Ready or not, here comes ACC basketball challenge for Notre Dame men

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

College basketball as No. 24 Notre Dame had come to know it this season effectively ended around 8:45 Wednesday night.

That’s when the Purcell Pavilion horn sounded on a 63-55 victory over Saint Peter’s. With it, came the conclusion of non-conference play for the Irish (11-2).

No more easy games at home where the Irish win by dozens of points and barely break a sweat. No more games against schools just happy to have the chance to play a school from a big-time league. No more laughers. No more of the known. From here on out, it's all unknown, a mystery waiting to be solved.

It's all Atlantic Coast Conference play all the time, and it’s not going to be easy. Irish coach Mike Brey likened the 18-game conference schedule to being in a fist fight for the next two and a half months.

Can the Irish take a punch, withstand any knockout blows and stay on their feet?

The first bell rings Saturday with a visit to Pittsburgh.

Following is a look at the ACC as league play jumps into full swing this week:

• How might 2017 in the ACC mirror 2011 in the Big East?

For its dominance of depth. In 2011, the Big East sent a record 11 teams to the NCAA tournament. It was easier to say who didn’t get a bid than who did.

Notre Dame was a big part of that party. That was the year the Irish went 27-7 behind eventual Big East player of the year Ben Hansbrough. They advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament before being beaten by Florida State.

Notre Dame and Florida State are among nine ACC teams – six of them ranked in the Top 25 - currently on the right side of the proverbial tournament bubble according to the latest ESPN Bracketology. Three teams – fifth-ranked Duke, No. 10 North Carolina and No. 12 Virginia - likely will chase No. 1 seeds.

Eleven of the league's 15 teams enter the final weekend of 2016 with at least 10 wins.

A year after the ACC sent a league-tying seven teams to the NCAA tournament, Mike Brey and many of his conference coaching colleagues believe that this is the year the ACC flirts with that Big East record. On Wednesday, he believed 10 teams are tourney-worthy. Will the Irish be one of them?

• Can Notre Dame continue its Duke dominance?

When the Irish escaped the Big East four years ago, it was accepted that it would take a few years – and likely way longer – before they could routinely flex their muscles against one of the league’s best.

An occasional win over Duke would be good, but nobody saw this coming from Notre Dame.

The Irish have won five of their first six league games against the Blue Devils (12-1). Prior to that, they were 2-19 all-time. Notre Dame has won at Purcell Pavilion. It’s won at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It’s won at Greensboro Coliseum. Then in March, it roared back from a 16-point deficit with 11 minutes remaining in the second half before an overtime win in an ACC tournament quarterfinal.

Can it do it again? If all the pieces are in place and the key players healthy, this year’s Duke team is as deep and talented as Mike Krzyzewski might ever have. And he’ll want a little pay-back. A lot.

Circle the date – Jan. 30 – Notre Dame’s lone appearance on ESPN’s Big Monday.

• How might this Notre Dame team make its own ACC mark?

Two years ago, an Irish outfit that captured the school’s first-ever league tournament championship made history early in league play by winning at North Carolina for the first time.

Last year’s team, which advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament for a second-straight March, won for the first time at Duke.

It's time for Notre Dame to finally figures out No. 12 Virginia (11-1; 1-0).

The Irish are 1-9 against the Cavaliers with that lone win a memorable one – 57-56 in suburban Chicago during the 1980-81 season. Virginia’s average margin of victory in four ACC meetings is 13.2 points. And it’s not even been that close.

Notre Dame has had no answer for Virginia’s pack-line defense. Though the names have changed, coach Tony Bennett’s team still guards. Hard. The Cavaliers entered the week ranked first in the nation in scoring defense (47.2 ppg.).

Notre Dame gets Virginia at home to end a brutal five-game stretch in mid-January. This might be the best shot and even then, it will be difficult.

• What league streak needs to absolutely remain intact for the Irish?

As one of two “permanent” repeat opponents, Georgia Tech being the other, Boston College has helped Notre Dame get healthy somewhere along the line in league play.

The Irish have won all six meetings since joining the ACC. Notre Dame’s won seven in a row overall and 11 of 12 dating back to 1999.

Want to get back to the NCAA tournament a third-straight year? Don’t lose either game this winter to Boston College, which staggered through a winless league season last year and again is ticketed to finish last.

The Eagles enter conference play 7-6 with wins over Auburn and Providence, but losses to Nicholls (La.) State and Fairfield.

• What’s up with Duke guard Grayson Allen?

Touted in preseason as an All-American and the conference player of the year, Allen just cannot keep his legs to himself.

