Noie: Confident Notre Dame finally gets 'fun' men's basketball matchup with No. 1 Virginia

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

For nearly four seasons as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, it was the one “get” that the Notre Dame men’s basketball team just couldn’t.

Not at home. Not on the road. Not once a season. Not twice as repeat opponents. Notre Dame wasted little time establishing itself as an ACC heavyweight — see the 2015 league tournament championship — but there always was one program that it couldn’t compete with. Couldn't beat. One program that always delivered the knockout punch.

Virginia.

Boom!

Good night.

It wasn’t just that the Cavaliers won with regularity — five wins in five tries — it was that the contests were so one-sided, so seemingly over long before the final horn. So un-Irish like. First time Notre Dame visited Charlottesville in February 2014, it lost by 21 points after trailing by as many as 25. It wasn’t any better at Purcell Pavilion. Virginia’s average margin of victory against Notre Dame as conference colleagues was 14 points. It often felt more like double.

The more the teams played, the fewer Irish answers.

With its pack-line defense, its doubling of the post, its methodical, grind-you-down-and-out offense, Virginia became the Boogeyman, constantly visiting Notre Dame in its dreams. It kept coach Mike Brey and his staff up late into the middle of those long, cold Midwestern winter nights.

How could they stop those guys? Would they?

Then last March happened in the New York borough of Brooklyn during an ACC tournament quarterfinal. Notre Dame stared straight into the eyes of the Boogeyman and its pack-line defense and its doubling of the post and its methodical grind-you-down-and-out offense. And promptly shredded it. All of it.

The Irish played free and loose and smart and strong with the ball and were so over allowing the bully of the ACC block to push them around. They were so confident, even borderline cocky in the second half of a 71-58 victory that at one point, guard Rex Pflueger scratched out a steal near midcourt and sailed to the end for a dunk.

A reverse dunk.

It was a shot right to the Cavaliers’ nose.

Pop!

Why is all this important? On Saturday, Notre Dame (18-12; 8-9) wraps the regular season with a visit to No. 1 Virginia (27-2; 16-1). A win would allow the Irish do what was once unthinkable – climb back to finish 9-9 in league play, earn a first-round league tournament bye and continue charging toward a possible invitation to the NCAA’s post-season party.

Notre Dame has won five of seven, so confidence already is high. But what happened the last time the teams met at Barclays Center raises that swagger bar. To the roof. Maybe through it.

“We know what works against them,” said Irish power forward Martinas Geben. “We’ve got the recipe.”

Notre Dame will cook up something special for Saturday, a little house-warming gift in the form of senior power forward Bonzie Colson. Back from missing eight weeks with a broken left foot, Colson announced his return Wednesday with 12 points and nine rebounds in 21 unbelievably efficient minutes in the victory over Pittsburgh.

Colson connected on his first three shots. He dived for a loose ball in the opening minutes. He offered a spark that the Irish simply hadn’t had the previous 15 conference contests. Everything about the team felt different. Energetic. Alive.

Brey promised more of everything Saturday. More production. More minutes. More juice from Colson. He’s back. So might be the Irish.

“Just having him back adds so much confidence and energy,” Brey said. “Those guys missed him. They missed his edge. His confidence. Having him back will help.”

As will having beaten Virginia the last time the teams met. Walking off the court Wednesday, Brey thought almost immediately to that previous meeting. He made plans for his team to watch cut-up clips of that contest. The Irish opened the floor well with their spacing. They were patient on ball screens. They spread the Cavaliers out and made them guard for extended stretches, not the other way around. They embraced the probability of playing a rock-fight, slog of a contest. They rebounded. They defended. They seldom panicked, something every team seems to do somewhere along the line against Virginia (hello, Louisville).

Beating the nation’s No. 1 team on its home floor may be the ultimate test in a season of them for Notre Dame, but if any group’s prepared for it, it’s this one. It’s going to be really hard, but why should the final game of league play be any different than the previous 17?

Bring it.

“They’re really good and we respect them and the whole bit,” Brey said. “But we played pretty well against them in Brooklyn the last time.

“That really helps us.”

Saturday also ends an eight-day odyssey for Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell. It started with him scoring his 1,000th career point, and then dropping the game-winning 3-pointer at Wake Forest. The next day, his 82-year-old grandfather, a 1958 Notre Dame graduate, died in a New Jersey nursing home. Senior Night was emotional for him and his family before they all hopped in a car and drove back for his grandfather’s funeral.

Scheduled to fly late Friday afternoon to Charlottesville, Farrell instead planned to drive the five and a half hours from New Jersey because of the impending Nor’easter storm barreling up the coast. His emotional reserve may be on empty by the time he was expected to arrive for the team’s evening practice at John Paul Johns Arena, but he won’t have any trouble getting up for this one. Not with what’s at stake. Not with the opponent.

“It’s a tough environment to play in, but we’ve never backed down from a challenge,” Farrell said. “We think we can hang with them. We know we have a really good team.

“It’s going to be fun, that’s for sure.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

WHO: Notre Dame (18-12; 8-9 ACC) vs. No. 1 Virginia (27-2; 16-1).

WHERE: John Paul Jones Arena (14,593), Charlottesville, Va.

WHEN: Saturday at 4 p.m.

TV: WMYS.

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: Trailing by four points with 0.9 seconds remaining Thursday at Louisville, Virginia won 67-66 following a banked 3-pointer from about 30 feet at the buzzer by freshman forward De’Andre Hunter. … The Cavaliers have spent the last four weeks as the No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll. They started the season unranked and have been in the AP Top 10 since Christmas. … Their losses are in overtime at home to Virginia Tech and at West Virginia. … Virginia leads the all-time series 10-2. Notre Dame won the first meeting – Feb. 22, 1981 at the Rosemont (Ill.) Horizon when Virginia was ranked No. 1. It also won the last meeting, 71-58, in last year’s ACC tournament quarterfinals. … This is the first game against a No. 1 team for Notre Dame since Dec. 10, 2016 when it lost to Villanova at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. … This is the first ACC game for Notre Dame against the No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll since Feb. 3, 2014, a 61-55 loss to Syracuse. … Notre Dame last beat the No. 1 team in the AP poll on Jan. 21, 2012 (Syracuse). … The Irish are 3-5 on the road in the ACC and have won their last two. … Saturday is Mike Brey’s 600th game as the Irish coach. … Notre Dame will finish either ninth or 10th in the ACC.

QUOTING: “Everybody’s already counting us out. We have no pressure. We’ve just got to go out there and play our game.”

— Notre Dame senior power forward Martinas Geben.