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Noie: No. 5 ranking for Notre Dame men's basketball team looks nice right now

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Exploration of new territories over the last three college basketball seasons has become so routine for Notre Dame that coach Mike Brey could give Lewis and/or Clark a run for his money.

But what happened early Monday afternoon from a historical perspective was downright ridiculous. Undefeated Notre Dame climbed eight spots after one week and three wins to sit at No. 5 in the latest Associated Press rankings.

In basketball.

It may not rate on the same scale as winning three games in three days to capture the school’s first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship in 2015. Or winning for the first time in school history at Duke (2016) and at North Carolina (2015). Or beating seemingly invincible Virginia for the first time as conference colleagues in the ACC semifinals. Or two ACC tournament championship appearances in three years. Or the two straight runs to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight. There’s been so much good/new stuff over the last three seasons that it’s easy to lose track.

Heck, Monday’s news might rank only a tad higher than what Brey pulled off last week. He stepped shirtless into the locker room with only a Hawaiian lei around his neck and flexing before pumping his fist after the Irish (6-0) won three games in three nights — a first since that ACC tourney run — to win the Maui Jim Maui Invitational.

Video of him turned social media on its Thanksgiving Day turkey head. Nobody may have liked it more than Brey.

But that’s Brey being Brey.

The self-described “loosest coach in America” took it to never-before-seen territory. Brey was way beyond banging on the drums during a shoot-around at Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh (did that), or showing up for a postgame press conference in his old No. 15 George Washington jersey (did that too). Or coaching three games in Maui in shorts and a T-shirt (yep).

Still, Monday was a big step for the Irish program. A really big step. One that Notre Dame hasn’t taken since the 1977-78 season. That’s when it was last ranked in the top five in November. How did that year end?

Oh yeah, with the school’s only trip to a Final Four.

Monday also marked the first time that Notre Dame was back inside the top 10 since getting to No. 8 at the end of the 2014-15 season. How did that year end?

With the East Regional championship near-miss against Kentucky in downtown Cleveland.

Two hours after the Notre Dame men moved into the top five, the Irish women’s program also snagged a top-five spot of its own at No. 3. The basketball bonanza almost was enough to make Irish faithful forget what happened with the football team over the weekend.

Almost.

Monday was a big day, but knowing the drive and determination of Irish senior captains Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell, the ranking mattered all of about five seconds prior to a practice. They embraced it, but deep down, they expected it.

Being ranked fifth is great. Winning it all in Maui was great. But there are much bigger goals ahead. Last week’s Maui conquest was only the first step of about two dozen or so they plan to take this season. Monday was No. 2.

How did Monday happen? It happened based on what this program has done the last three seasons. Happened because of the work it’s done in the ACC. In the NCAAs. Happened thanks to the furious 67-66 comeback win that Notre Dame staged Thanksgiving Eve in Maui. The Irish erased a three-point deficit in the final 13 seconds. Senior power forward Martinas Geben — a career 63.8 percent foul shooter coming in — won it with a pair of free throws.

They may have been the biggest Irish free throws in an end-of-game/winning situation since former power forward Ty Nash, who shot a career 62.8 percent from the foul line, made one of two with eight seconds remaining to ice a three-point victory over then-No. 16 Connecticut in the 2010-11 regular-season finale at Gampel Pavilion.

That win helped slingshot Notre Dame from No. 8 to No. 4 in the AP poll. That marked the last time before Monday that the Irish were a top-five team.

Kicking back and feeling all satisfied with the ranking is not an option for the Irish. Up next is a game Thursday at No. 3 Michigan State (5-1). The game gets its own night to close the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

More new territory for the Irish. No sharing a late start. No following blue bloods Duke or Indiana or North Carolina. All eyes will be on the Irish and Spartans.

Based on what Michigan State did over Thanksgiving weekend to win the PK80 Invitational out in the Pacific Northwest, there’s a buzz saw waiting Thursday night for the Irish. The night will mark the first time a top-five Notre Dame team plays a top-five opponent since Dec. 29, 1979. That’s when No. 3 Notre Dame lost by six to No. 2 Kentucky at Freedom Hall.

Brey, then only 20 years old, still was cruising around suburban Washington in his Toyota Celica, which back then cost around $3,600 new. Gas for it cost 86 cents a gallon. Escape (the Pina Colada Song) had just bumped Babe by Styx for the No. 1 song in the country.

Both might have been on Brey’s eight-track.

Who’s No. 1? No. 68? Nobody knows in November. Rankings mean little today or tomorrow or next week or next month. Won’t start to matter until February and Selection Sunday first appears across the college basketball horizon.

Monday’s jump in the AP poll guarantees Notre Dame nothing. Not a win in East Lansing later this week. Not another top-four finish and another double bye in the ACC. Not a sweet NCAA seed and deep run through March. Certainly not a second trip to the Final Four. That leap of faith remains down the road.

But admit it — that No. 5 ranking sure looks nice.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson (35) reacts after Notre Dame defeated Wichita State 67-66 in an NCAA college basketball game winning the Maui Invitational, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)