Notebook: Notre Dame has been better when not ranked

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK – Handling national recognition for success and the Notre Dame men’s basketball team was a combination more oil and water than peanut butter and jelly throughout this men’s college basketball season.

Something about the pairing just didn’t mix.

Notre Dame (22-11) was ranked in the national polls three times over the past six months. Each time the Irish seemed poised for an extended stay and a possible climb up the rankings ladder, they found themselves back on the outside looking in.

Notre Dame, which plays in the NCAA East Region play Friday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. enters NCAA Tournament play unranked in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll.

“We’re hungrier when we don’t see a number next to our names,” said freshman guard Rex Pflueger. “When we see that (ranking) we get a little complacent.”

Complacency first came calling when Notre Dame was ranked No. 19 to start the season, then climbed to No. 17 before losing two of three games at the AdvoCare Invitational in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

The Irish spent eight weeks out of the national rankings before reappearing in late January at No. 25. It was a one-week visit.

Notre Dame resurfaced Feb. 15 at No. 19. A last-second loss at Georgia Tech dropped it to 23. A loss at Florida State dropped it out again altogether.

There’s not a lot of buzz around the Irish right now, certainly nothing like there was at this time last year after Notre Dame won the school’s first-ever ACC Tournament championship and eventually evolved into the national media darling who almost beat seemingly unbeatable Kentucky.

The Irish enter NCAA Tournament play after absorbing a 31-point beatdown at the hands of North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinals.

“A lot of people doubt, but it’s something that we take and use as motivation,” said sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson. “We proved throughout the season that we can play and play with the best. This is another opportunity. We’re not done yet.”

The Irish may enter NCAA play unknowns, but don’t think that they didn’t forget to pack their edge.

“We’ve got to take every game as if we’re supposed to lose,” Pflueger said. “Knowing that there might be some teams out there that think they’re going to come in and beat us easily or just roll over us, that’s when we get the Mad Dog in us.”

Fresh focus

Getting into the NCAA Tournament offers a chance to step away from conference play, which often becomes an 18-game grind stretched out over two-plus months of the regular season.

League play often is fresh and challenging throughout January and early February, but the deeper teams go through their conference schedules, the tougher it is to pull surprise attacks on opponents. Personnel, pet plays and tendencies are so well scouted that there are few secrets.

That’s not the case in the NCAA Tournament when an Irish opponent has little time, or first-hand knowledge, to prepare for how Notre Dame likes to operate.

“They know nothing about us; we know nothing about them,” Colson said. “That’s exciting. We haven’t played against these guys except for maybe high school or AAU, so it’s an opportunity to play a team that has no idea about us.”

What might Notre Dame’s first-round opponent discover about the squad from South Bend?

“They’re going to find a team that’s really hungry, playing with a nucleus that knows what it takes to advance,” Colson said. “We’re going to give it everything we’ve got and do what we need to do to advance.”

Friendly faces

When the NCAA Tournament brackets are announced, Irish coach Mike Brey looks at more than just what teams are slotted at the same site as his team.

“You just kind of look at the coaches,” he said. “Guys you’ve had a deep relationship with.”

No introductions are needed for the coaches who bring their respective teams to Brooklyn. That includes Fran Dunphy (Temple), Bob Huggins (West Virginia) Fran McCaffery (Iowa) and Jay Wright (Villanova). Brey has deep relationships/friendships with each of them. Brey coached with Huggins and Wright in the Big East and is good friends with Dunphy and McCaffery, who spent 11 seasons as a Notre Dame assistant.

During his days at Notre Dame, Brey never has coached against Dunphy. He’s 4-4 against Huggins, 1-1 against McCaffery and 7-6 against Wright. Brey won his last two against Huggins when their schools were Big East colleagues and his last three against Wright.

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Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson (11) celebrates a 3-pointer with teammate Bonzie Colson (35) during the second half of Notre Dame's 89-75 win against North Carolina State in an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 5, 2016, in South Bend, Ind. (Tribune Photo/Robert Franklin)

NCAA Tournament

First Round

WHO: No. 6 seed Notre Dame (21-11) vs. No. 11. Michigan (23-12)

WHERE: Barclays Center (17,732), Brooklyn. N.Y.

WHEN: Friday at 9:40 p.m. (approximately).


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at