Can Notre Dame cure its post-bye week hoops blues?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Worked into every Atlantic Coast Conference team’s league schedule, a bye week often serves as a buoy to help navigate what becomes a tedious and trying regular season.

But for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, the six-day break away from game action last month served as more of an anchor that dropped a promising sprint to the finish into a frustration in failure.

Heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale against North Carolina State (15-15, 5-12), Notre Dame (19-10, 10-7) is scrambling to figure out which way is up after losing three of four following its week off.

In the four games back since, Notre Dame has allowed an average of 66.5 points — good enough to win all four. But its offensive numbers have been nowhere efficient enough.

The Irish are averaging 59.2 points per game, shooting 39.4 percent from the field and 28.8 percent from 3. They’re averaging the same number of assists as turnovers (9.2).

They’ve set season lows for points in three of the four games. In the 13 league games prior, Notre Dame was humming along on the offensive end. It was averaging 78.2 points, shooting 47.6 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from 3. The Irish also were averaging 12.4 assists to 8.0 turnovers.

They were good. Now, not so much.

“We’re struggling a little bit right now,” junior guard Steve Vasturia said. “I don’t think the confidence has been shaken. We’ve just got to figure it out and play the way we play.”

And fast. Saturday’s home game against a North Carolina State team locked into a 13th-place finish (and No. 12 tourney seed by virtue of Louisville's exclusion in the field) in the 15-team league isn’t going to be easy. After that, the Irish are guaranteed only two more games.

“We’ve just got to be better,” junior guard Demetrius Jackson said. “We’ve just really got to find our mojo.”

That mojo had been rolling. The Irish enjoyed a mid-January run of four-straight league wins. Shaking off a lackluster loss at Syracuse when it was without an injured Jackson, Notre Dame then sailed through a stretch of five games in 14 days at 4-1.

Life was good. The Irish were winning. They were ranked.

Winning nine of its first 13 league games, Notre Dame had designs on getting some rest during the bye week before jumping back into gear to chase a regular-season ACC championship.

Lose Saturday, and Notre Dame could fall as far as seventh in the conference tournament seeding.

Nothing really changed from a practice/preparation/focus standpoint during the bye week. But something’s been missing since late-February. Nobody really knows why, or how to get it back.

“We’ve kind of lost a little bit of a vibe,” coach Mike Brey said Thursday, the morning after his team scored a season-low 50 points at home in an 18-point loss to No. 7 Miami (Fla.). “We’ve been there a couple times; we’ve gone through this a couple times.”

That they have. During Brey’s tenure, Notre Dame has lost two of three at or near the end of the regular season seven times.

This latest spin cycle, which also includes road losses to Georgia Tech and Florida State, marks the fourth time in the last five seasons that the Irish have hit the skids at the most inopportune time, a time when teams headed to the NCAA tournament (and Notre Dame is) are supposed to be playing their best basketball.

In running off four of five league wins early last month, Notre Dame played with an edge on both ends. The ball flowed on offense; the stops surfaced on defense.

That hasn’t happened since the Irish returned from two full days away from practice, and started their slump with a Feb. 20, last-second loss to Georgia Tech.

“We kind of lost it; we've got to get it back,” senior power forward Zach Auguste said of the edge. “It’s real easy to put your head down. It’s easy to point fingers and get mad, (but) we’ll be fine. I’m confident.”

Returning off the Wake Forest-Florida State road swing earlier in the week, Brey mentioned at the time that his team needed a couple of good days of practice reps to get back into an offensive rhythm. He had several drills on the pre-Miami practice plan designed to get the ball moving, the guys cutting, the shots falling, the confidence rolling.

And then none of that happened against the Hurricanes.

On Thursday, Brey said that the days of breakdown practice drills are over. For the Irish to shake their offensive sluggishness, they just needed to get up and down the floor and see the ball go in the basket. They spent the better part of the last two days with a big helping of 5-on-5.

“A group like this now, you’re almost into scrimmaging more than drills,” Brey said. “You can’t really find a rhythm in any kind of drill.

“We don’t really need any breakdown drills. We need to play.”

And win. Saturday also is Senior Day for Auguste and fellow captain A.J. Burgett. Both will start. Both also had no choice but to step into the massive leadership shoes left behind by Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, two guys who may have been the best captains in program history after how they drove last year’s team.

Brey didn’t know as late as last fall if he would get the type of leadership, from Auguste and Burgett, required to get this program back to the NCAA tournament.

Both delivered in their own ways — Auguste on the floor, Burgett behind the scenes.

“They have really done it,” Brey said. “I’m very, very proud of those two guys. Selfishly, I want to send them off on a good note.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Something just hasn't been quite right since last month's bye week for guard Steve Vasturia and the Notre Dame men's basketball team.Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

WHO: Notre Dame (19-10 overall, 10-7 ACC) vs. North Carolina State (15-15, 5-12).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at noon (EST).

TICKETS: A limited number available.

TV: CBS.

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: Maverick Rowan’s layup off an out-of-bounds set with 1.1 seconds remaining gave North Carolina State a 73-72 victory Wednesday over Boston College in Raleigh, N.C. Guard Anthony “Cat” Barber scored 24 points, with six rebounds and six assists. The Wolfpack shot 53.8 percent in the second half to win for the fourth time in their last five home games. … Power forward Beejay Anya passed Thurl Bailey against Boston College for career blocked shots. Anya has 208, most in school history. … Rowan’s father, Ron, played one season at Notre Dame (1982-83) before transferring to St. John’s. … Barber leads the ACC in scoring (23.2) and minutes per game (38.6). … North Carolina State is 1-7 on the road in ACC play, with the lone win at Pittsburgh. … The Wolfpack have lost their last four league road games and have not won consecutive league games overall this season. … North Carolina State was picked in preseason to finish eighth in the league. The Wolfpack are locked into 12th place and will open league tournament play Tuesday in Washington against No. 13 Wake Forest. … N.C. State won a season-high six games to close non-conference play before opening ACC play 0-5. … The Wolfpack rank last in the league for assists (11.5), but first in offensive rebounds (13.9). They are 14th — second to last — in scoring defense (77.3 ppg) for league games. ... Notre Dame leads the all-time series 5-4, but is 1-3 at home. The win was 70-59 on Feb. 21, 1978. … The teams have split each of their first two meetings as ACC colleagues, including last year’s 81-78 Irish overtime win. … The Irish have lost two games in a row for the first time all year following Wednesday’s 68-50 loss to No. 7 Miami and have lost three of their last four. … An ND win and a Duke loss at home to North Carolina would give Notre Dame the No. 4 seed (and a double bye) for the ACC tournament. A Notre Dame win and a Duke win would give the Irish the No. 5 seed.

WORTH QUOTING: “We’ve got to break out of it soon.”

— Notre Dame senior power forward Zach Auguste on the team’s repeated struggles to start games.