Analysis: Right team, right time for Notre Dame to embrace non-league schedule challenges
If the Notre Dame men’s basketball program still called the Big East home, former league commissioner Michael Tranghese would request a word with coach Mike Brey.
It would be akin to being called to the principal’s office. Only instead of acting out during recess or pulling some study hall shenanigans, Brey’s offense would be his non-conference schedule.
Tranghese would consider it a bit over-ambitious.
On Thursday afternoon, for the first time in Brey’s now 18-year tenure, Notre Dame released its non-conference dates and opponents for 2017-18. Save for maybe one – Ball State’s first visit since 1976 – it includes the usual set of “gimmie” games at Purcell Pavilion. Those are contests played for no other reason than to give opponents a chance to play an Atlantic Coast Conference school on its home floor and collect a pretty paycheck while the Irish get a chance to get some confidence and a win.
But it's the games away from home that the former Big East boss would take issue with the current Irish boss.
During Notre Dame’s time in the cut-throat basketball conference, Tranghese often advised his coaches on non-league scheduling. Never, he offered during league meetings every spring at the posh TPC at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., schedule more than five “quality” non-conference games. Going beyond five, Tranghese believed, put too much pressure on teams to be really good – sometimes perfect – in the non-league before having to fight its way through 18 games of conference play.
Getting to Selection Sunday, not playing a grinder in the non-league, was paramount to Tranghese. Be smart.
Brey routinely followed the advice. He scheduled wisely. Never overscheduled. Never stretched. One time – during the 2001-02 season – the program played only one home game the entire month of December. Thanks to a slate of return games and other contracts left over from the one season of coach Matt Doherty, the Irish were college basketball nomads. They played games from Buffalo, N.Y., to Honolulu, New Orleans to Oxford, Ohio.
Notre Dame survived that stretch, then went 10-6 in the Big East, earned a double bye in the league tournament a second-straight season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
That also was the year the Irish “road dawg” mantra was adopted. It’s since been dusted off over the last three.
For the next 15 seasons following 2001-02, which also included the ACC jump, Brey stayed tight and true to Tranghese’s non-conference scheduling wishes.
Notre Dame will play seven games away from home, likely all against quality opponents, before ACC play arrives.
That includes three games in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. A likely Top 25 team once the first Associated Press poll of the season is released come November, Notre Dame may well be slotted in the tournament bracket for a potential championship showdown against potential Top 10 Wichita State.
Notre Dame also makes its first visit since 1974 to Michigan State, where another potential Top 10 team awaits. Part of the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the game is so anticipated that television gave this one its own night (Thursday, Nov. 30).
Then there are the true road games against DePaul and Delaware.
Both programs were bad last season – DePaul finished 9-23; Delaware was 13-20 – but both matchups carry special circumstances. DePaul is opening its new building, Wintrust Arena, on the south end of downtown. Brey promised long ago to DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto that Notre Dame would be the first game.
Notre Dame is the first game.
It also will be the first Irish game of the season. On the road. That hasn’t happened since 1999. How will a veteran Notre Dame team respond?
In early December, Brey returns to Delaware, where he spent five seasons before leaving for South Bend. The Blue Hens are coached by former Irish point guard and assistant Martin Ingelsby. The emotions along both benches will be enormous.
It's also a big game for Delaware. For its fans. For its program. The Blue Hens will play this one like an NCAA Tournament bid is at stake.
Again, how will Notre Dame respond?
DePaul and Delaware may stagger through losing seasons, which means wins against both are absolute musts. A loss to either would be a big black mark on the all-important NCAA tournament resume.
Can’t lose either. Just can’t.
Privately, there are times this summer when Brey has wondered if he’s overstretched his team in the non-league. Then there are times when he takes the opposite view.
Coming off three-straight solid seasons, including two trips to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight, this is an Irish program that now needs these early challenges. Wants them. Embraces them. This is a program that has won a staggering 35 games away from home the last three years.
Road Dawgs, indeed.
Notre Dame has been good, and is expected to again be really good. Maybe even flirt with great.
Time to travel and play a non-league schedule that reflects such swagger.
NOTRE DAME MEN'S BASKETBALL
2017-18 NON-LEAGUE SCHEDULE
Home games in CAPS
Nov. 3 BETHEL COLLEGE (exhibition)
Nov. 7 CARDINAL STRITCH (exhibition)
Nov. 11 at DePaul
Nov. 13 MOUNT SAINT MARY'S
Nov. 16 CHICAGO STATE
Nov. 20-22 Maui Jim Maui Invitational vs. TBA
Nov. 30 At Michigan State
Dec. 3 SAINT FRANCIS (N.Y.)
Dec. 5 BALL STATE
Dec. 9 at Delaware
Dec. 16 vs. Indiana (Bankers Life Fieldhouse)
Dec. 19 DARTMOUTH
Dec. 21 SE LOUISIANA