Noie: Rolled with the changes, can Notre Dame salvage one more ACC win?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

This is how quickly everything can change in a college basketball season.

It’s in the snap of fingers. A sneeze. A blink. The bounce of a ball. Turn away, look back and the picture’s completely different.

Eight days ago, the postseason hopes and dreams for Notre Dame were alive and (somewhat) kicking. Over .500 in Atlantic Coast Conference play for the first time in two seasons, the Irish had won three in a row and seven of nine. They were rolling. They were dreaming. A season that looked like a whole lot of nothing in late January had become something as March neared.

Three regular-season league games remained as Notre Dame seemed certain of not only winning double-digit ACC games for the first time since 2017, but possibly quadrupling its league win total from last season.

Back in the fall, that would’ve been a clown call.

All the Irish had to do was beat the second-to-last-place team in the league, a team they had beaten earlier, ride that momentum home and beat a ranked team in Purcell Pavilion, then send their seniors out with one more win.

Then the wheels fell off. The engine died. So did dreams.

Notre Dame looked too lethargic in that loss seven days ago at Wake Forest. It let a 13-point lead with 10:04 remaining slip away the other night in a crushing two-point loss to No. 7 Florida State. Notre Dame now needs a win just to get to 10-10.

The break-even point might not be much, but the Irish will take it. There’s no other choice, and no other avenue to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017 other than winning four games in four days at next week’s ACC tournament. Good luck with that.

Irish coach Mike Brey insists his guys have a lot more basketball left in them. He said so Thursday during his weekly radio show. Didn’t say it late Wednesday, when the frustration of another near-miss festered to where he had nothing to offer on his post-game radio appearance. Said only a little more when he met the media.

Brey then went home and channel-surfed the cable news shows until about 4 a.m. His mind likely didn’t stray far from 73-71.

A new day seemingly brought a new resolve. Brey wants this group to make a deep run through Greensboro next week. He hopes they can go deep through the NIT, maybe get to New York City and play for a tournament championship in Madison Square Garden. For this program at this time, that would be a step. Not the one anyone really wanted to take, but one nonetheless.

They first have to get Saturday. League play tipped the first Wednesday in November. Three months and 19 league games later on the first Saturday in March, Notre Dame (18-12; 9-10 ACC) gets its first look at Virginia Tech. (16-14; 7-12).

Saturday’s one of those weird days in what’s been a weird season on and off the floor. Prior to tip, Notre Dame will honor three players before their last regular-season game at Purcell Pavilion — seniors T.J. Gibbs and John Mooney and graduate student Rex Pflueger.

There will be cheers; there will be tears. Individually, there’s been a lot to like about their careers. Pflueger will set the school record for career games played (140) when the ball is tipped. Gibbs is the leading active scorer for all ACC players (1,538 points). Mooney set the league record Wednesday for most double doubles in conference play (16 and counting), breaking Tim Duncan’s mark. Yeah, that Tim Duncan.

The three have seen a lot and done a lot. Collectively, the big picture’s a little more complicated. They’ll have played their last three seasons without getting to an NCAA tournament. That’s the baseline for any college player. It’s why they play. Missing that more than making it makes it difficult to determine where they stand on the program’s career success ladder.

They put up a lot of numbers. In Mooney’s case, crazy numbers. But Mooney often has been the first to stress that he’s never really been about numbers. He’s been only about winning. Gibbs too.

They were good dudes and good players, first-class representatives of the program and the place. But that ever-present sourpuss patrol — yeah, we hear you — is quick to point out that they didn’t win as much as many wanted, as much as they wanted. Hey, it happens. It happened.

In the big program picture, Mooney mirrored former Irish power forward Pat Garrity, who posted his share of standout statistics on teams that struggled to win. Like in Garrity’s games, Mooney’s effort is admired, but often lost in the losses. That’s one reason why someone who should be a first team All-ACC lock when postseason honors are revealed Monday morning isn’t one of four finalists for the Karl Malone Award, which goes to the country’s top power forward.

Gibbs has been steady, and often solid. He’s played in a lot of games (134) and logged a lot of minutes (4,084). Expected to rotate into the role of the next really good guard in a program that’s seen their share, Gibbs never advanced to that elite/exclusive group.

Pflueger’s been the ultimate fit-in guy at a time the program needed more of a scorer. He believed. He competed. He never looked at a day as a bad day, even though he’d seen his share. Plenty could learn from his positivity.

Barring an NIT home game, Saturday is their last shot to win a game in front of their family and friends. On their day. This one’s a big deal for Notre Dame. Finishing .500 doesn’t move the meter, but it is progress.

At this point, that little something’s better than a lot of nothing. For them. For everyone.

Notre Dame guards Rex Pflueger, left, and T.J. Gibbs play their final regular-season home game Saturday at Purcell Pavilion against Virginia Tech.
Notre Dame senior power forward John Mooney likely would trade a few of his Atlantic Coast Conference record-setting doubles doubles for a few more league victories.

WHO: Notre Dame (18-12; 9-10 ACC) vs. Virginia Tech (16-14; 7-12).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: ACC Network.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM/96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at


NOTING: P.J. Horne scored 17 points and Tyrece Radford added 16 in Wednesday’s 70-58 home victory over Clemson. The win snapped a four-game losing streak for the Hokies, who shot better than 50 percent from the field (54.2 percent) for the first time in an ACC game. Virginia Tech tied its season high with 16 turnovers. … The Hokies have lost nine of their last 11. … Coach Mike Young is in his first season in Blacksburg after going 299-244 in 17 seasons at Wofford. Young grew up 15 miles from the Virginia Tech campus in Radford. … Virginia Tech returned one starter off last year’s team that finished 27-9, 12-6 and fifth place in the ACC. The Hokies advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 in their final year under coach Buzz Williams, who left for Texas A&M. The Hokies were picked in preseason to finish 14th in the league. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 8-4, including 5-3 as ACC colleagues and 3-2 at home. The Hokies have won the last two in the series, both wins last season as a repeat opponent. … Notre Dame (1.70) and Virginia Tech (1.48) are ranked first and second in the ACC for assist/turnover ratio. … Virginia Tech (9.83) and Notre Dame (9.67) are ranked first and second in the league for 3-pointers made. … Virginia Tech is 3-6 on the road in ACC play with wins over Clemson, Syracuse and Wake Forest; Notre Dame is 5-4 at home in league play. … Hokies forward Landers Nolley II is seventh in the league in scoring (15.93). … Virginia Tech opens the final weekend of the regular season in a two-way tie for 10th place in the ACC; Notre Dame is in a three-way tie for seventh. … Wednesday’s 73-71 loss to No. 7 Florida State snapped a five-game home win streak for Notre Dame, which has lost its last two league games. … The ACC tournament begins Tuesday at Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum.

QUOTING: “If the NIT is where we land, we would be honored to play in that. There’s still a lot of basketball to play this season. This has not been a tough year. I love our team. Last year was a tough year.”

-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey on his weekly radio show.