Noie: Hey, look, Notre Dame gets an ACC hoops home game

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It’s a quick but somewhat clunky trip between the two campus courts that the Notre Dame men’s basketball team calls home.

A side door on the south end of Rolfs Hall opens to a small sets of exterior stairs. They lead you down to and across Moose Krause Circle toward the north dome of the Joyce Fieldhouse. Find a door that’s unlocked, step inside and follow the building interior around to the left. You’ll pass what once served as the program’s weight room before reaching a hallway connector to the south dome.

Step through the hallway past the vending machines on the left and the equipment room on the right and turn left. Follow that around and hang a right, which takes you past the door of the Irish locker room lounge as the tunnel opens to the main floor of Purcell Pavilion.

It’s a path that the Irish often walk during the season, but not a lot lately. Really, not at all. They did it Monday for the first time in such a long time that coach Mike Brey might’ve had to leave a trail of popcorn or peanuts or another snack of choice so everyone could find their way back to Rolfs.

On Wednesday, Notre Dame (9-13 overall; 6-10 Atlantic Coast Conference) plays its first league home game in 17 days. It was at least that long since Brey had even set foot in a building that for so many years was the heartbeat of the basketball program. With Rolfs Hall, the Irish have become perfect strangers in their home gym.

“I don’t know the last time I’ve been in the arena,” Brey said Monday. “I don’t want to go through all that traffic that’s over there for fear of someone getting the virus from another athlete, somebody else in the (south) dome.”

Fortunately for Brey, the league schedule took care of those social-distancing concerns around Purcell Pavilion. Only Louisville (five) has played fewer league home games than the six for Notre Dame, which lost two to coronavirus issues (Georgia Tech, Clemson) that never were rescheduled.

Notre Dame recently wrapped a second stretch of three consecutive road games, the last one of those a lethargic loss Saturday at Boston College. Brey could see even as the Irish boarded their charter flight Friday for Boston that his team was running on fumes. Not necessarily physically, but mentally.

Notre Dame was the first of the league’s 15 teams to complete its entire 10-game league road schedule. It might be the last. The Irish have played five of their last six and seven of 10 away from home. Of their 14 league games since Jan. 2, 10 have been on the road. They’ve played one home game since Feb. 3.

Being home has been such a rumor that Brey even offered some reporting advice Monday.

“Has anyone written the column on sea legs because you played in every game and not (had) a pause?” he wondered. “We have been available to the point where maybe we’ve been put at a disadvantage at times.”

“They’ve hung in, man”

It’s been nearly impossible for the Irish to corral any collective rhythm while playing so few home games. The Irish have spent more time sequestered in their single hotel rooms around ACC cities than settling into a home routine. Yes, they’ve had four different breaks of at least four days between games, including two stretches of seven days off. That’s helped a short rotation save its legs. But what they gain in rest, they’ve seemingly lost in rhythm. You can’t win games in the ACC by being rested and ready. You win games by finding your rhythm and playing. Keeping sharp. Keeping an edge.

“It’s been a long road,” Brey said. “We’ve had some fun moments (see the win last month at Duke), but we’ve taken a lot of punches.”

The latest might’ve been the hardest. Boston College had won one league game all year before ambushing Notre Dame. The Irish lost their third straight league game because they didn’t bother to defend. Not just part of the time. Not at all as they allowed a season-high 94 points to a Boston College team that was averaging 72.1.

“We came in pretty confident,” said point guard Prentiss Hubb. “We just need to defend a little bit better.”

Make that a whole lot better, but Brey’s already pushed that defend-or-else button this season. It helped the Irish run off wins in six of eight at one point, and even started them thinking about possibly sneaking into the top half of the league and securing an NCAA tournament bid. Baring a massive momentum swing, this Irish season likely ends next week at the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C. There will be no NCAA tournament trip, and likely even no return tour of the National Invitation Tournament, limited to 16 bubbled teams in the Dallas Metroplex.

