Analysis: Ready or not, ACC is here for Notre Dame men's basketball team

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

There’s a legal pad sitting in a Niles home that’s about to put in some serious billable hours over the next two-plus months.

The pad belongs to Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who keeps it close to his favorite television-viewing chair. It’s needed whenever the 18th-year Irish head coach, two victories away from becoming the winningest in program history, tunes in an Atlantic Coast Conference contest.

League play for Notre Dame (10-3) starts Saturday at home (2 p.m., ESPNU) against Georgia Tech (6-6). That means it’s time for Brey to start watching games almost every day and night from his chair while consistently jotting down thoughts about other league teams.

About Wednesday’s opponent, North Carolina State. About Syracuse, Notre Dame’s first road test next week. Even about Virginia, a team Notre Dame won’t see until the regular-season finale in Charlottesville. Something about every ACC team gets scribbled on the legal pad and, eventually, into an Irish practice plan.

“You really lock in now and you’re finding games at home and watching and thinking,” Brey said. “It’s kind of cool. It’s kind of a neat job. You get paid to do that, man, watching hoops and thinking about it.”

Brey’s thoughts about the ACC this week were the same he had at the start of non-league play. The same he had in summer. The next 19 games – 18 regular season and at least one in league tournament play – are going to be demanding and difficult. For myriad reasons.

“Our track record says we’ve usually figured it out in regular season and done enough to get (an NCAA) bid, but it’s going to be really hard this year,” Brey said. “It’s a long journey.”

Here are five questions and answers to shed some light on what awaits in the ACC:

•How can unranked Notre Dame separate itself from middle-of-the-pack status?

Continue carrying the “road dawg” mentality that has produced a staggering 16 league road wins since 2014-15. Three years ago, Notre Dame won at North Carolina for the first time in school history. Two years ago, it did the same at Duke. A year ago, it won at the homes of eventual NCAA Tournament teams Miami (Fla.) and Virginia Tech early, then shredded Virginia in the league tournament for its first-ever conference conquest of the Cavaliers.

Where can the Irish do more of the same this season? At Syracuse, where the Carrier Dome has been a House of Horrors (five straight losses) – think the Northeast version of Bankers Life Fieldhouse. At North Carolina, which has already lost at home to Wofford. At Duke, where the Blue Devils are tremendously talented but still indifferent on defense. A few big wins – ones that nobody sees coming – must surface somewhere for Notre Dame to leap back among the league’s elite.

This is a veteran Irish group. One that’s won a lot together. In opposing buildings. It’s mandatory they do it again to shove this season from suspect to special.

What does Bonzie Colson have to do to make good on his preseason player of the year honor?

Everything and maybe even a little more. Colson’s scored (league-best 21.4 ppg). He’s rebounded (fourth at 9.8 rpg.). He’s helped steer the Irish through some trying non-league times. He played his best basketball last week to earn his first league player of the week honor. He could deliver a final monster run through the league, and it still might not touch Duke freshman Marvin Bagley III.

Bagley’s an absolute beast. He’s fourth in the league in field goal percentage (.617), second in scoring (21.1) and first in rebounds (10.9). He has 10 double doubles for a Duke team that figures to finish inside the league’s top three. He’s doing it all while playing 31.08 minutes a game. That ranks 25th in the league. He’s already won league player of the week twice, rookie of the week three times.

Colson could put up comparable numbers, and it might not register along Tobacco Road. See Grant, Jerian for additional evidence. The former Irish guard should have been league player of the year as a senior in 2015, but that was handed to Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor, who did little to match his preseason hype. Bagley’s way better than Okafor. Colson’s got his work cut out for him. But count Colson out, and he’s often at his best. He has to be.

•Is there one overrated statistic when it comes to projecting how Notre Dame will fare in ACC play?

Absolutely. It’s one that cost the Irish a pair of non-league games. Notre Dame allowed 13 offensive rebounds to Ball State in an 80-77 home loss on Dec. 5. Eleven days later in Indianapolis, Indiana grabbed a pair of critical offensive rebounds off missed free throws in an identical 80-77 loss, that one in overtime.

But Brey may not lose a lot of sleep on being out-rebounded, especially on the defensive end. Why? History tells him that if Notre Dame can be better in other areas – not fouling, taking care of the ball and keeping opponents off the free throw line – it again has a chance to chase double-digit league wins.

Notre Dame finished 12-6 in the league last season and had an outside shot at a share of the regular-season championship right down to the final day. The Irish earned a double-bye in the conference tournament and played for a championship for the second time in three years. They did it all while routinely being smoked on the backboard, where they finished second to last (-1.8) in rebounding margin.

