Analysis: Culture helped No. 21 Notre Dame men weather ACC basketball grind

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

When the final chapter is written sometime next month, a pair of visits to North Carolina will play a prominent part in the story of this Notre Dame men’s basketball season.

On Feb. 5, the Irish slid out a side door near the loading dock of Greensboro Coliseum. The sun was shining. The sky was a clear Carolina blue. Temperatures were in the upper 60s. It felt like spring. It was a great day to be outside, but not necessarily a great day to be Irish.

Following an 83-76 loss to North Carolina, Notre Dame’s losing streak had hit four. After racing to a 6-1 start in Atlantic Coast Conference play, the Irish teetered a game (6-5) above the break-even mark. A day later, Notre Dame tumbled out of the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since early December.

Having labored over two weeks without a win, the Irish insisted doubt never was part of the process. Keep working. Keep it together. The wins would come. But would they?

No Irish team had ever before lost four straight league games yet rebounded well enough and quick enough to get to the NCAA tournament.

“We,” said senior captain V.J. Beachem, “were kind of struggling a little bit.”

On Saturday, the Irish slid out a side door near the loading dock of PNC Arena in Raleigh. The sun was shining. The sky was a clear Carolina blue. Temperatures were in the upper 70s. It felt like summer. It was another great day to be outside. This time, it was a great day to be Irish.

Following an 81-72 victory over North Carolina State, Notre Dame had bumped its conference record to 10-5 with a fourth straight win. It was the second road win of a big week for the Irish, who jumped Monday to No. 21 in the latest Associated Press poll. With double-digit league wins just past the midway point of February, the Irish have locked down a third straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

Those clouds of concern that hovered over the program 13 days earlier? Might as well been 13 months.

“It seems like a long time ago,” said senior captain Steve Vasturia. “You look at us now and we’re in great position.”

To get some rest with a full week off from game action. To earn a double-bye in the conference tournament for a third year in a row (see box). To chase a good NCAA tournament seed. To set themselves up for another run through March, a month they consider theirs.

How did the Irish go from there to here?

Getting off the road grind and getting some confidence with home wins over Wake Forest and Florida State helped set the table for wins at Boston College and North Carolina State. So did a small lineup that spreads the floor and features only one big man in power forward Bonzie Colson. The Irish have found an offensive flow that was absent during the four-game losing streak.

They also stayed patient with the plan. They believed it all was going to come back around, even as some wondered if it was about to all come apart with seven games in 22 days.

The Irish survived, then thrived.

“It’s funny how quick it all can change,” said coach Mike Brey. “We weren’t in panic mode when we were losing four in a row and losing a tough one in Greensboro. This group has been so even-keeled emotionally.”

That’s nothing new for this program. Has been much of the same for the last three ACC seasons. When the days look darkest, Brey spies light. Like, the Irish are OK if they can just do this and this better. Then they do. Then they win.

And when there’s a move to be made in league play, the Irish back up the truck, load up the fine china and the furniture and the other assorted knick-knacks without so much as making a scratch in a door or a wall and make a move. Quickly. Confidently.

Two years ago after being handed a 30-point loss by Duke in its first trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium as a member of the ACC, Notre Dame reached a crossroads. Who were the Irish going to be? Another league road test against Clemson was closing quickly.

Notre Dame then won that one by two to kick-start a run of five wins over its last six games.

Move made.

Last February, Notre Dame was handled rather easily and embarrassingly at Miami (Fla.). A home game against then-No. 2 North Carolina also was closing quickly. How would the Irish respond?

A win over North Carolina was the first of three-straight and four of five.

Move again made.

Coming clear of the trip to Greensboro, Notre Dame didn’t dwell on its four-game losing streak so much as it looked ahead to the next four games as a chance to make a move.

The Irish then did. Again. It’s what this program does. It routinely did it in the Big East. The Irish have done it each of the last three years in the ACC.

“We’ve been amazingly consistent,” Brey said. “The culture is really strong. It kind of is almost like we believe we’re supposed to do this 'cause we’ve done it so much. There’s great history there. I’m really not surprised they’d find a way to get it going again.”

And it’s going. With three games remaining in the regular season — two at home, one on the road — Notre Dame (21-7; 10-5) sits in fourth place in the league. That would qualify for one of the four double byes in the ACC tournament. But more work remains.

Thanks to some weird doings of late around the league — Florida State loses at Pittsburgh; Virginia loses in overtime at home to Miami (Fla.) — home wins over Georgia Tech (Sunday) and Boston College (March 1) means Notre Dame finishes no lower than fifth regardless of the outcome of the season final March 4 at No. 7 Louisville. Wins in each of the last three locks the Irish into a Top 4 finish. Wins in two of the three or even one of the three and it gets interesting.

Way more interesting than anyone imagined when Notre Dame left Greensboro on Super Bowl Sunday.

“You lose four in a row, teams can get down on themselves,” Vasturia said. “We did a great job of stepping up to the challenge. The guys in this locker room never stop fighting.”

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Senior captain V.J. Beachem and Notre Dame have found their groove after a four-game losing streak put a big question mark on their season. The Irish have since won four in a row and are 21-7 overall, 10-5 in the ACC. (AP Photo/KARL B DENLAKER)

Can Notre Dame three-peat when it comes to the double bye for the upcoming Atlantic Coast Conference tournament?

The top four teams in the league earn double byes, which means those teams have only a maximum of three games and don’t start play until Thursday in the conference tournament. Notre Dame, which earned the double bye the previous two league tournaments, currently is tied with Florida State for fourth place in the ACC with three regular-season games remaining.

The Irish are off until Sunday’s home game against Georgia Tech.

Following are the remaining league schedules for teams immediately in front of and behind Notre Dame in the ACC standings. Teams are listed in according to the standings as of Tuesday.

• NORTH CAROLINA (23-5; 11-3 ACC)

Home: Louisville, Duke

Away: Pittsburgh, Virginia

• DUKE (22-5; 10-4)

Home: Florida State

Away: Syracuse, Miami (Fla.), North Carolina

• LOUISVILLE (22-5; 10-4)

Home: Syracuse, Notre Dame

Away: North Carolina, Wake Forest

• NOTRE DAME (21-7; 10-5)

Home: Georgia Tech, Boston College

Away: Louisville

• FLORIDA STATE (22-6; 10-5)

Home: Miami (Fla.)

Away: Clemson, Duke

• MIAMI (19-8; 9-6)

Home: Duke

Away: Virginia Tech, Florida State

• VIRGINIA (18-9; 8-7)

Home: North Carolina, Pittsburgh

Away: North Carolina State

• SYRACUSE (16-12; 8-7)

Home: Duke, Georgia Tech

Away: Louisville