Noie: Take time and appreciate this Notre Dame hoops journey, however it ends

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Despite recent steps of conference success taken by the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, the NCAA tournament remains too distant a dream.

The Irish may run out of opportunity and time before bids are extended in barely two weeks. Analyzing the Irish “resume” with three games left in the regular season is easy — there’s not a lot there.

Too few quality wins. None against ranked teams. Too little Atlantic Coast Conference meat and too much non-league gristle. Barring a barn-storm of Greensboro and the league tournament and a whole lot of crazy around the country next month, the Irish (18-10; 9-8 ACC) will be left on the outside looking in for a third straight season.

That’s OK. Coming close but coming up short doesn’t mean this season is another awful one. It sure beats the alternative.

Last year at this time, Notre Dame was staggering toward a last-place ACC finish in a season that couldn’t end soon enough. Just get it over and shut it down after the Irish limped to a 3-15 league record. They lost seven straight and eight of their last nine before it ended. Everyone needed a break from everything. From basketball. From one another. From the grind.

Don’t care to look that far in the rear-view mirror? Bounce back five weeks ago. Coming clear of a one-point loss at No. 8 Florida State in a game that everyone around the program felt someone was out to get them — the officials, the league, the clock operator, even the South Bend media (seriously) — Notre Dame was 11-8 overall, 2-6 in the league. Another losing ACC season seemed likely.

It was sure to be a long February, a really short March and an offseason of uncertainty.

Something happened on that express train back to mediocrity. Notre Dame found itself, found its game, found that winning again was fun. Found a rotation combination that clicked. Looking like the Irish of old, they ripped off four wins in a row. They should’ve beaten Virginia (another one-point league loss) and had less than zero chance at No. 7 Duke.

Notre Dame wiped clean any hangover from that afternoon and picked off three more league wins, including Wednesday at Boston College.

It was the ultimate live on the edge experience. The Irish trailed by six with 8:23 remaining. They were down by one with 8.4 seconds left. They were 0.1 seconds away from having all NCAA tournament hope evaporate into the New England night before T.J. Gibbs tossed up a shot in the lane to beat the buzzer and a 62-61 win.

That flip doesn’t fall, it’s really difficult to pick up the fallout pieces for the final three games. Downright impossible. Hope, however a long-shot it may be, still is hope. That’s good.

These last five weeks have been quite the ride in watching this group figure out different ways to win. They drive you nuts with their inconsistent shot- and decision-making. But there they were again at the end with a chance to win it. Then they won it.

That North Carolina game when Notre Dame erased a 15-point deficit with 8:37 remaining earlier this month? That would’ve been a loss in January. That comeback the other night at Boston College? Another January “L” is a February “W.”

Above the break-even mark in the ACC for the first time since January 2018, Notre Dame can do what many thought impossible this season when it wraps up its league road schedule Saturday with a visit to 14th-place Wake Forest.

Getting league win No. 10 may not bring the Irish any closer to the NCAA tournament field, but it will classify this season as something no one figured last month.

A success.

Giant steps were absolutely mandatory after last season. Giant steps have been taken.

What the Irish have done to date in the ACC is amazing. Difficult. Amazingly difficult. This core won three ACC games last year. It won once on the road. Wednesday’s win, as important as it was to keep postseason hope alive, tripled the team’s league total from last year. To go from three to nine ACC wins, however down the league may be, is hard. To go from one league road win a year ago to four — with a good chance at five — is harder.

Notre Dame’s done it. It might do more. That’s a credit to Mike Brey. The old coach looked headed toward certain burnout in late January, when his post-game press conference outburst toward the ACC and the officiating cost the school $20,000. Just when it seemed darkest, Brey steered this team toward the light. They started winning. They started believing. They started playing with passion and poise and purpose.

Now they’re on the verge of double-digit league wins for the fourth time in seven ACC seasons. Get Saturday’s game, get both of next week’s home games (yeah, we know that one at a time stuff…) and Notre Dame quadruples its league win total from last season. Three x four = rare. Nobody’s done a nine-win bump in league play from one season to the next since North Carolina went from five league wins in 2009-10 to 14 in 2010-11.

Given where this program was 12 months ago, even a month ago, that’s league coach of the year territory. But Brey won’t win it for the same reason power forward John Mooney won’t win league player of the year honors. Notre Dame’s still seen as an ACC outsider. Gotta win the league or finish in the top three for that stuff to matter.

In the biggest of pictures, they don’t. Same might go for the NCAA tournament. A win Saturday and a home sweep next week won’t ensure inclusion into the field of 68. Notre Dame still has much work remaining just to get to Dayton and the First Four. It may do all that work and still not be invited.

But when there’s again interest and intrigue around the program as February moves into March, it’s the journey that matters, not that too-distant a destination.

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey has seen his team make a six-game improvement (and counting) off last season’s Atlantic Coast Conference record.

WHO: Notre Dame (18-10; 9-8 ACC) vs. Wake Forest (12-15; 5-12).

WHERE: Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum (14,665), Winston-Salem, N.C.

WHEN: Saturday at 4 p.m.

TV: RSN.

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

NOTRE DAME VS. WAKE FOREST

NOTING: Guard Brandon Childress scored 13 of his 17 points after regulation as Wake Forest beat No. 7 Duke in double overtime, 113-101, Wednesday at home. The Demon Deacons outscored the Blue Devils 16-4 in the second overtime. Wake center Olivier Sarr scored a career high 25 points. Chaundee Brown added 23. The game featured only nine ties and four lead changes. Both teams led by as many as 12 in regulation. … Wake Forest is 1-2 in overtime games this season. … Saturday is Senior Day for Wake Forest, which is 8-5 at home, 4-5 in league play. … The Demon Deacons rank 12th in the league for scoring margin (-0.63) and blocked shots (2.43), 13th for assists (12.3), 14th in scoring defense (73.7), steals and assist/turnover ratio (0.86) and 15th in turnover margin (2.81). … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 6-4, 6-2 as ACC colleagues and 2-1 in Winston-Salem. The Irish have won six of the last seven in the series and the last two on the road. … Wake Forest is one of six repeat opponents for Notre Dame. … T.J. Gibbs scored 23 points and John Mooney added 19 points and 13 rebounds in Notre Dame’s 90-80 victory over Wake Forest on Jan. 29. It was a season high for points in a league game for the Irish, who scored 54 in the second half. Wake Forest led for 21:26. … Wake Forest enters the second-to-last weekend of the regular season in 14th place in the ACC; Notre Dame currently is tied with Syracuse for fifth. The Orange currently own the tie-breaker over the Irish based on their victory over Virginia.

QUOTING: “Coach (Mike Brey) continues to talk about how we need to get one (win) at a time. Each win is a big win. Just continue to push. This team is really maturing.”

-Notre Dame senior guard T.J. Gibbs