Analysis: Big Ten/ACC Challenge one of many early for Notre Dame men's basketball team

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Winning double-digit Atlantic Coast Conference contests for the third-straight season, playing in the league tournament championship for the second time in three years and returning an All-America-caliber player helped boost the 2017-18 expectation level for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

Thursday’s announcement of the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge pairings reinforced it.

The Irish are expected to be good.

Really good.

Maybe marquee-worthy good.

ESPN has the final say when it comes to the Challenge pairings — teams that are expected to be good in one league are matched against teams expected to be good in the other. Eventually, a nice national-television slot follows.

No chance of Notre Dame hiding with a trip to Nebraska or Penn State or Rutgers. The Irish get one of the best that the Big Ten offers. Maybe THE best.

Notre Dame this upcoming season travels to Michigan State for the first time since Feb. 4, 1974. Awaiting will be a Spartan squad that many predict will be a top-five, national-championship contender. Michigan State is led by power forward Miles Bridges, who turned down a chance at the NBA to return for his sophomore season. Notre Dame counters with a special power forward of its own in senior-to-be Bonzie Colson.

Specific dates and tip times will be announced later, but Notre Dame-Michigan State likely will be a featured matchup.

Michigan State leads the series 60-36; Notre Dame is 25-22 all-time against the Spartans on the road.

If Michigan State opens the season as a Top 10 team, the game will mark the first time since Dec. 14, 1996 that Notre Dame has a true road game in non-conference play against a Top 10 team. That year, Notre Dame lost 80-56 at then-No. 3 Kentucky.

Prior to joining the ACC in 2013, Notre Dame had not faced Michigan State since 1979, when the teams met at old Market Square Arena in Indianapolis during the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans, behind Magic Johnson, advanced to the Final Four and won the national championship. The Irish would go another 36 seasons before coming so close to winning a regional final.

The series that dates back to 1908 also went into hibernation. Until 2014.

Notre Dame enters the Challenge having won its last three in the series, starting with the one-point overtime home game in 2014 against Michigan State. Wins over Illinois (road) and Iowa (home) followed.

Given its current Big Ten/ACC Challenge cycle of Iowa-Michigan State-Illinois, a home game against the Illini might be on tap for next season.

First, there’s this year, the early part of which will be anything but easy for a Notre Dame team that finished 26-10 last season after losing to West Virginia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The trip to East Lansing is part of a non-conference gauntlet that includes six games away from home in the season’s first month and seven before Christmas.

Privately, Irish coach Mike Brey has wondered if he’s stretched too thin and too early a team that returns Colson, who should be preseason ACC Player of the Year and a possible first team All-American, and guard Matt Farrell, also a likely first team All-ACC preseason selection.

A lot of eyes will be on the Irish.

This season also includes games at DePaul (Nov. 11) and Delaware (Dec. 9). If it was any other year, any other program, Notre Dame would have filled those dates with games — guaranteed wins — at home. Both carry special circumstances.

DePaul will open its new building — the 10,000-seat Wintrust Arena — on the south end of downtown Chicago. Brey has long believed that Notre Dame should and would be the dedication game. It will be. In December, Brey returns to Newark, Del., to coach a game for the first time since he left Delaware to take the Notre Dame job in the summer of 2000.

Brey’s former Irish point guard, former captain, former assistant coach and coaching pupil, Martin Ingelsby, enters his second season as the Delaware head coach.

Couple those contests with three at the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, the trip to Michigan State and the “neutral site” game against Indiana at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the annual Crossroads Classic, and Notre Dame has its most challenging non-conference slate since 2011.

That one was filled with early minefields that the Irish never could sidestep.

Notre Dame was pounded by Missouri (87-58) before losing by four to Georgia on consecutive nights at the Progressive CBE Classic in Kansas City, Mo. Later that week, senior forward Tim Abromaitis, in line for a potential Big East Player-of-the-Year season, saw his collegiate career end with a knee injury suffered in practice.

Losses to Gonzaga (20 points) in Spokane, Maryland (seven) in Washington and Indiana (11) in Indianapolis followed as Notre Dame staggered into Big East play with five losses.

Brey and the Irish eventually figured it out to go 13-5 in league play, win 22 games and get to the NCAA Tournament. But it was a hard road. A grueling one. One that at times looked like it would suffocate the Irish. They eventually found their way out.

Another challenging non-league run awaits.

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