For this group, it’s this week and next and that’s it. Let it all ride.

That’s likely the last motivational card Brey holds. This season’s been a struggle for a squad that’s been stashed away on campus since Aug. 10. Players haven’t been back to their homes to see their families or take a break from basketball in nearly seven months. They live a solitary existence that includes only basketball and books and coronavirus testing and all of the same.

One of only three league schools (Duke and Miami (Fla.) yet to have a game impacted because of virus issues of its own doing, Notre Dame can see the finish line on this journey. Finish it out and finish strong. Even while saddled with that three-game losing streak that flipped this season from possibly special to suspect.

“We’ve been here before,” Hubb said. “Freshman year, we were worse (3-15 in the ACC) than what we are now. We’ve been to the bottom. We know how to get out of a slump.”

Crawling from another crater of its own doing against the league’s hottest team (North Carolina State) and likely regular-season champion (Saturday against No. 11 Florida State) in its only extended league homestand would be a good way for Notre Dame to cap this weird ride. Regardless of what happens, this season has been a success for reasons that have nothing to do with games won or postseason possibilities or league standings.

“I’ve never had more respect for a group of kids,” Brey said. “They’ve hung in, man. We have been available, always. They come in and do it and to that right there, I’m really proud of them.”

Having fans in the Purcell Pavilion stands has been as rare this season as Irish hoops homestands. For the first time this year, the Notre Dame men will play consecutive league home games this week starting Wednesday against North Carolina State.
“I’ve never had more respect for a group of kids,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said of his team. “They’ve hung in, man.’’ Above, Prentiss Hubb works against Boston College’s Jay Heath in last Saturday’s game in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

WHO: Notre Dame (9-13 overall; 6-10 ACC) vs. North Carolina State (12-9; 8-8)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149)

WHEN: Wednesday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: None available. A limited number of students will be allowed to attend, but outside of family member of players, fans are not permitted in the arena.

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 twitter.com/tnoieNDI

NOTING: Junior forward Jericole Hellems recorded his second career double double with 15 points and 10 rebounds in Sunday’s 65-62 home victory over Pittsburgh. Guard Braxton Beverly added 14 points and power forward D.J. Funderburk 13. The Wolfpack finished 24-of-34 from the foul line and limited Pittsburgh to an ACC opponent low 35.1 percent from the field. North Carolina State led for 37:04. … The Wolfpack have won four in a row and five of seven overall. They’ve also won four consecutive league games for the first time since 1973-74. After opening league road play with four straight losses, North Carolina State has beaten Virginia, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh and Boston College. It last lost on the road Jan. 31 against Syracuse. … The Wolfpack lost leading scorer Devon Daniels (16.5 ppg.) to a season-ending knee injury in late January. … North Carolina State returned three starters off last year’s team that finished 20-13, 10-10 and tied for sixth place. The Wolfpack were picked in preseason to finish eighth. … Funderburk (12.3 ppg., 5.4 rpg., 25.2 mpg.) returned for this season after declaring for the NBA draft last spring. … The Wolfpack have won at least 20 games each of the last three seasons. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 8-7, 3-4 at home and 4-4 as ACC colleagues. North Carolina State has won the last three meetings after Notre Dame won the previous four. These teams have not met since Jan. 8, 2020, a 73-68 Wolfpack win at PNC Arena. … North Carolina State has had seven games affected by coronavirus issues, including a shutdown from Dec. 9 to Dec. 16. Notre Dame has had eight games affected. … Notre Dame has lost at least 10 league games each of the last three seasons. … The Wolfpack are in 10th place in the ACC. ... If the league tournament started today, No. 11 seed Notre Dame would play No. 14 Boston College in a first day/first round game in Greensboro.

QUOTING: “It won’t be anything other than Notre Dame. I don’t have a mature enough group of guys to look ahead and say, if this happens, if that happens.”

—North Carolina State coach Kevin Keatts on how March might matter for his team.