Noie: Moon, stars, sun need to align with wins for Notre Dame men's basketball team

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

One small word with big implications will ride it out with the Notre Dame men’s basketball team the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference way.

The word will start almost every sentence as the Irish dive into the final four games of the regular season before heading to the New York borough of Brooklyn and the conference tournament.

If.

• If Notre Dame (16-11; 6-8) can secure three more league wins…

• If it can pull the upset of upsets come season’s end at No. 1 Virginia…

• If league preseason player of the year Bonzie Colson returns as long planned in nine days from a broken left foot and picks up where he left off…

• If what has already been a wacky and wild year around college basketball continues as such once conference tournament time arrives….

• If the stars and the planets and the moon and the sun align for the Irish on a certain Sunday in March now less than three weeks away…

If.

Irish coach Mike Brey stopped short last week of labeling Saturday’s game at Boston College as a must-win. He didn’t want to go there, didn’t want to put any added pressure on his players. But they’re smart guys; they know the numbers. They know what’s what. Everyone does.

The Irish had, had, had to have that one. They got it thanks to a career-high 37 points from senior guard Matt Farrell, who tied Kyle McAlarney’s school record with 10 3-pointers. Lose to Boston College, and the rest of the way offers Notre Dame little in a way out. Or in.

Same goes for Monday’s quick-turnaround home game against Miami (Fla.) And Saturday’s road game against Wake Forest. And next week’s regular-season home finale against Pittsburgh. And, maybe, the season finale at Virginia.

Brey said Saturday that if Notre Dame can win again Monday, the oft-talked about, never-seen NCAA tournament bubble might come into view. See it? Look closely. That it? Way out there in the dizzying distance. It might be there if you look hard.

There it is, another if.

How fast does everything change? Brey lamented last week of just finding a way to finish 8-10. One big road win and 9-9 now is in play. How about raising the bar of a program that’s had it really high the last three years and chase 10-8?

There’s work left to do for teams with NCAA tournament dreams, and then there’s a lot of work left to do for teams like Notre Dame. Finishing 9-9 ensures nothing. Finishing 8-10 ensures everything.

Best way to stay on track with a chance? Keep winning.

“We’re in the territory now where we’re going to have start picking off a couple and get closer to .500 in the league if we’re going to have any shot at getting a bid,” Brey said last week. “We’re going to have to start doing some things to actually be in the discussion.”

Beating Boston College to snap a six-game league road losing streak was a solid start. Beating Miami in the last Saturday-Monday swing would be the second strong step. First time Notre Dame was handed a Saturday-Monday challenge last month, it lost both ends – at home to Virginia Tech and at Duke. Second time it took a Saturday-Monday swing, it went 1-1 with a nice home win over Florida State and a not-so-nice road loss to North Carolina.

Third time the charm? Notre Dame’s due to go 2-0.

“Maybe,” Brey said, “we’re ready to do it.”

They have to do it.

As the Irish aim for the best Saturday-Monday outcome, so will Farrell. On Feb. 10, he scored a then-career high 28 points in the home win over Florida State. He was feeling good. The Irish were feeling good. Forty-eight hours later, he went 3-of-18 from the floor, 1-of-12 from 3 for nine points in the 17-point loss in Chapel Hill.

Farrell was at his best ever Saturday. Unconscious. Unbelievable. League player of the week good. He has to be just as good Monday against Miami. No margin for error exists. Not for Farrell. Not for the Irish. No more off-nights shooting. No more difficulties defending. Or sluggish stretches when they can’t produce points.

Gotta get Monday. Should get Monday. Gotta get Saturday. Should get Saturday. Gotta get the Feb. 28 home game against Pittsburgh. Sheesh. That’s as much of a lock for Notre Dame as any league game in its five-year ACC history. Done.

Short of winning five games in five days at Barclays Center (good luck with that), a loss anywhere along the way before Charlottesville likely pushes any NCAA tournament consideration off the table. Until then, hope remains. It might be something of false hope given the current Irish tournament resume (different column for a different day, but a 2-7 mark against ACC teams with current winning records is a crusher), yet hope will do. Has to.

Notre Dame will continue to hope and work with a reduced rotation. Freshman swingman D.J. Harvey reinjured his left knee (bone bruise) during Friday’s practice. It’s at the point where Brey believes the Irish can’t count on him until maybe the ACC tournament. And maybe not even then. Junior guard Rex Pflueger took a nasty fall and landed on his lower back early in the second half of the Boston College game. He didn’t return. Brey believes that Pflueger should be fine.

But the way the Irish have been hammered by injuries, who knows? Maybe Pflueger wakes Monday and can’t move. Or plays Monday and can’t move well.

Then what happens?

Just when the Irish seem to have everything figured out, something else happens to potentially throw it all back up for grabs.

This week is really big. For everything. For everybody. Colson should be cleared to cut it all loose in practice for the first time since late December. Notre Dame could climb back to .500 in league play by early Saturday evening for the first time since early January. Both could be the needed adrenaline shot for the home stretch.

If all that happens...

If.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey knows there is little margin for error remaining for his team to keep alive any consideration for an NCAA tournament bid. (AP Photo/MICHAEL DWYER)

WHO: Notre Dame (16-11; 6-8 ACC) vs. Miami (18-8; 7-7)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Monday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: A limited number available.

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: Miami opened 10-0 and was ranked as high as No. 6 in the Associated Press poll but has since gone 8-8 with three-straight league losses following Saturday’s 62-55 home loss to Syracuse. … All eight losses have been by 10 or fewer points. … Miami was picked in preseason to finish fourth in the ACC with one first-place vote. … The Hurricanes are without sophomore guard Bruce Brown, who underwent surgery Feb. 1 for what the school termed a “left foot injury.” … A second team All-ACC preseason selection, Brown is expected to miss six weeks. He’s second on the team in scoring (11.4) and leads the team in minutes (33.7), rebounds (7.1), assists (4.0) and steals (1.3). … Miami is 3-4 on the road in league play with wins over North Carolina State, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 11-10, including 5-4 at home. … Miami currently sits in a tie for ninth place in the ACC. Notre Dame is tied with Boston College for 11th place. … Notre Dame's senior class became the winningest in school history Saturday, win No. 98 in their careers. .. The Irish have won three of four.

QUOTING: “We have a really good opportunity to beat a really good team on Monday.”

-Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell.