Noie: Notre Dame gets early basketball test of 'road dawg' mentality

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CHICAGO – Forget following previous plans that called for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team to play it safe and stick to the script at the start of another season.

For the first 17 years as the Irish head coach, Mike Brey preferred that his team open the way nearly all power-conference schools do – at home in a relatively stress-free situation where the bigger, better team could secure some early confidence and a win.

That status quo has been scrapped something serious for No. 14 Notre Dame. Five of its first seven are away from home. That includes a trip come month’s end up to Michigan State, a popular pick to be the last one standing as confetti falls to the floor of the Alamodome in San Antonio come April 2.

The slate also includes opening on the road, something Notre Dame hasn’t done since 1999 at Ohio State. That game – won at the buzzer by the Irish on a David Graves leaner to the left of the lane - was part of the preseason National Invitation Tournament. Notre Dame really had no choice; it had to go to Columbus.

Notre Dame didn’t have to leave home this season. But with a veteran crew led by preseason All-American and Atlantic Coast Conference preseason player of the year Bonzie Colson, a team that has averaged 27.3 victories and 12.3 ACC wins the last three years, it’s detour time.

Time to hit the road, where Notre Dame will be Saturday afternoon when it visits long-time independent and Big East rival DePaul (Fox Sports 1, 4 p.m., South Bend time).

“It’s going to be a hard game, Colson said. “It’s not going to be easy. It’s just a great test for us.”

Great in that Notre Dame, which has been so consistent and so good on the road in league play the last three years (an average of 5.6 wins), gets a chance to test-drive that “road dawg” mentality right out of the garage. There’s no easing into this season. A veteran team that has seen and done a lot gets an early test, and it will be one.

It’s one that Colson and company need. Really need. Opening at home and coasting to another easy win the way they did in exhibition – the Irish won their three tune-up games by an average of 37.6 points – would do nothing for this group. Not this year.

Plenty of challenges await down the college basketball road. Why not proceed down that path sooner than later?

“Playing on the road, digging in, understanding that it’s nothing easy, understanding that it’s the real thing,” Colson said. “It kind of shows who we are as a team.”

Brey chased this one. When DePaul administrators started talking about plans of getting out of the hangar-like facility that was Allstate Arena out in Rosemont for a new arena closer to downtown Chicago, Brey remained in touch with athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto. Build it, Brey often offered, and Notre Dame would come.

Given the teams’ storied history, Brey thought it only natural that Notre Dame be the first game in Wintrust Arena, located within the McCormick Place complex on the south end of the city’s downtown. Had the timing of this game coincided with say, the start of the 2014-15 season and Notre Dame was coming off a 15-17 showing the previous year, there’s no way Brey would have ever thought about opening on the road.

That team, at the start, was too fragile to take that on so early in the year. But this team is the opposite. There are guys who have won an ACC Tournament championship, who have played in two of the last three league tournament title games. They’ve gone to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eights. Have won at Duke. Have beaten Virginia. Have won.

Why do this? Why not?

“My feeling is with this older group, throw us right in there and let’s see what we’ve got,” Brey said. “Let’s go challenge them.”

And they’ll be challenged not only playing on the road, but stepping into an environment that carries zero reference points for anyone associated with Notre Dame. Playing on the road in the ACC has become a lot like playing at home. Players know the road routine. They know the hotels, the arenas, the environment on game day. They know the other team’s personnel as well as their own.

There’s not much guess work involved.

Saturday is one big mystery. Nobody on this current Notre Dame team has played a college game against DePaul. Games out at Allstate, the building the Blue Demons called home since 1980, were relatively easy during Notre Dame’s latter days in the Big East. Of the 5,000 or so fans in the 17,000-seat arena, 3,500 might have been Irish fans. It was their home away from home. Not Saturday. The arena likely will be sold out. The fans will be loud. This may be DePaul’s biggest game in what is expected to be a long season. Will the Blue Demons play like it’s all on the line?

All of it adds to the intrigue of an opener like no other for Brey.

“There’s a lot of newness here,” he said. “I’m very interested to see who we are by 6 or 7 o’clock Saturday night.”

Despite no reference points with the opponent or the building or anything else, Colson’s confident that the Irish will be fine. They’ll run their stuff. They’ll settle in despite the expected sellout and do what they do. Then they’ll get back on the bus for the 90-minute ride home with the first of many obstacles this season cleared.

“The group we have, we’ve played in crazy arenas,” Colson said. “We’ve been through it all. They’re going to have fireworks going off. They’re going to have fans, T-shirts. We’re going to get their best shot. We’re ready to play a real game.

“It’s go time now.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Preseason All-American Bonzie Colson likes the challenges that awaits No. 14 Notre Dame as it opens Saturday at DePaul (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

WHO: No. 14 Notre Dame (0-0) vs. DePaul (0-0)

WHERE: Wintrust Arena (10,387), Chicago

WHEN: Saturday at 4 p.m. EST (South Bend time).

TV: Fox Sports 1.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM/96.1 FM).

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

NOTING: Picked in preseason to finish last in the Big East, DePaul returns four starters off last year’s team that went 9-23, 2-16 and 10th place – last – in the Big East. … DePaul ranked last in the league in scoring offense (68.1 ppg.), scoring margin (-5.7), field goal percentage (.430), 3-point field goal percentage (.326), field goal percentage defense (.466) and assists (11.4). … DePaul junior guard Eli Cain was coached for three years at St. Benedict’s (N.J.) High School by Bob Farrell, the father of Irish point guard Matt Farrell. … Since the start of the 2008-09 season, DePaul is a combined 21-141 in the Big East. Since joining the league in 2005-06, the Blue Demons have never finished better than seventh, and never won more than nine league games. … DePaul has won nine games overall each of the last two years, and has never won more than 12 in the last five. … The Blue Demons have an average Ratings Percentage index (RPI) of 199 over the last five years. … Former LaLumiere boys basketball coach Shane Heirman is in his first season as a DePaul assistant. The Blue Demons have five LaLumiere graduates on their roster, including guard Jalen Coleman-Lands, who is sitting out this season after transferring from Illinois. … Notre Dame has won nine in a row and 10 of the last 11 in a series it leads 60-44. … This is the teams’ first meeting since an 82-78 Irish overtime victory on Feb. 12, 2013 when both schools were members of the Big East. … The Irish are 17-0 in season openers under coach Mike Brey. They have won 18-straight openers since starting the 1998-99 season with a loss to Miami (Ohio). … This starts a stretch of seven games in 19 days for Notre Dame, which returns to action Monday at home against Mount Saint Mary’s.

QUOTING: “Can we stay in character for 40 minutes? We’ve done that better than a lot of teams that have been more talented or more athletic or have been charged up playing at home. That’s always been a great trait of ours, especially with a group like this that’s done it before.”

- Notre Dame coach Mike Brey on opening the season on the road.