator.

“This is where we want to be,” said senior power forward Zach Auguste. “We continue to grow, I’m sure we’ll surprise a lot more people down the road.”

Why not Jackson?

Seeing his point guard’s name inexplicably left off the late-season list of the Top 20 finalists for the John R. Wooden Award last week sat none too well with Irish coach Mike Brey.

“Whoever runs the Wooden Award are complete buffoons,” Brey said on his weekly radio show. "If John Wooden was alive … They have no idea what they’re doing.”

Jackson did make the late-season finalist for the Naismith Award, but Brey believes Jackson also deserves serious consideration for top individual ACC honors.

“I don’t know why he isn’t mentioned for player of the year in our league more,” Brey wondered after watching Jackson go for 27 points, which tied his career high, and five assists in 40 minutes on Saturday. “He’s a player of the year candidate; are you kidding me?”

On Monday, Jackson became the first Irish named ACC player of the week this season.

Much of the league player of the year buzz has centered around guard Anthony “Cat” Barber, who’s been big on a bad North Carolina State team. North Carolina’s Brice Johnson also has garnered a lot of backing in recent weeks. A POY conversation seemingly can’t begin or end without mentioning Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon or Carolina’s Marcus Paige, who were co-picks in preseason.

Jackson? Notre Dame’s distance from the Tobacco Road epicenter of the ACC may work against him, just as it did a year ago when former Irish guard Jerian Grant lost out on player of the year honors to Duke’s Jahlil Okafor.

Jackson entered the week ranked eighth in scoring (17.0), first in assists (5.17), fifth in free throw percentage (86.8), fifth in steals (1.67), ninth in 3-point field goal percentage (34.8) and fourth in assist/turnover ratio (2.70) for league games only. He also missed basically two conference games last month with a moderate pull of his right hamstring.

“He is firmly at the controls of this team,” Brey said. “It’s his voice, his team.”

Bracket racket

With Selection Sunday now less than four weeks away, the season has reached a point where everyone has an opinion about their favorite team and the rapidly-approaching NCAA tournament.

Is your team a high seed? Low seed? In danger of not getting in at all? It’s all sometimes too dizzying to keep straight. But one web site — bracketmatrix.com — culls tournament projects from 79 different sites and computes the average rankings for the 68-team field.

Notre Dame is one of 31 teams in the matrix to appear on all 79 brackets. The Irish have an average seed of 5.66, which would slot them as a No. 6 seed along with Baylor, USC and Utah.

Notre Dame is seeded as high as No. 4 and as low as 7 in the 79-bracket matrix. It’s all sure to change, and likely will, between now and just after 6 p.m. on March 13.

Baseline bits

• Since going 6-12 in its first run through the ACC in 2013-14, Notre Dame is 23-8 in regular-season league play.

• Notre Dame’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) sits at 19, its Strength of Schedule (SOS) 13 and its Basketball Power Index (BPI) 20 according to ESPN.com.

• Jackson’s 27 points Saturday also included a career-best six 3-pointers in 12 attempts.

• Zach Auguste’s two late free throws Saturday were points 10 and 11, which gave him double-double No. 14 for the season and 18 for his career. Auguste also had a game-high 12 rebounds. He’s grabbed at least 10 rebounds in seven of the last nine league games.

• Thanks to the mandatory bye week given every league team, Notre Dame is currently in a stretch of two games in 14 days. That after the Feb. 8 win at Clemson capped a run of four games in nine days. Saturday’s game at Georgia Tech is the first of three in eight days, all on the road.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI