Noie: Time for Notre Dame to take another hoops step
Great win last time out, but be greedy and get another one.
That’s the mindset around the Notre Dame men’s basketball program coming clear of its biggest win in recent seasons Saturday at Kentucky. It was the first time Notre Dame (2-2) won in Rupp Arena, one of the game’s most iconic venues. It was a near-empty Rupp Arena, but a win there still is a big win, cardboard cutouts in the seats or not.
In a typical college basketball season, that touchstone would be enough to carry a program through the last couple weeks of December. Clear of final exams and over Christmas, into a new calendar year where conference contests commence. Notre Dame could ride those positive vibes of what it did Saturday through the back half of a non-league schedule of a few remaining gimmie games. It could continue to feel good about itself and its future until it was time to put on its big boy (conference) pants.
Not this season. Four days after beating Kentucky, albeit a Kentucky that’s not your typical Kentucky, Notre Dame is back home to open Atlantic Coast Conference play against the league’s gold standard. Yep, against those guys. Against that coach.
That would be No. 21 Duke (2-2) and coach Mike Krzyzewski, a guy that Irish coach Mike Brey once worked for, in town Wednesday for a late game (9 p.m., ESPN) in front of a few dozen family members/friends at Purcell Pavilion. Win a game like Notre Dame did against Kentucky, and teams can’t wait to play again. Even if the next one up on the schedule is Duke.
Notre Dame’s feeling? Bring it.
“We’re just taking our next step,” said Irish point guard Prentiss Hubb. “We got our (big) win, but we’re not holding our heads too high because we still have a lot to prove for ourselves.”
And to themselves. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, conference play starts early this season. Like, now. Notre Dame knew it would have three league games before the first of the year. It still went out and drafted one of the most challenging non-league schedules in the nation. It didn’t know that those three league games would be Duke this week, at Syracuse next week and a visit from No. 17 Virginia the week after that. Three league teams that all have had Notre Dame’s number in recent seasons.
If any Irish team is ready to run this gauntlet at this time, it’s this one. Duke’s a ranked team. We know how Notre Dame has fared against ranked teams (0 for 23 dating back to November 2017). Its current record aside, Duke eventually will look and feel and play like the program that’s won at least 10 ACC games the last 13 years running. That means a finish somewhere in the top shelf of the league.
That’s often meant struggle trouble for the Irish.
Dating back to 2017-18, actually, the night (Jan. 3, 2018) that Brey became the winningest coach in program history with Irish win No. 394, Notre Dame hasn’t fared even OK against ACC teams that finish with winning league records. It beat North Carolina State that night (88-58), which went on to finish 11-7 in the ACC. Notre Dame then lost 21 consecutive league games to teams that finished with winning league records. That streak was snapped last season with a February home win over Georgia Tech, which went 11-9 before the pandemic had its say.
Since that victory over North Carolina State, Notre Dame is 1-23 against ACC teams that finish with winning league records. That’s, um, no bueno.
Why the extended run of frustration? Of bad basketball? Myriad reasons of injuries and inexperience and ineffectiveness. Brey often insisted as the winless streak against ranked (league) teams closed in on 20 straight that his teams just weren’t in position to beat some of the teams — ranked or otherwise — above it in the league standings. They weren’t good enough. They needed to work their process of rebuilding a program that not long ago had been to consecutive NCAA tournament Elite Eights.
These are the kind of games the last three years that often saw Notre Dame in over its collective heads rather than play above them. Home games or road games didn’t much matter. The Irish weren’t anywhere evenly-matched, and often overmatched. Sink or swim? Always, it was sink.
Maybe one day …
One day might be here after Saturday.
Winning at Kentucky was a critical step in this program’s process. Get old (check), then get confident (check) with a win nobody saw coming (check). Another one Wednesday against Duke would be another big step in that process. It’s one that Brey believes his team could and should make. This group. On this night. Against that premier program.
Brey’s message to his guys in Lexington? Go for it and get one. His message for Wednesday? Ignore all the slaps on the back and saying what a great win Saturday was and get greedy.
“God, to beat a Kentucky and a Duke in a span of five days would really jump-start our confidence,” Brey said. “We certainly have not arrived.”
Rewind to the last time these teams met for evidence. They’re now so different than when they played in Durham in February. The Irish no longer have power forward John Mooney racking up double doubles for points and rebounds; the Blue Devils don’t have guard Tre Jones orchestrating everything. Duke handed Notre Dame its most lopsided loss (34 points) during Brey’s tenure. At one point early in the second half, it looked like the deficit might stretch to 50. It was that one-sided.
“We kind of got blown out,” understated Hubb about that afternoon at Cameron Indoor Stadium. “It left a sour taste. I’m not really focused on it too much. We had a lot to learn from it.”
Notre Dame has learned a lot, even this season. Overmatched opening at No. 4 Michigan State, better last week against No. 20 Ohio State. Wednesday is its third game against a ranked team and second straight at home. Statement games are rare at this season’s mile marker in December, but Notre Dame has another chance at one. Even for a program picked near the bottom of the ACC against one picked near the top in preseason.
“A lot of guys are counting us out and all that, but we’re not worried,” Hubb said. “We feel we can compete with the best. (Wednesday) would be a big step for us.”
It’s time this team takes it.
WHO: Notre Dame (2-2) vs. No. 21 Duke (2-2).
WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).
WHEN: Wednesday at 9 p.m.
TICKETS: None available. Outside of family members of players, fans are not permitted at Irish home games under coronavirus pandemic protocol.
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. DUKE
NOTING: Duke has been idle since a Dec. 8 loss (83-68) to Illinois at home in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Matthew Hurt scored 19 points with seven rebounds and Jeremy Roach added 13 points, four rebounds and seven assists for the Blue Devils, who finished 5-for-22 from 3. … Duke had non-conference games against Charleston Southern (Dec. 12) and Gardner-Webb (Saturday) canceled because of coronavirus concerns. … Hurt leads the Blue Devils in scoring (19.0) and tied for the team lead in rebounding (8.3). Freshman point guard D.J. Steward leads Duke in minutes played (30.3). Eight Blue Devils average at least 13.3 minutes per game. … The Blue Devils have been ranked as high as No. 6 in the Associated Press poll this season. They were picked in preseason to finish second in the Atlantic Coast Conference. … They also lost at home to No. 4 Michigan State. … Duke returns two starters off last year’s team that finished 25-6, 15-5 and fourth place in the ACC. … Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski is in his 41st season in Durham with a record of 1,061-287. He’s taken the Blue Devils to 16 Final Fours with five national championships. … Duke leads the all-time series 26-7, 6-4 at Purcell Pavilion. The Blue Devils have won the last six meetings after the Irish had won three in a row and five of six. … Duke is one of six repeat league opponents for Notre Dame. These teams will play Feb. 9 in Durham. … Duke is Notre Dame’s first league game for the second time in eight years. The Irish beat the Blue Devils, 79-77, in their first-ever ACC game on Jan. 4, 2014 in South Bend. ..This is Duke’s first true road game after four home games. … Notre Dame is 4-3 in ACC openers with road losses each of the last two years (Virginia Tech, North Carolina). … Irish guard Prentiss Hubb opened the week tied for the league lead in scoring at a career high 21.3 ppg. … Classmate Nate Laszewski was second in the ACC in field goal percentage (.618).
QUOTING: “I really didn’t see that. I’m not into all that type of stuff. I’m focused on getting better.”
— Notre Dame guard Prentiss Hubb on the Irish picked in preseason to finish 12th in the Atlantic Coast Conference.