Noie: Nothing for Notre Dame to lose in visit to crazy Cameron

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

DURHAM, N.C. — Confidence can crumble at first sight of what awaits all around the Cameron Indoor Stadium basketball court.

A spirited student section lines one lower-level section of sideline and hugs up and back across each baseline. They get there early to stake out spots. Everybody stands. Jumps. Sways. For two hours, their presence can throw many a visitor off their game. They pounce on every mistake, point out every shortcoming. They make it hard to breathe. To rationalize. To think.

That’s just along press row, where even the most veteran scribe can struggle to string together sentences that make sense with the Crazies seemingly inches away.

Kidding aside, what awaits coach Mike Brey and Notre Dame (13-8; 3-5 ACC) at Duke (18-6; 6-3) on Monday night in front of a sellout crowd and a national television audience is nothing short of staggering —challenge the nation’s fourth-ranked team without three core players, including its two best.

Good luck with that.

Yet pity is not part of the protocol in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Nobody pitied Boston College when it went winless in league play two seasons ago. The Eagles were an easy win. Nobody pities poor Pittsburgh, which may follow that winless league run this season. The Panthers are an easy win.

And nobody’s going to pity a Notre Dame team that headed to North Carolina on Sunday afternoon with only seven core scholarship players. Three seasons ago, it won an ACC tournament championship. Two seasons ago, it won at Cameron. Not long ago, it owned this matchup and won five of six in four different venues.

But there comes a time when all that circles back the other way. There comes a time for a team to take a deep breath, and accept that it might be in for a long league night. A losing night. Monday might be that night for Notre Dame against a Duke team that fields a starting lineup of five potential first-round NBA draft picks.

Notre Dame has had five first-round picks … over a 24-year span.

This one threatens to get ugly. Epic ugly. But nobody feels sorry for Notre Dame. Not the Cameron Crazies. Not Duke coach and Brey mentor Mike Krzyzewski. And least of all the Irish.

“The sympathy stuff, we’re way past that,” Brey said.

The Irish have no choice but to embrace what awaits. They understand they’re coming into Cameron under the longest of odds. But they’re here so they might as well play. But don’t feel for them and what might happen. They won’t.

“We’re just not built that way,” said senior power forward Martinas Geben, now in the role of team leader/spokesman with the injury subtractions of captains/classmates Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell. “Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. Everybody’s coming after us, thinking we’re an easy win. We’re out here to prove against that.

“We’re mentally tough.”

That mental toughness better reach off-the-chart levels. Three years ago, Brey brought to Cameron what might have been a team that was mentally tougher than any Irish team past, present or future. That one was spearheaded by seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant. That team won 32 games. Won the ACC tournament. Won three NCAA tournament games. Came within one good possession of a Final Four.

That group also was thumped at Cameron by 30 points. Duke did that thanks to a 43-7 blitz. Before halftime.

Ooof.

That Irish outfit thought it could handle anything that season, but it couldn’t handle Cameron. This Notre Dame team doesn’t have anywhere near that Irish team’s swagger. This Duke team is way more talented than the one in 2014-15. And that one won a national championship.

If the Irish cannot play their way — limit possessions, defend, rebound, find ways to score like they scored Saturday (80-75 loss to Virginia Tech) and still keep it close — and Duke does what Duke does, what might be the final margin of victory? Twenty points? Thirty? Forty? It could get away and get away quickly from the Irish.

In a weird way, that nobody gives Notre Dame a chance allows the Irish to believe they have one. Not a very good one, but one nonetheless.

“That’s great,” Brey said with a laugh following Saturday night’s loss to Virginia Tech. “We’ve got no shot on Monday. They probably think it’s a JV team coming to town.

“I’m excited for our guys to play in this facility.”

Notre Dame again will show drive and determination to compete a full 40, just as it’s done during a five-game league losing streak. But the Irish may not have the firepower to make it a fair fight against as gifted an offensive team as any in the country.

“Everybody’s counting us out,” Geben said. “We’re the complete underdog everywhere. There’s absolutely zero pressure on us.

“That gives us the freedom to go out and play and give it our best.”

That best might not be anywhere good enough. Not this year. Not with this group. That’s just the way it is this year for this group.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

WHO: Notre Dame (13-8; 3-5 ACC) vs. No. 4 Duke (18-3; 6-3).

WHERE: Cameron Indoor Stadium (9,314), Durham. N.C.

WHEN: Monday at 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN.

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: This ends a run of three games in seven days for Duke, which won Tuesday at Wake Forest before losing Saturday at home to No. 2 Virginia. The Blue Devils trailed by as many as 13 before losing 65-63. … Duke was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for five weeks this season. It’s been as low as No. 7. … Power forward Marvin Bagley III has earned league player of the week twice and rookie of the week five times. … A Duke freshman has earned league rookie of the week honors eight of 11 weeks. … Picked in preseason to finish first in the ACC, Duke returns one starter off last year’s team that finished 28-9, 11-7 and tied for fifth in the ACC. … Duke leads the all-time series 22-7, 7-1 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. … The Irish are 5-3 as ACC colleagues. … Monday is Notre Dame’s first visit to Duke since a 95-91 win Jan. 16, 2016. … The Irish are 1-2 against ranked teams. … This starts a stretch of four of six on the road for the Notre Dame, which returns to the Triangle area Saturday to play North Carolina State.

QUOTING: “That would be the perfect place to get us out of our funk and to really get us our confidence back.”

-Notre Dame sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs on Cameron Indoor Stadium.