Analysis: Small scheduling step for Notre Dame hoops

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

An idea first floated more than three years ago finds its way to the Notre Dame men’s basketball schedule this winter.

Former Big East colleague and defending national champion Villanova returns to the Irish slate, officially released Monday afternoon, for the first time since January 2013. The teams meet Dec. 10 at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., as part of a doubleheader day to honor victims of 9/11.

Not long after Notre Dame announced near the end of the 2012-13 regular-season its plans to jump to the Atlantic Coast Conference beginning with the 2013-14 campaign, Irish coach Mike Brey offered a scheduling olive branch of sorts to the league the Irish were leaving after 18 seasons.

Brey vowed to maintain some of the rivalries that Notre Dame had with its soon-to-be former conference colleagues. He wanted to play DePaul and Marquette, Georgetown and Villanova. Maybe even St. John’s since that meant getting back to the biggest of East Coast basketball stages — Madison Square Garden.

In a perfect basketball world, the idea sounded sweet. Notre Dame was moving to arguably the most competitive conference in the country in the ACC. It would play annual conference games against blue-bloods Duke and North Carolina. It would play Pittsburgh and Syracuse and eventually Louisville, three other Big East schools. But it also could carry a competitive non-league schedule with a team or two sprinkled in from the reconstructed Big East.

But those games really were at least four years away. It would take Notre Dame at least that long to figure out how to arrange the scheduling furniture in its new league home before circling back to the old neighborhood.

With Notre Dame entering its fourth ACC season, Brey finally feels the program is on firm enough footing to venture out of his scheduling comfort zone.

Enter Villanova, a top-five preseason pick and chic choice to challenge for a second-straight championship with three starters and a solid core back from last year’s 35-5 team.

No other former Big East colleague makes any scheduling sense. Not DePaul or Marquette. Not Georgetown or St. John’s. Beating those teams given where they are today (none finished with a winning record while going a combined 19-53 in league play last season) hardly moves the strength-of-schedule meter. Losing would be akin to being beaten by ACC doormat Boston College and a critical blow to the all-important NCAA Tournament resume.

Outside of the Villanova revival, and the required ACC/Big Ten Challenge home matchup against Iowa, the Crossroads Classic clash with Purdue, and the early-season tournament tests against Colorado and either Northwestern or Texas, Notre Dame’s non-league schedule will leave many nonplussed.

That’s the way Brey wants it. Needs it.

For all it has done — Notre Dame is the only school in the country to go to the Elite Eight each of the last two years — getting back to the NCAA Tournament is something that still keeps Brey up at night. It again will this season.

Brey learned long ago from former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese that the most consistent route into March is no more than five non-league games against teams from traditional power conferences. There are four (Villanova, Purdue, Colorado and Northwestern/Texas) this winter.

Those non-league power games are nice, but Brey has long been of the belief that your league schedule will best slingshot you into Selection Sunday.

Even that’s not going to be easy. Notre Dame opens (Pittsburgh) and closes (Louisville) on the road. It gets a three-game road swing for the second-straight season. Despite winning a combined 25 league games the last two years, Notre Dame will be picked closer to the bottom of the 16-team league than the top.

The result of that ACC uncertainty is a cumulus-cloud soft home slate. Even that’s by design.

Two years ago with the program still stinging from a 15-17 showing the previous season, the Irish needed to feel as good as possible about themselves before jumping into league play. Notre Dame racked up 10 non-league home wins (not counting the ACC/Big Ten game against Michigan State) against teams with an average Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 267.2.

Fresh off the NCAA near-miss against Kentucky, the 2015-16 non-conference schedule was slightly more challenging. The Irish won their seven non-league home games against teams with an average RPI of 215.2.

This year’s non-league slate looks like it was crafted for a team that really needs confidence, not one strutting around campus with it after a school-record 56 combined wins the last two years.

The average RPI for Notre Dame’s eight non-league opponents is 259.5. That includes the Nov. 12 opener against Bryant (320), the Nov. 26 game with Chicago State (348), a perennial bottom-feeder that visits for the fourth time since 2010, and the Dec. 4 game against North Carolina A&T (340).

Only one home opponent (IPFW) has an RPI north of 213.

The RPI average does not count Iowa (26), a mandatory home matchup dictated by ESPN.

Why not slot at least one marquee home game somewhere in December? Notre Dame last did that in 2010 with Gonzaga, a quality opponent that failed to draw a sellout. The general consensus is that college basketball doesn’t register on the national sports radar until mid-January, through February and into March. That’s when league play is in full swing, Selection Sunday begins to beckon and college football finally fades from the rear-view mirror. That’s when the season truly matters to the casual fan.

That’s where Notre Dame has made its NCAA Tournament bones the last two years. This year is designed no differently.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Home games listed in ALL CAPS

NOVEMBER

1 Tues. MERCY (N.Y.) COLLEGE, 7 p.m. (exhibition); 7 Mon. CATHOLIC, 7 p.m. (exhibition); 12 Sat. BRYANT, noon; 16 Wed. SEATTLE, 7; 18 Fri. LOYOLA (Md.), TBA; 21 Mon. vs. Colorado (Legends Classic, Barclays Center), TBA (ESPN2); 22 Tues. vs. Northwestern or Texas (Legends Classic, Barclays Center), TBA (ESPN2/ESPNU); 26 Sat. CHICAGO STATE, 2; 29 Tues. IOWA (ACC/Big Ten Challenge), 9 (ESPN2).

DECEMBER

4 Sun. NORTH CAROLINA A&T, TBA; 6 Tues. IPFW, 9, (ESPNU); 10 Sat. vs Villanova (Newark, N.J.), noon (CBS); 17 Sat. vs Purdue (Crossroads Classic, Indianapolis) 2 (ESPN2); 19 Mon. COLGATE, 7; 28 Wed. ST. PETER'S, 7; 31 Sat. at Pittsburgh, 12 or 2 (ACCN).

JANUARY

4 Wed. LOUISVILLE, 9, (ACCN); 7 Sat. CLEMSON, 3 (ESPNU); 12 Thurs. at Miami (Fla.), 7 (ESPN/ESPN2); 14 Sat. at Virginia Tech 2 (ACCN); 18 Wed. at Florida State, 7 (RSN); 21 Sat. SYRACUSE, noon (ESPN/ESPN2); 24 Tues. VIRGINIA, 8 (ACCN); 28 Sat. at Georgia Tech, noon (ESPNU); 30 Mon. DUKE, 7 (ESPN).

FEBRUARY

4. Sat. at North Carolina, TBA (ESPN/ESPN2); 7 Tues. WAKE FOREST, TBA (ESPNEWS); 11 Sat. FLORIDA STATE, 2 (ESPN/ESPN2); 14 Tues. at Boston College, 7 (ESPNU); 18 Sat. at North Carolina State, noon (ESPN/ESPN2); 26 Sun. GEORGIA TECH, 6:30 (ESPNU).

MARCH

1 Wed. BOSTON COLLEGE, 8 (ACCN); 4 Sat. at Louisville, 2 (CBS); 7-11 Tues.-Sat. at ACC Tournament, Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y., TBA.