Analysis: How can Notre Dame men shake recent ACC basketball slide?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Halfway home on an 18-game journey through the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and all appears well with No. 14 Notre Dame.

Or so it seems.

Repeat the effort of the first nine games – 6-3 – with a back half of a league schedule that lightens up a whole lot and a 12-6 finish would be a solid success for a team picked seventh in preseason. A dozen league wins would be the second-best mark for Notre Dame in its four-year ACC affiliation. It would put the Irish in position to challenge for a top-four finish and a coveted double bye in the conference tournament for a third-straight year.

But 6-3 is misleading. After setting a school record with five-straight wins to start league play, Notre Dame (17-5, 6-3) has lost two in a row and three of four heading into a sold-out, Big Monday home showdown with No. 17 Duke (16-5, 4-4), which arrives in town feeling a whole lot better about itself after nearing Def-Con 1 status for myriad reasons.

Hours after Notre Dame was knocked silly by a two-point loss at Georgia Tech as Josh Okogie scored the winning lay-up just before the final horn, Duke regained some much-needed momentum Saturday with an 85-83 comeback victory at Wake Forest.

The teams seemingly are headed in opposite ACC directions. One (Notre Dame) is staggered. The other (Duke) has swagger. Yet, Duke may be just what Notre Dame needs to wake from its current conference nightmare.

This series as conference colleagues has been decidedly one-sided. Notre Dame has owned it. Owned Duke. The Irish have won five of the first six. What average factors into Monday? Do the law of averages finally kick in and swing toward the Blue Devils? Do the Irish stop playing like an average outfit and get back to the brand of ball that helped them race to that impressive league start?

It remains to be seen, and it also remains to be seen what button next is pushed for a Notre Dame team in need of something.

Last week, the motivation for Notre Dame was having never beaten No. 12 Virginia in league play. The Irish effort on both ends crumbled in a 17-point loss.

The next button for Notre Dame heading to Atlanta was the belief that the loss was needed, a necessary wake-up call to get the Irish to lock in going back out on the road. Two days of good practices, and all again would be back on track at Georgia Tech.

That one also didn’t work. Despite not playing well enough to win, the Irish were there at the end in a tie game with the ball and the chance at the proverbial escape league road win.

But the Yellow Jackets made all the right moves – defensive stop, big bucket at the end – when they needed to be made. Those were sequences where the Irish succeeded earlier in league play. Now it’s the other guys.

Any lineup/rotation change given the quick turnaround between games is off the table. So the next button pushed – one that already has been – is the ACC reset button.

Forget about losing two in a row and three of four, coach Mike Brey has counseled his club. Now that they’ve hit the halfway point of league play, it’s time to start over. Going 6-3 on the front nine was good, but starting Sunday, Notre Dame is 0-0 in the ACC.

That eliminates any “must-win” motivation for Monday. Big game? Yes, sir. Must-get game? Not so much.

“We have a clean slate now,” said senior captain Steve Vasturia. “Everything that’s happened – the wins and losses – are kind of in your rear-view mirror.”

That doesn’t mean the Irish are easing into the matchup. The last time they had one day between games – after the win at Miami (Fla.) and before the win at Virginia Tech – Notre Dame did next to nothing, other than travel.

On Sunday, practice was scheduled to start at 3. Brey was front and center with notes on a yellow legal pad already addressing his team at 2:52. He also planned on them breaking a sweat over the next 75 minutes or so.

“We need to go a little live, we need to get back into a little rhythm,” Brey said. “When you lose a tough one, you need to come back and compete a little bit.”

The Irish haven’t rebounded (a combined -24 disadvantage), haven’t take care of the ball (21 turnovers), haven’t flowed efficiently on offense, just haven’t played well the last two games.

But what they also won’t do is panic. It’s not in the program’s DNA, not one run by the self-proclaimed “loosest coach in America.”

“We never panic,” Brey said. “This is the most unpanicked program in the history of college basketball. We just kind of methodically keep going through it.”

In other words, just play. Better. Now.

“Facing a little adversity,” Vasturia said, “we’ll see what we’re made of.”

The mid-league malaise is hardly new. Or news. Nine of the Top 12 in the Associated Press poll lost once last week. Notre Dame was not alone in going 0-2. So did No. 4 Kentucky. And No. 6 Florida State.

Four of the top five teams in the ACC standings lost over the weekend. Two – Florida State and North Carolina – trailed by at least 20 points. Two others – Notre Dame and Virginia – lost at the buzzer.

“It’s pretty calming knowing that everybody else toward the top of the league is losing right now,” said senior captain V.J. Beachem. “At the same time, we don’t want this to last too long.

“We’re going to keep doing what we do.”

Selection Sunday is less than six weeks away, but that may as well be six months. Teams have played over 20 games with well over 80 practices. The newness of the year has long worn off. So has conference play. Every practice, every game, every week is a grind.

Good teams – elite teams - find ways to push past it and come out the other side better.

Time for Notre Dame to execute that exit strategy and do the same against a ranked team.

Now.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Panicking over two-straight losses and three of the last four in ACC play is not part of the prcoess for Mike Brey and his Notre Dame men's basketball team. (AP Photo/JOHN BAZEMORE)

WHO: No. 14 Notre Dame (17-5 overall, 6-3 ACC) vs. No. 17 Duke (16-5, 4-4).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Monday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: The game is a sellout.

TV: ESPN.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

INTERNET: WatchESPN.com.

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

NOTING: Sophomore Luke Kennard scored 34 points, including 30 in the second half with the decisive 3-pointer with 6.6 seconds remaining, to lead Duke to an 85-83 victory Saturday at Wake Forest. Guard Grayson Allen added 19 points. The Blue Devils ended the game on a 9-0 run. The game included a combined 52 fouls and 50 free throws. It was the Blue Devils’ first league road win after starting 0-3. … Duke is 3-3 without Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, who had back surgery Jan. 6. Krzyzewski is not expected to coach Monday. … Picked in preseason to finish first in the ACC, Duke returns two starters off last year’s team that finished 25-11, 11-7 and tied for fifth with Notre Dame in the ACC. … The Blue Devils were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first two weeks of the regular season. They’ve been ranked as low as 18. … Duke leads the all-times series 20-7, 4-4 in South Bend. Notre Dame has won five of six meetings as conference colleagues with those wins in four venues – Purcell Pavilion, Cameron Indoor Stadium, Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum and Verizon Center in last season’s ACC tournament quarterfinals. … Monday is Notre Dame’s fourth sellout of the season, all in ACC play. … The Irish are 1-4 against ranked teams with the win over No. 13 Louisville. … Notre Dame looks to avoid losing a third-straight ACC game for the first time since 2013-14 when it dropped six in a row. … Subtract the Irish connecting on 93 percent of their free throws in the Jan. 21 victory over Syracuse, and they’re shooting 66.6 percent in the last four league games, three of those losses. … Notre Dame opens the week still first in the nation in foul shooting at 81.5 percent. … This Notre Dame’s only Saturday-Monday turnaround in ACC play this season and its first Big Monday game since a visit to North Carolina to end the 2014 regular season.

QUOTING: “Everybody’s really not worried. I think people on the outside may be panicking a little bit but everybody inside the locker room, we think we’re fine.”

• Notre Dame senior V.J. Beachem.