Earlier this month in a game against Elon, Allen was caught swinging his leg to trip an opponent for the third time in less than a year. It happened twice during league play last season against Louisville and Florida State.

Allen wasn’t disciplined, by Krzyzewski or by the league, either time. Finally, after the most recent incident, the Hall of Fame coach suspended the junior indefinitely.

Allen likely won’t play when Duke opens ACC play Saturday at Virginia Tech. How long he sits is anyone’s guess, though it would be no surprise that Allen’s back in the lineup when Duke visits Notre Dame.

Why this keeps happening is a mystery to just about everyone. Allen (16.0 ppg., 4.7 rpg., 3.5 apg., 31.0 mpg) has elite-level talent, but just can’t control his emotions from doing school-yard stuff.

• Is there a surprise league team lurking?

Keep an eye on Virginia Tech and what’s happening in Blacksburg. When Buzz Williams surprised many around college basketball by jumping from Marquette, many figured it was only going to be a matter of time until he got it rolling for a program long penciled in for the league’s basement.

It’s almost time.

Virginia Tech (11-1) won a school-record 10 league games last season and returns a solid core this season.

Notre Dame is 6-1 all-time against Virginia Tech with the lone loss way back in 1973. The Irish are 3-0 all-time in Blacksburg. Win No. 4 in a couple of weeks will be one of the most challenging road games this season.

It’s hard to play against the Hokies, who just keep competing. That’s a Williams staple. It was hard to deal with it when he was at Marquette. It’s hard to deal with it now.

• Any team entering league play off the radar?

Would you believe North Carolina? Hard to overlook the nation’s No. 10 team, one that nearly won the national championship in March. But the Tar Heels have quietly gone about their non-league business.

North Carolina leads the league in scoring offense (88.7) and rebounding margin (+13.6), ranks second in assists (18.4) and is third in field goal percentage (49.0) and scoring margin (+21.4).

Ol’ Roy has all the pieces. The Tar Heels have size (senior power forwards Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks are playing their best basketball). They have smarts (guard Joel Berry II has elevated his game the last two years from suspect to special). They have depth (freshman Tony Bradley is on the verge of being the next big big in Chapel Hill). And when Theo Pinson returns from a broken foot that has cost him the first 13 games, they’ll have back an elite lock-down defender.

Don’t sleep on the Tar Heels (12-2). To date, many have.

• How weird must the reunion have been between Pittsburgh power forward Sheldon Jeter and first-year Panthers head coach Kevin Stallings?

Beyond bizarre.

Jeter played one year for his original school before looking to transfer closer to his home in Beaver Falls, Pa. He spent one season at Polk State (Fla.) Junior College after his former college coach blocked his transfer to Pittsburgh.

The coach at that school? Stallings, when he was at Vanderbilt.

The two set aside previous differences when Stallings replaced long-time coach Jamie Dixon, who returned in the spring to his alma mater at Texas Christian. Jeter is a main guy for the Panthers (11-2). He's started all 13 games and averages 7.2 points and 7.3 rebounds in 26.2 minutes.

• What would an ACC all-league first team look like today?

Keeping it to five players on the top squad, let’s go with North Carolina guard Joel Berry II (ranks in the top 10 in six statistical categories), Notre Dame power forward Bonzie Colson (seven double-doubles lead the league), Duke power forward Amile Jefferson (tops in ACC in rebounding at 10.8 and field goal percentage at 64.8), Virginia guard London Perrantes (the guy who makes the Cavalier machine go) and Pittsburgh forward Michael Young (leads league in scoring at 22.8).

There’s plenty of time for additional candidates to state their cases. Allen, Jamel Artis from Pittsburgh, Notre Dame senior captain V.J. Beachem, Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame, Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell, Duke small forward Luke Kennard, guard Jerome Robinson from Boston College and freshman guard Dennis Smith, Jr., from North Carolina State all have chances to join the league’s top team.

Irish guard Steve Vasturia will deserve all-league consideration, though his steadiness often gets overlooked for others’ sizzle.

• Where does the traveling road show that is the ACC tournament stop this season?

Likely to the delight of Notre Dame, the ACC tournament pulls in for a two-year stay at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It’s the same arena where Notre Dame won its first two NCAA tournament games last season, then beat Colorado and Northwestern in November to capture a Legends Classic championship.

Two years ago, the ACC tournament was held in Greensboro, N.C., where Notre Dame won it all. It moved up to downtown Washington last season. Following two seasons in Brooklyn and a stay in Charlotte (2019), it returns to its league roots in Greensboro in 2020.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

An upset of then-No. 2 North Carolina highlighted Notre Dame's third season in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season. What does league play have in store this year for the No. 24 Irish? (AP File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)