Analysis: Big basketball week can flip Notre Dame from suspect to solid

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Backed squarely into a corner after a recent run of bad in an unforgiving Atlantic Coast Conference, the Notre Dame men’s basketball team has two options during a critical week that may define its season.

Fight or fold.

Tuesday’s quick-turnaround home game against Wake Forest (14-9; 5-6 ACC) is Day 16 WAW — without a win — for Notre Dame (17-7; 6-5). The Irish have lost four in a row, its longest losing streak in three seasons, and five of the last six. After snagging a penthouse view of the league with five straight wins to open ACC play, Notre Dame currently sits muddled in the middle in seventh place, one game in the loss column from 10th.

Uncertainty lurks for a team that two weeks ago had climbed to as high as 14 in the Associated Press poll. On Monday, the Irish were on the outside of the rankings looking in for the first time since the last Monday in November.

The national consensus about the Irish is clear — doubt dominates. Notre Dame could use something good to again feel good about itself.

One good week can sling-shot Notre Dame into another good week. And another. And another. Previous Irish teams have overcome the odds and made that run and the opportunity is there to follow that blueprint.

Four of the last seven are at home. Good teams protect their homecourt, regardless of the opponent.

Coach Mike Brey has often talked the last three years about capitalizing on stretches where the Irish have chances to make a move. Happened earlier this year in non-league play. Happened earlier in league play with three straight road wins. Could happen again this week. It could be just the elixir this team needs for what ails them.

They’re due to make a move.

Fight or fold.

Playing its second game in seven days for the second straight week with no sympathy from the league office, Notre Dame takes the floor Tuesday having again hit the lineup reset for a second straight game.

On Sunday in Greensboro, N.C., senior power forward Austin Torres received his first career start. But that experiment didn’t last long. Junior Martinas Geben, who started the previous 23 games, was back in the lineup to open the second half.

That lasted about 90 seconds before sophomore Rex Pflueger headed to the scorer’s table to replace Geben. Torres never did return.

Notre Dame is done with its big-heavy lineup. Brey said Sunday it’s time for a bigger dose of five out with power forward Bonzie Colson getting the occasional post touch.

“It helps us offensively,” Brey said after Notre Dame went for 42 points Sunday in a near-miss second half. “We’ve gotta score. We’ll keep two big guys ready, but small is the way to go.”

Small is in. For now. Maybe for good. That means Pflueger likely gets his second career start Tuesday. That means more of freshman guard T.J. Gibbs. That means the bigs shuffle further back in the rotation. That means Brey has an open mind with sophomore Matt Ryan and freshman John Mooney. That’s his coach-speak for yeah, probably not right now. But soon. Maybe.

Brey believes this is the best route.

“When we space the floor and not have any low-post presence, it’s tough for teams to guard us chasing us around,” said guard Matt Farrell. “That’s good for us.”

Going small also means having to weather whatever rebounding wounds are inflicted for an Irish team out-rebounded in each of the last three games.

“Sometimes it hurts us defensively being on the glass,” senior captain V.J. Beachem said. “But when we can rebound with that smaller unit, we can really be explosive.”

Time to light that fuse.

Fight or fold.

Now less than five weeks away, Selection Sunday long seemed a certainty for Notre Dame. The only question was whether they’d get enough wins to get a preferred first-round spot in Indianapolis. Not today. Brey talked during Monday’s league coaches teleconference of hoping his team can find a way in. They’d feel fortunate being sent to Sacramento or Salt Lake. Just getting in — right now — would be a win.

Notre Dame’s overall numbers are solid tournament-worthy. The Irish are 20th in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI). They have a 29 Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and a strength of schedule (SOS) of 25. They’re 8-6 against the RPI top 100. They’re firmly in the tournament field as a 6 or 7 seed if the field were set today. But what about tomorrow?

Notre Dame is 1-6 against ranked teams, including four losses in a row. The Irish haven’t had a marquee win over a ranked opponent in more than a month. There aren’t too many opportunities left to get one. Nobody will admit it, but the pressure on the players mounts with each loss.

Fight or fold.

What does the rest of the season hold for the Irish? Who are they going to be?

Are they going to be that group whose toughness eventually gets them through this ACC minefield as Brey hoped for Monday?

Are they going to be the first team in school history to win their first five league games, then find themselves out of the NCAA Tournament?

Are they going to become the first team in school history to lose four straight league games, but remain focused to fight their way in? It’s a place the Irish have long planned to be, have long insisted they belong.

Time to show it.

Fight or fold.

(574) 235-6153


WHO: Notre Dame (17-7 overall; 6-5 ACC) vs. Wake Forest (14-9; 5-6).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Tuesday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: ESPNews.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).


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

NOTING: Power forward John Collins had 20 points with 11 rebounds and a career-high five blocks to lead Wake Forest to an 81-69 victory Saturday at home against Georgia Tech. It was the 10th double double for Collins and an ACC-best sixth straight game of at least 20 points. Guard Mitchell Wilbekin added a career-high 16 points. … The Demon Deacons have won two in a row and four of their last six … Wake Forest went nearly three seasons without an ACC road win before winning at North Carolina State last month. Wake also has won at Boston College. … Eight of the 13 players on the roster are freshmen or sophomores. … Forward Austin Arians is a graduate transfer from Milwaukee. He scored 19 points for the Mustangs in an 86-76 loss at Purcell Pavilion last season. … The Demon Deacons are wearing an “AP” patch on their uniforms to honor the late Arnold Palmer, who graduated from Wake Forest in 1956. … Picked in preseason to finish 13th, Wake Forest was 11-20 and 2-16 and 14th place last season. … The Demon Deacons have not finished with a winning ACC record since going 9-7 in 2010. … The all-time series is 3-3. Notre Dame has won the last three meetings. Wake’s last win in the series was at the opening round of the ACC Tournament in 2014. … Junior power forward Bonzie Colson leads the ACC with 14 double doubles. He has double doubles in three of the last five games. … Notre Dame has lost its last two home games by double digits.

QUOTING: “In this league, especially this year, your memory has to be short. We have a chance to get back on the horse against a very good Wake Forest team.”

• Notre Dame coach Mike Brey