Noie: Can Notre Dame continue push toward NCAA Tournament? It's in Irish eyes

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It’s in their eyes.

You can sense it. You can see it.

Words spoken by members of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team during its recent run of winning five of eight and getting a certain All-American-caliber power forward back from a foot injury remained the same. The Irish talked a lot about confidence. Win or lose, their ability to keep believing — in their game, in one another, in the biggest of pictures — seemingly never wavered.

Their words said it, but their eyes sometimes said something else, particularly after the Feb. 19 home loss to Miami (Fla.). The Irish talked of staying positive and confident after that one, but their eyes told a different story – they weren’t sure this season would end the way they wanted it to end.

But as the Irish traveling party prepared to leave early Sunday evening for New York and the annual Atlantic Coast Conference tournament after less than 24 hours at home, the team’s three senior captains continued to courier that confidence message. In their game. In one another. In the biggest of pictures.

Something else underscored their statements.

Their eyes.

They had a look about them seldom seen in January and February. But it’s March, and the end is near for all three. Could be next week. Or the week after. But they have a look. That look.

It’s a look that players in this program carried in 2014-15 when it steamrolled through the conference tournament to win the school’s first league championship and nearly got to the Final Four for the first time since 1978. It’s a look this program carried this time last year when it earned the No. 3 seed in the league tournament and beat a colleague it never before had beaten in ACC play (Virginia) before dismissing the No. 2 team, ultra-talented Florida State, before nearly dumping Duke in the championship game. It’s a look this program carried in November when it won the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, when the head coach went shirtless afterward and the team rocketed to No. 5 in the national polls.

It’s a look the Irish hauled into the visitor’s locker room early Saturday evening after giving top-ranked Virginia all it could handle on its home floor before losing by five.

The players sensed it. So did the head coach.

“The first thing I said to our guys was, ‘We’re back,’” Mike Brey said of the Irish, who carry an 18-13 record and No. 10 seed into Tuesday’s first-round ACC tournament game against No. 15 Pittsburgh (8-23). “Like, they felt like the team that was in Maui. Looked like it. Felt like it.”

Played like it. Talked like it. There’s always been that confidence from the players in this program, even when they were staggering through a seven-game league losing streak. But the way they’ve been since getting Bonzie Colson back from his broken foot has strengthened that collective resolve. The Irish have insisted all along they’re good. With Colson back and riding the momentum wave of his return to where they’ve become THE story in college basketball this week, they believe they can be great.

They sense it. They see it.

It’s in their eyes.

“That’s kind of cool,” Colson said of the program becoming the feel-good story of early March. “It’s been an up-and-down season for us. We’ve had our saga play out on television. Having everybody back and together through the ups and downs really shows the character that we have.”

A long haul

That character will be tested this week in New York. For the first time since 2014 — its first season in the ACC — Notre Dame doesn’t have the luxury of easing into the league tournament. For the previous three, the Irish could take their time getting to the game site, getting into post-season mode and getting focused. The previous three saw the Irish bide their basketball time in Brooklyn and Washington and Greensboro, N.C., until Thursday after receiving one of the four double-byes. By the time they opened play, many of the other 14 teams had already played, won or gone home.

Notre Dame plays the second game on the first day of the tournament. The building won’t be full, but there’s no easing into it. The Irish have to hit the ground running and would have to win five games in five days – which has never been done in the ACC – to earn an automatic ticket to the NCAA tournament. At the least, the Irish have to keep winning to keep alive its NCAA hopes.

It’s there. Right there. The players can see it. Brey can see it.

“All I know the last 24 hours, we’ve been in the discussion — what do you do with Notre Dame?” Brey said. “If you would have told me in the midst of that seven-game losing streak that a week from Selection Sunday, they’d be trying to figure us out and talk about us, I would have taken that in a heartbeat.

“We’ve got a shot at it.”

More work is required by Notre Dame, which is back in a building that’s been a second home. There’s something about being in the big city, and the borough of Brooklyn, that agrees with the Irish. Maybe it’s getting out of the slower pace of Indiana and into the big-city life. Maybe it’s the chance to play on a really big stage of a first-class NBA arena. Whatever it is, the Irish will take it and run with it.

“It’s nothing special,” said senior power forward Martinas Geben. “We just like the building. They have nice locker rooms.”

No league team has as many wins (seven) in Barclays Center than Notre Dame.

“We like that whole New York vibe,” Colson said. “It’s pretty cool. We feed off that energy.”

They’ll also feed off the energy of knowing how high the stakes are this week. Keep winning, and Notre Dame remains in the mix for the NCAA tournament. It’s really all that matters to the Irish. Nothing else does.

Guard Matt Farrell was asked Sunday about what it means to have missed five games with an ankle injury but still be selected to the all-league third team. He responded as if he had just stepped in raw sewage.

“It means nothing if we don’t make the NCAA tournament,” Farrell said. “It means absolutely nothing. We need to make the tournament. I don’t care. I don’t care at all.”

Farrell said nothing more. He didn’t have to.

His eyes said it all.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Barclays Center, site of this week's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, has been good to Matt Farrell and Notre Dame. If it is again, the Irish just may find themselves back in the NCAA tournament. (AP File Photo/FRANK FRANKLIN))

2018 ACC Tournament

First Round

WHO: No. 10 seed Notre Dame (18-13; 8-10 ACC) vs. No. 15 Pittsburgh (8-23; 0-18)

WHERE: Barclays Center (19,000), New York.

WHEN: Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. (approximately).

TV: ESPN2.

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: After going 424 days between games, this is the second meeting in seven days between the teams. Matt Farrell and T.J. Gibbs each scored 14 points and Bonzie Colson added 12 points and nine rebounds in his return from injury in a 73-56 victory over Pittsburgh on Feb. 28 at Purcell Pavilion. Notre Dame led by as many as 22 and for 37:58. … Tuesday’s winner advances to face No. 7 seed Virginia Tech on Wednesday at 7 p.m. … Pittsburgh has not won since Dec. 22; it has lost nine of its last 10 by at least 12 points, including five by at least 23 points. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 33-30, 2-3 as ACC colleagues. … This is the first time since March 11, 2010 that the teams meet in a conference tournament. That year, in a Big East tournament quarterfinal, Notre Dame won 50-45. … The Irish are 7-3 in four ACC tournaments; The Panthers are 4-4. … Notre Dame coach Mike Brey has the most wins (400) and most losses (200) in school history. Notre Dame’s next win will be the 500th in Brey’s coaching career.

QUOTING: “You just don’t think about that. That’s the best way to handle it. We’ve got a great opportunity to just play and win. You focus on that and not worry about the NCAA tournament and understand that we have to go do it.”

— Notre Dame power forward Bonzie Colson.