Noie: Tough ACC hoops task awaits struggling Notre Dame

Staff reports
ND Insider

{child_flags:featured}Facing a tough task

This runs deeper than a team still struggling to make enough shots to succeed.

As the losses mounted for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team through the first half of Atlantic Coast Conference play, the narrative had it that if the Irish only could make more shots, a season that seemingly was slipping away could be salvaged on the back half.

Fooled us.

Heading into Saturday’s game against No. 20 Virginia Tech, which starts a run of three-straight games against ranked teams, Notre Dame is missing more than shots. It’s missing ways to win close games. It’s missing guys who know how to win close games. Maybe more importantly, it’s missing the belief that they will.

Notre Dame shot better Tuesday against Wake Forest. The Deacons were winless on the road in league play and near or at the bottom of almost every statistical category in the conference. If there was ever a night for the Irish to collectively cure what ailed them, Tuesday was it.

It wasn’t.

Notre Dame scrambled out of a nine-point deficit to tie it at 66 with 2:56 remaining. When it came time to make the winning plays to decide the game — a rebound, a shot, a stop — the other guys did.

It’s fitting that Virginia Tech is next up for Notre Dame. The Irish opened league play against the Hokies in much the same way it played Tuesday — good enough to compete, not good enough to win. Not then. Not now. Maybe not the rest of the year. Not with this group that still has too many questions and not enough answers.

Even when the Irish get close, it’s really not close enough. Not for this group.

“Sometimes you get it to one possession in the vibe that we’re in and really one possession might as well be 12 points,” said coach Mike Brey, his team 13-13, 3-10 with five games left. “That last possession is a hard one to get over. It’s close, but it’s not as close as one possession for us psychologically.”

The Irish have spent so many days and weeks and months trying to figure out so much other stuff — lineup combinations, roles, leaders, ways to score — that grooming and getting someone to step forward in close games and show the way has been lost. Part of that stems from inexperience and, to an extent, immaturity. Part of that stems from the fact that outside of Boston College twice and Georgia Tech, Notre Dame hasn’t beaten anyone in the league. It’s often played overmatched, particularly against the league’s top tier.

The Irish are 0-6 with an average margin of defeat of 14.3 points against teams with winning league records. Three in a row from that level await, including two (No. 16 Florida State, No. 18 Louisville) on the road.

Virginia Tech (20-6; 9-5) likely will be without standout guard Justin Robinson (foot) for a seventh game Saturday. He’s their heartbeat. But if Kerry Blackshear and Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Ahmed Hill play the way they play, it’s going to be another long afternoon for the Irish. They can’t win on the road. They can’t win at home. They can’t win, in part, because they haven’t won.

To do that, they first have to believe they can. The next time would be the first time.

“I think that’s where we’re not as confident because we just haven’t had success,” Brey said. “We’re going to keep trying but the reality is we are kind of who we are right now.”

Who are they? A team that takes one step forward, only to take two back. This week, it was more like three. Notre Dame thought it had it figured out. It was able to grind out a home win over Georgia Tech after managing only eight points the first 14-plus minutes of a forgettable first half. Then it offered as good a 40 minutes as it’s played all year but lost by six points at No. 3 Virginia.

It was the proverbial “something to build on” crutch that Brey leans on after losses. Come home, get a few good days of practice, whack Wake Forest and put itself in position to beat a ranked team and win two straight in league play for the first time all year.

Instead, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse…

“We had our chances,” said power forward John Mooney, seemingly running on fumes after pumping out double doubles for points and rebounds with regularity in January. “Then last two minutes, they made plays. We did not. That’s the bottom line.”

Afterward, Brey admitted that the Irish got what they deserved. They’re 3-10 for a reason. At a time of year when they should be counting down the days to Selection Sunday, we’re instead counting down the days before the Irish close this down. Can’t get there soon enough.

What’s the next button for Brey to push? He mentioned Thursday that it might be time to commit even more to Juwan Durham and Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski. But does it matter? Every button that’s been pushed hasn’t produced. That’s gotta be frustrating, doesn’t it?

“I don’t think it is,” insisted guard T.J. Gibbs.

No?

“It is a little frustrating,” Gibbs said. “But at the same time, we’re rolling with the punches.”

