Noie: In a lost season, Notre Dame men's basketball out of answers

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Get home, get packed, get back out of town and get this over.

Less than 24 hours after the Notre Dame men’s basketball team returned from its final regular-season road trip, the No. 15 seed Irish again were in the air, headed for Charlotte, N.C., and Tuesday’s first-round game against No. 10 Georgia Tech (approximately 2:30 p.m., ESPN) in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

Before leaving town, the Irish dismissed doing any media, a first in the 19 seasons under Mike Brey. No player availability. No coach access. No interviews. That Notre Dame went the no-comment route sums up how everyone around the program feels about what’s been a miserable three months.

End this. Now.

No more talk of the Irish inability to make shots or close out close games. No more comments on what they need to get over the proverbial hump, about scaling a wall that they weren’t going to clear no matter how many times they convinced themselves they could. No sound bites about the freshmen being better than, well, freshmen. No more talking about if and when the guys who were supposed to be leaders would indeed be leaders, and then why they weren’t. No more of Brey trying to put on an optimistic/brave face.

No more of everything. Get through these next 40 minutes against Georgia Tech, another root canal sans Novocain waiting, and close it all down. If Notre Dame advances to play No. 7 Louisville in Wednesday’s second round, swell. But does it matter? The games that Notre Dame really needed to win, for its collective psyche, for its pride, for its future, have come and gone.

Any success in Charlotte will be as empty as the Purcell Pavilion stands were this winter.

If Tuesday indeed is the end, end it. Even the year-end awards night in April has been scrapped. How do you give an “empty the tank” award when the tank’s been empty for weeks? Let the Irish, currently 13-18 after staggering through a 3-15 showing in the ACC, enjoy what’s left of their spring break before the most important offseason the program has ever faced.

Not long ago, March used to matter.

Four years ago, Notre Dame was on the floor of Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum wearing championship hats and shirts and hauling home a big trophy after capturing the ACC tournament title. The Irish went to the NCAA tournament Elite Eight for the first of two-straight years. Maybe that’s as good as it gets.

Since opening conference play 3-0 for the first time in school history last season, Notre Dame is a staggering 8-25 in the ACC. It’s been the ultimate scramble to sustain success, yet the Irish remain mired in mediocrity.

How did this happen? How did this become the most un-Brey-like team ever? There’s not enough time or column inches to dissect how this season went so sideways. There are snapshots.

Like Notre Dame needing to flood the floor with shooters in a late-game scenario against Radford, only to have Brey forget to sub in freshman Nate Laszewski before a three-point loss. Like senior captain Elijah Burns quitting four games in, a move that flustered what already was an unfocused locker room. Like senior captain Rex Pflueger crumpling along the baseline with a season-ending knee injury in the Dec. 15 win over No. 13 Purdue. On an afternoon when everything looked like it was falling into place, when the Irish looked like a potential NCAA tournament team, it all fell apart.

Like the soul-stomping 27-point loss at home to No. 2 Virginia, then the equally deflating 22-point loss to No. 5 Duke just over 48 hours later. Like the inability to capitalize on seemingly confidence-boosting efforts against Boston College (win) and the rematch at Virginia (loss) with awful offerings against Miami (Fla.) (loss) and Wake Forest (loss).

Remember how February would give this team new life? A fresher focus? Notre Dame won at Boston College to start the month, then finished 1-8. Yeah, that worked.

Notre Dame became the perfect elixir for what ailed other conference teams. Wake Forest won one league road game. Guess where? Pittsburgh hadn’t won a league game in 54 days. Guess what team the Panthers beat to snap that streak?

League teams could count on playing Notre Dame to get right. The Irish couldn’t win at home (2-7), couldn’t win on the road (1-8), couldn’t beat a ranked league team (0-8), couldn’t beat anyone not named Boston College (twice) or Georgia Tech (once) and never beat a team in the league’s top seven of the final standings (0-9).

Notre Dame lost the most league home games (seven) in school history and had the most home losses (eight) since 1992-93. The Irish will finish with 19 losses, most since 1990-91. That was the first year of 10 without an NCAA tournament bid. That was pre-ACC. Pre-Big East. That was a dark decade.

These last few months have been darker. Everything effectively ended Feb. 19 with that home loss to Wake Forest. The festering feeling walking out of Purcell Pavilion that night was that this team was spent. Their confidence crippled. Their will wounded. They didn’t have much fight left. Doing the tough stuff was too tough.

Entering the league tournament, the Irish have lost seven straight, eight of nine and 13 of 15. It’s been 30 days since they last won. It might be another eight months before they get another chance. In the coming days, we’ll examine what Notre Dame needs to do to be better and why next season aligns as the ultimate prove-it season. For the players. For the head coach. For the program.

Where is it headed? Nobody knows.

This much we do — let this end.

Notre Dame’s John Mooney (33) reacts to missing a shot during the Notre Dame-William and Mary NCAA men's basketball game Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

ACC TOURNAMENT

First Round

WHO: No. 15 seed Notre Dame (13-18; 3-15 ACC) vs. No. 10 Georgia Tech (14-17; 6-12).

WHERE: Spectrum Center (19,077), Charlotte N.C.

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

TV: ESPN.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM/96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from the Tribune’s Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI

NOTING: Repeat league opponents since 2013-14, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech split this season. The Yellow Jackets won 63-61 on Jan. 22 in Atlanta; the Irish won 69-59 on Feb. 10. It was Notre Dame’s final regular-season win. … The Irish have lost seven straight, eight of nine and 13 of 15; the Yellow Jackets have won two straight after losing nine of 10. … This is the second-straight season that Notre Dame has played in the tournament’s 10-15 afternoon game. As the No. 10 seed, Notre Dame beat No. 15 Pittsburgh last season in New York. … Since losing a first-round game in 2014, the Irish are 8-3 in their last four ACC tournaments. … Georgia Tech is 0-2 under coach Josh Pastner at the league tournament. … Georgia Tech leads the all-time series 11-9; Notre Dame is 7-5 as ACC colleagues. These teams have never met in the league tournament. … The Irish and Yellow Jackets finished 13th and 15th in the league for scoring at 68.9 and 65.1 ppg. … Since scoring 68 points in a seven-point loss to Wake Forest on Feb. 19, Notre Dame has scored 62 points or fewer in its last five games. … Georgia Tech finished tied for second in field goal percentage defense (.395) while Notre Dame finished 214th for field goal percentage, also at .395. … A third team all-league selection Monday, Irish power forward John Mooney led the league in rebounding (11.2). … Georgia Tech power forward James Banks (2.6) and Notre Dame’s Juwan Durham (2.3) finished first and second in the league for blocked shots. … Irish forward Nate Laszewski scored a career-high 23 points in Saturday’s loss at Pittsburgh. … This is Notre Dame’s first visit to Charlotte since beating Middle Tennessee State and TCU in the first two rounds of the 1987 NCAA tournament at the old Charlotte (now Bojangles) Coliseum. … Tuesday’s winner advances to Wednesday’s second round at 7 p.m., against No. 7 Louisville.

QUOTING: “We’re just not a very confident group. You can’t manufacture confidence. You’ve got to win a little bit. We have not. So we wonder.” — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.