Analysis: Time for Notre Dame to max out March
WASHINGTON – It’s time.
Time to stop tinkering with lineups and rotations and style. Time to stop riding the different beard karmas of the head coach. Time to stop wondering if it’s all going to fall into place or to pieces.
Time to put it all in play and max out everything everyone has to offer.
Time to win.
When the Notre Dame men’s basketball team fell one victory shy this month last year of advancing to its first Final Four since 1978, emotions were hard to muster inside a cramped and crowded locker room of Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. There were no sobs, no sadness.
The Irish emotional meter had hit empty.
From the head coach to the last man in the rotation, everyone had given everything they had during a storybook postseason run that saw Notre Dame win a conference tournament championship for the first time in school history before almost beating seemingly unbeatable Kentucky. When it all ended that Saturday night on the shores of Lake Erie, there was nothing left to give. They all just kind of sat there. Spent.
This year’s Irish have worked through the past weeks and months of games and practices and media sessions careful not to step in the same footprints left from last year’s group that went 32-6. This is a new year, a new team, they often stressed. But it’s time this year’s group adopts the postseason drive of last year’s team.
Time to max out March.
Don’t leave the only league tournament championship banner in school history lonely. Don’t let another dozen years go between Sweet 16. Don’t let 36 years pass between Elite Eights. Do everything needed to chase them both again. Hard.
That opportunity commences Thursday around 2:30 p.m. at the Verizon Center. For the second straight season, Notre Dame (20-10) opened Atlantic Coast Conference tournament play with a double bye. Three wins are needed for another ACC Championship.
“We’re excited to go out and try to get some big wins and leave with some hardware,” said junior swingman V.J. Beachem.
For the second-straight league tournament, a pair — THE pair — of conference bluebloods stand in Notre Dame’s way of the ultimate prize.
First up is No. 5 seed Duke (23-9). If everything holds according to plan, top-seeded North Carolina (25-6) awaits in a Friday night semifinal showdown.
There was a time not long ago in Notre Dame’s ACC affiliation that it had no business standing alongside either school. They were the bullies on the block. The Irish had no lunch money to cough up. They could only dream that they might one day stand shoulder to shoulder with them.
That day arrived sooner than anyone imagined.
Notre Dame has beaten Duke in four of five as conference colleagues. The run includes the first-ever victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium in January when the Irish played free and fast and hung 95 points on the center scoreboard. And North Carolina? Three straight wins over the Tar Heels in three different venues.
Notre Dame beat both on back-to-back nights last March to win the tournament championship. That first time might dismissed as a fluke. Do it a second? Time to get serious about those guys from South Bend.
How long Notre Dame remains in the nation’s capital may hinge a whole lot on trust.
Last week, with the Irish having lost three of four league games, coach Mike Brey talked of his team needing to trust him to figure it all out. The solution was to dip a little deeper in the rotation and play faster. The result was 89 points in a 15-point victory over North Carolina State. The offensive output looked as effortless as it has been in weeks.
Now do it again. And do it with the same cast. That’s where the trust comes in. Last week, the Irish trusted Brey. Now it’s Brey's turn to trust his guys.
Trust that the rotation can include more than just the five starters. Trust that sophomore guard Matt Farrell can offer meaningful minutes. That freshman forward Matt Ryan can feel comfortable enough and get enough minutes to get up more than a few shots. That fellow freshman Rex Pflueger can continue to play well beyond his current class classification.
“Those guys,” Brey said, “have all earned it.”
Now do it again. And again. And again.
When Notre Dame locked down its ticket back to the NCAA tournament last month with consecutive wins over North Carolina, Clemson and Louisville, Brey added some fuel to the whirlwind week right after the win over North Carolina. He proclaimed in the locker room that, “When the lights are bright and the stage is big, the freakin’ Irish deliver.”
The lights are bright.
The stage is big.
Time to deliver.
WHO: No. 4 seed Notre Dame (20-10) vs. No. 5 Duke (23-9).
WHERE: Verizon Center (18,200), Washington.
WHEN: Thursday at 2:30 p.m. (approximately).
TV: ESPN; ACC Network.
LINE: Duke favored by 1 1/2
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: Bonzie Colson scored a career-high 31 points with 11 rebounds and Demetrius Jackson added 24 points Jan. 16 as Notre Dame beat Duke, 96-91, in Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time in school history. The Irish shot 50 percent from the field and finished with 50 points in the paint. … The Irish have won seven straight, including all five meetings this season, against Tobacco Road schools since a 90-60 loss to Duke on Feb. 7, 2015. … The Irish are 7-4 at Verizon Center under Maryland native Mike Brey. …. Brey remains the only former Duke assistant coach to beat Mike Krzyzewski. … Duke leads the all-time series 20-6, including 9-1 at neutral sites. … This is the second straight time the teams meet in the ACC tournament. Notre Dame beat Duke last year in the tournament semifinals at Greensboro, N.C.
WORTH QUOTING: “There’s a nucleus of guys that have won this tournament. They’re going there thinking they can win another ACC Championship. I don’t think there are a whole lot of buttons I need to push.”
-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.