Except the Irish have absorbed more body blows than they’ve delivered. This Saturday-Monday stretch threatens to be the knockout. Forget the standing-eight count. One last roundhouse is aimed at the Irish jaw. Can they keep it from shattering?

“They’re knocked back,” Brey said. “We still have some opportunities.”

There it is — that sliver of hope that the Irish can salvage something the final five games of the regular season. Hope can help a struggling team. But the only hope the rest of the way for the Irish is that they figure something out to help them. Maybe help them next year.

Maybe.

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WHO: Notre Dame (13-13; 3-10 ACC) vs. No. 20 Virginia Tech (20-6; 9-5).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at 4 p.m.

TICKETS: 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

MEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Virginia Tech’s Kerry Blackshear scored 29 points with 13 rebounds and Ahmed Hill added 16 points in Monday’s 64-58 home loss to No. 3 Virginia. The leading field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage team in the Atlantic Coast Conference to start the week, Virginia Tech shot 39.7 percent from the field and 10.7 percent (3-for-27) from 3. … The Hokies have been without senior point guard Justin Robinson the last six games. The active career leader in the league and school record holder for assists (545), Robinson has been out with an undisclosed foot injury. There is no timetable for his return. Virginia Tech is 3-3 without Robinson. … Blackshear is averaging 19.8 points and 8.5 rebounds in his six games in February. He’s shooting 60 percent from the field, 53.3 percent from 3 and 86.8 percent from the foul line. … The Hokies have lost three of five. … Virginia Tech has been ranked in every Associated Press poll this season. It spent two weeks as high as No. 7. … The Hokies are 4-3 on the road in league play. The Irish are 2-5 at home in league play. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 8-3, 5-2 as ACC colleagues and 3-1 at Purcell Pavilion. … Virginia Tech is one of four repeat league opponents. Notre Dame is 4-3 against repeat opponents. … The teams met New Year’s Day in Blacksburg, an 81-66 Virginia Tech win. T.J. Gibbs scored 19 points with four assists; D.J. Harvey added 16 points and seven rebounds for the Irish. … Since opening league play last year 3-0, the Irish are a combined 8-20. They’ve lost their last 13 games to ranked teams, including all six this season.

QUOTING: “I don’t know.” — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey when asked what would qualify as success over the final five regular-season games.

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Are there any buttons left to push for Notre Dame coach Mike Brey? 

WHO: Notre Dame (13-13; 3-10 ACC) vs. No. 20 Virginia Tech (20-6; 9-5).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at 4 p.m.

TICKETS: 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

MEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Virginia Tech's Kerry Blackshear scored 29 points with 13 rebounds and Ahmed Hill added 16 points in Monday’s 64-58 home loss to No. 3 Virginia. The leading field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage team in the Atlantic Coast Conference to start the week, Virginia Tech shot 39.7 percent from the field and 10.7 percent (3-for-27) from 3. … The Hokies have been without senior point guard Justin Robinson the last six games. The active career leader in the league and school record holder for assists (545), Robinson has been out with an undisclosed foot injury. There is no timetable for his return. Virginia Tech is 3-3 without Robinson. … Blackshear is averaging 19.8 points and 8.5 rebounds in his six games in February. He’s shooting 60 percent from the field, 53.3 percent from 3 and 86.8 percent from the foul line. … The Hokies have lost three of five. … Virginia Tech has been ranked in every Associated Press poll this season. It spent two weeks as high as No. 7. … The Hokies are 4-3 on the road in league play. The Irish are 2-5 at home in league play. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 8-3, 5-2 as ACC colleagues and 3-1 at Purcell Pavilion. … Virginia Tech is one of four repeat league opponents. Notre Dame is 4-3 against repeat opponents. … The teams met New Year’s Day in Blacksburg, an 81-66 Virginia Tech win. T.J. Gibbs scored 19 points with four assists; D.J. Harvey added 16 points and seven rebounds for the Irish. … Since opening league play last year 3-0, the Irish are a combined 8-20. They’ve lost their last 13 games to ranked teams, including all six this season.

QUOTING: “I don’t know.” — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey when asked what would qualify as success over the final five regular-season games.