Notre Dame was outrebounded in 15 league games last season. In 11, the Irish allowed the opposition to grab double-digit offensive rebounds. Notre Dame went 7-4 in those 11. That included three games where the Irish allowed at least 17 rebounds – at Miami, at North Carolina in the water-main break game played in Greensboro and home against Wake Forest. The Irish won two of three.

Notre Dame enters league play ranked second to last (14th, +0.9). Rebounding remains a potential red flag, but Brey also believes his team can and will compensate in other areas.

•Other than rebounding, is any other potential problem area for Notre Dame?

The bench. Or a complete lack thereof. Thirteen non-league games produced few answers as to who can do what outside of the five starters. Part of that was by design.

Brey sacrificed bench development early to build a cohesion and a confidence among the starting five. That group needs to play well, and play as one, for the Irish to have any chance. Four of the five average at least 32.5 minutes, a trend that likely continues in league play. That’s nothing new. Brey historically leans on his starters for heavy minutes, but he’s also been more definitive with the bench.

Irish reserves don’t play major minutes, but they’ve at least been able to do enough to alleviate the starters’ workload. That’s not been the case this season. Nobody has really delivered for extended stretches. It’s a game here, two off there. And that’s a problem.

Non-league was a chance for the reserves to figure it out. They didn’t, and now have to do it in league play. Yikes.

Who’s the sixth man? The seventh? The eighth? Five guys had chances at various times during non-league and all five didn’t deliver for one reason or another. The reserves haven’t scored, haven’t defended, haven’t rebounded, haven’t consistently helped to the head coach’s liking. The deeper the Irish worked in non-league play, the more the starters played. Four logged at least 37 minutes … against Dartmouth. Not the best bench endorsement.

Brey worked a lot this week to get his bench guys confident. He mixed up the jerseys more to get D.J. Harvey and John Mooney and Elijah Burns in with the main guys. He looked longer at Nik Djogo. His message? The sixth-man role is there for the taking. So is the seventh-man role. And eighth. Who wants them? Anyone? Somebody in a blue reserve practice jersey has to grab it and give the Irish something. And sooner than later.

•How different do the all-league team and preseason poll look now moving into conference play?

Colson’s still a first team all-league lock, as is Bagley. So would be North Carolina power forward Luke Maye, a former preferred walk-on who briefly considered Notre Dame coming out of high school before signing with the school where his father, Mark, was an all-league quarterback in the 1980s. Maye averaged 3.4 points over his first two seasons, but is fourth in scoring (19.3) and seventh in rebounds (10.6). His teammate, Joel Berry II, might slide into a first team spot, based partly on his career work and one final solid season. The fifth could go any number of directions. Like Syracuse guard Tyus Battle (third in scoring at 19.9, first in minutes at 36.9). Keep an eye on guards Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson at Boston College. And there’s always Duke's Grayson Allen.

Don’t forget about Irish senior Matt Farrell. He could make a run at it.

As for reshuffling the preseason poll, Duke, North Carolina and Miami were picked among the top four. They likely remain the three to beat. As does Virginia. Florida State might be better than first figured. Same with Virginia Tech. The bottom half remains rather status quo.

What about Notre Dame? There were high hopes heading into the season with the Irish slotted third. They even received four first-place votes. A somewhat sluggish showing post-Maui has dropped Notre Dame closer toward the middle – say, sixth, seventh or eighth. A nice league run would change that in a hurry.

Time to start that climb.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Will there be a lot to celebrate during Atlantic Coast Conference play for Notre Dame's Rex Pflueger (0) Matt Farrell (5) and Bonzie Colson? The Irish begin to find out Saturday at home against Georgia Tech. (SBT Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)

MEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Notre Dame (10-3) vs. Georgia Tech (6-6).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: Plenty available.

TV: ESPNU.

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: Ben Lammers scored 22 points with 11 rebounds on Wednesday as Georgia Tech rallied to beat winless Coppin State, 76-62. … The Yellow Jackets had lost five of their previous six. Georgia Tech returns two starters off last year’s team that finished 21-16, 8-10 and 11th place last season. Josh Pastner earned Atlantic Coast Conference coach of the year honors. … Georgia Tech was picked this preseason to finish ninth in the ACC; Notre Dame was picked to finish third and had four first-place votes. … Georgia Tech is one of four repeat opponents for Notre Dame. The teams meet against in Atlanta on Jan. 10. … The Yellow Jackets lead the all-time series, 9-7, though the Irish have won five of eight, including 4-0 at home, as conference colleagues. The teams have split their last four. … Notre Dame opens ACC play with consecutive home games for the third time in its five years in the league.

QUOTING: “It’s a different level of basketball. It’s something we’ve been good at the last couple years so we’re excited for it. We’ve just got to play hard, play confident and play the way we play and we should be all right.”

-Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell on the start of ACC play.