Noie: Been a long wait for a big win for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Tucked deep in the stack of the Notre Dame men’s basketball pre-game notes package, beyond the bios and needed news nuggets, sits a page that has gone largely unedited for too long.

On it lists the last times the Irish have lost to a team ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 — Nos. 1 or 2 or 24 or whatever — and the last time the Irish have beaten a ranked team. That’s the part that has been untouched for nearly three full seasons. Notre Dame (18-11; 9-9 Atlantic Coast Conference) enters Wednesday’s for-night-owls only (9 p.m. start, ESPN2) game against No. 7 Florida State (24-5; 14-4) having lost 20 consecutive games to ranked teams.

Do something 20 times in a row. That’s difficult to do.

The streak dates back to that Nov. 22, 2017 evening about 4,200 miles away on Maui when Notre Dame stunned then-No. 6 Wichita State in the closing seconds to steal the Maui Jim Maui Invitational championship. That’s the same night coach Mike Brey stalked around the locker room shirtless. That’s the last time we’ve seen that, and the last time we’ve seen the Irish beat a team considered among the nation’s elite.

There have been close calls — five games have been decided by five or fewer points. There have been not-so-close calls — 10 have been decided by 10 or more points, including five by 20 or more. There have been neutral-site losses. There have been true road losses. Only six have come at Purcell Pavilion, site of the next opportunity.

Why have all those losses to ranked teams stacked up like inbound flights into O’Hare International Airport?

“I don’t know,” said senior power forward John Mooney, a reserve sophomore who’d yet to scratch his potential the last time the Irish beat a ranked team.

Honestly, Mooney knows. His teammates know. The media knows. Even the fans know. It’s not something the players cared to acknowledge Monday afternoon as the start of the final week of the regular season commenced.

The head coach went there after his initial I don’t know.

“Maybe they’re just better than us right now,” Brey said in offering the obvious. “That bothers me. Given how we’ve trended two years ago and last year, it’s kind of who we are.”

Who are they? Likely not an NCAA tournament team for a third straight season. In comparison, during the three seasons (2015-16-17) when Notre Dame was an NCAA tournament team, it went a combined 16-18 against ranked teams. It competed against the best, and even bopped the best right in the nose. Often.

Since then, Notre Dame has been good enough to compete against the nation’s and league’s elite, but not anywhere good enough to beat them. The Irish are the ones left bruised.

That’s a streak that’s overdue to stop. Wednesday offers hope.

Last time these teams met in late January in Tallahassee, Notre Dame was there at the end before an 85-84 loss. It’s one of the team’s six one-possession losses this season. That one dropped the Irish in a 2-6 hole in the ACC. Notre Dame rebounded to win four in a row and seven of nine to climb back above .500 for a couple days following last week’s win over Boston College.

Maybe that all-important basketball karma finally swings Notre Dame’s way. The last time it won a home game against a ranked team was Feb. 11, 2017. The opponent was then-No. 14 Florida State.

This should not be a game where the Irish seem overmatched, or feel they have little chance. Just the opposite. Confidence, Brey and his leaders insist, never has been a problem. Not when they were 2-6. Not when they ripped off seven of nine wins. Not even after they lost Saturday to the second-to-last-place team in the league, which likely torpedoed their last NCAA hope.

They were confident then; they’re just as confident now.

“(Heck), yeah,” Brey said.

So it’s time for this program to go and get one of these games against a ranked team the way they did for so many previous seasons. Ride the wave of the building’s energy. Not be denied. Make it a night and a win to remember. Offer an elite effort against an elite team.

Brey believes Notre Dame is ready for it. All of it.

“If we’re swinging back up and trending the right way, which I really think we are, this would be an important one to kind of show that you’re back in that territory,” he said.

Important to show not necessarily for whatever the rest of this season holds — the Irish hold out hope that they can finish fifth in the league and somehow snare an NCAA at-large bid — but important for this program to distance itself from its recent past.

Winning Wednesday can be one more building block for next season. Something they can put into place now and build off later. Mooney and fellow senior T.J. Gibbs and graduate student Rex Pflueger will have moved on with their basketball lives. The core of the sophomore class returns to take yet another step.

In Brey’s eyes, the Irish already have taken plenty away from 3-15. Like winning a league tournament game last season when they could well have packed it in and gone on spring break. Like flirting with double-digit league wins this season, including getting four on the road after only one last season. Like possibly winning as many as seven league home games this year after only two a year ago.

It’s been small steps for the Irish to get back to being a big deal. Wednesday would be another one. A big one.

Mooney stared down the 0-20 streak and refused to say that it’s been a struggle to get one (even though it has been). He likes where the Irish are, and the chance that the next game offers.

“We haven’t won one in a while, but it’s an opportunity,” he said. “We’re just going to let it rip and try and get the job done.

“Why not Wednesday?”

Indeed.

Notre Dame power forward John Mooney insists it hasn’t been a struggle the last few years, even though the Irish have lost 20 consecutive games to teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.

WHO: Notre Dame (18-11; 9-9 ACC) vs. No. 7 Florida State (24-5; 14-4).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Wednesday at 9 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

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

NOTRE DAME VS. FLORIDA STATE

NOTING: Devin Vassell scored 14 points with seven rebounds Saturday in a 70-69 loss at Clemson. Trent Forrest gave the Seminoles a one-point lead with 8.4 seconds remaining before Tigers guard Al-Amir Dawes drove the length of the floor with one second left for the win. The loss snapped a four-game ACC win streak for Florida State, which also won seven of eight. … The Seminoles are 5-4 on the road in league play. … Ten Seminoles average at least 10 minutes per game; the Irish carry only eight scholarship players. … Unranked to start the season, Florida State has been ranked as high as No. 5. … Irish guard Prentiss Hubb scored a team-high 24 points and Juwan Durham and John Mooney each added 16 points in an 85-84 loss to Florida State in the teams’ first meeting Jan. 26 in Tallahassee. Notre Dame scored 47 points in the second half. It led by as many as 11 in the game, and trailed by as many as 14. … Florida State leads the series 6-4, 5-3 as ACC colleagues. The Irish are 3-0 at home against the Seminoles, who make their first visit to South Bend since Feb. 10, 2018. … The Seminoles lead the league in steals (8.83), are second in scoring offense (75.2), free throw percentage (.755), field goal percentage (.459), 3-point field goal percentage (.360), blocks (5.41) and turnover margin (+3.10). They rank third in scoring margin (+9.62), fourth in field goal percentage defense (.407) and fifth in scoring defense (65.6). … No Seminole ranks in the Top 20 in the ACC for scoring or rebounding. … As of Tuesday, Florida State was in second place, one game in the win column behind Louisville; Notre Dame was in a five-way tie for fifth. … Florida State is one of six repeat opponents for Notre Dame, which is 6-5 against repeat opponents this season. … Notre Dame is 5-3 at home in league play with five straight wins. … The Irish close the regular season Saturday at home against Virginia Tech.

QUOTING: “It hasn’t necessarily been the arena that’s created problems, it’s been the coaching and the outstanding players that they have at Notre Dame. We’ve struggled there, no doubt about it. We realize we have very little room for error and need to be on point.”

-Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton on playing at Purcell Pavilion