Noie: One more week likely all that's left for Notre Dame hoops season

Tom Noie | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Rounding the final turn of this crazy college basketball race makes one wonder how’s it all going to end for Notre Dame — with a stumble toward the finish or one last spirited sprint?

A regular season that started on a Saturday in late November with Notre Dame trailing a ranked team by 20 points on the road before a 10-point loss (Michigan State) ended on a Saturday in early March with Notre Dame leading a ranked team by 20 points at home before a 10-point win (Florida State). In between, there were big wins (at Kentucky, at Duke) and bad losses (cough, cough, Boston College). The Irish lost five straight to start Atlantic Coast Conference play. They eventually won six of eight. They then lost four in a row before going out on a good note Saturday.

There’s been despair and determination. There’s been hope and helplessness. This season and this team have been all over the hoops map. They’re tired of all the tests, coronavirus and on the court, but still aim to give it all the old, college try.

A year of practices and games and road trips comes down to one more shoot-around and one more game before the Irish might be good enough to do it all again the next day at the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C.

When No. 11 seed Notre Dame (10-14 overall; 7-11 ACC) opens tournament play Tuesday against No. 14 Wake Forest (6-15; 3-15), what Irish team will we see? Will it be the one that seemed so steady for that February stretch, or the one that sank late in the year under weighted expectations? Are these guys going to play with an edge that’s sharp and sure or dull and doubting?

It’s been a season of a little of everything. And anything. The Irish have used different lineup combinations to push through the rough areas. They’ve played with two bigs. They’ve played with one. They’ve also emptied the post like Saturday and gone with five guards. They’ve relied on their offense in some games. They’ve leaned on defense in others. Both have lost games.

They’ve been so confident in some stretches, so shaky in others. All of it to get through a regular season many thought they wouldn’t ever get through.

Hard to predict what version of the Irish will show Tuesday. They’re good enough to win at least one game, aren’t they? How much do they want to keep plodding along instead of packing it all in for a return to some sort of normalcy? Nothing about this season has been normal since the players arrived on campus in August.

No reason to start with normal now, though Saturday’s win gives this team a little more bounce. More hope.

“Saturday gives them some life to feel we can get on a run,” Irish coach Mike Brey said Monday evening on a Zoom call from his hotel room. “We come in feeling good. We’re here in a better frame of mind.”

The only way this season stretches beyond this week is if Notre Dame pulls the impossible. The thinking around the ACC is that this week’s tournament is anyone’s to win (hint: they say that every...single... year).

Maybe a team that no one sees coming gets to the end. Maybe Notre Dame bursts from the back of the conference pack, wins five conference tournament games in five days to capture its second ACC tournament championship in seven years and secures the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Otherwise, this week is it for this group this season.

“It’s going to be a challenge and it’s going to be tough, but the message is just that we are capable of doing it,” said graduate student guard/captain Nik Djogo. “We’ve shown it in spurts throughout the season and we showed it (Saturday).

“We need to be confident enough to do it on a day-in, day-out basis.”

Confidence rarely has been a concern for Notre Dame come league tournament time. Packing only an overnight bag hasn’t been part of the plan for Notre Dame following its first ACC season in 2014. That year couldn’t end soon enough. There was the semester-long academic suspension of guard Jerian Grant, who would return the following season to earn first team all-league honors. There was the adjustment to the ACC after 18 years in the Big East. There was more losing (15-17, 6-12) than winning.

Notre Dame was handed the first game on the first day in that tournament. By dinner, the season was (thankfully) over. The opponent that day? Wake Forest.

Since that Tuesday afternoon in March 2014, Notre Dame has embraced everything ACC tournament. The Irish have won at least one game each of the last six heading into Tuesday. It took Notre Dame 15 years to win at least one game in consecutive Big East tournaments. Best the Irish did back then was five straight tournaments with at least one win. The Irish are 4-1 all-time in ACC tournaments in Greensboro.

Notre Dame’s 10 conference tournament wins since arriving in 2013-14 trail only Duke (12), North Carolina (12) and Virginia (11) over that period. That’s what this Notre Dame program has been and should be in this league. The Irish often offer their best basketball at the Greensboro Coliseum or Barclays Center in Brooklyn (site of next year’s tournament) or Capital One Arena in downtown Washington (where this year’s tourney was supposed to be before the pandemic).

Why does the ACC tourney resonate with this program?

“It’s probably the makeup of our group,” Brey said. “It becomes a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy that you’ve had some success before and you believe again.

“We’ve talked about this being our town.”

As for playing/winning five games in five days? Notre Dame knows the end is near. Pretty soon, there will be no more virus tests, no more practices, no more games, no more season. No more living on the edge, so why not step a little closer to it?

Might as well delay an offseason that promises a whole lot of intrigue and uncertainty.

“Coach has said crazier things have happened,” Djogo said. “We’re just going to be ready to compete, have that edge, have that swagger and we’ll see where it takes us.”

Notre Dame graduate student/guard/captain Nik Djogo believes the Irish can be confident enough and consistent enough to win five games in five days at this week’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

ACC Tournament

First Round

WHO: No. 11 seed Notre Dame (10-14 overall; 7-11 ACC) vs. No. 13 Wake Forest (6-15; 3-15)

WHERE: Greensboro Coliseum (23,500), Greensboro, N.C.

WHEN: Tuesday at 7 p.m.

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

NOTRE DAME VS. WAKE FOREST

NOTING: Graduate student guard Ian DuBose scored 18 points and junior guard Daivien Williamson added 15 as Wake Forest closed the regular season Friday with a 75-63 home loss to Georgia Tech. … The Demon Deacons have lost seven straight and eight of nine. They’ve won once since Feb. 10 - against Boston College. … Wake Forest also has league wins over Miami (Fla.) and Pittsburgh. … Williamson leads the Deacons in scoring (12.5), assists (2.6) and minutes (34.1). … A third team All-ACC selection, Irish guard Prentiss Hubb led the league in assists (6.04), was second in minutes (37.3) and third in 3-point field goal percentage (.341) and 3-pointers made (2.5). … Eleven Deacons average double figures for minutes. … Wake Forest was picked in preseason to finish 15th; Notre Dame was picked 12th. … This is Wake Forest’s first game this season at a neutral site; Notre Dame is 0-1 with the loss to Purdue in Indianapolis. … These teams met once this season, a 79-58 Irish win at Purcell Pavilion on Feb. 2. Juwan Durham led Notre Dame with 18 points, nine rebounds. Cormac Ryan added 13 points, three rebounds and three assists. Isaiah Mucius led the Deacons with 14 points, five rebounds. The game featured two ties and three lead changes. Notre Dame led by as many as 28. It was the most lopsided home league win for the Irish. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 7-5, 7-3 as ACC colleagues. The Irish have won two of three and seven of nine in the series. … These teams are among 11 to have won an ACC tournament championship. Notre Dame won its title in 2015, also in Greensboro; Wake Forest has won four times, the last in 1995. … This is the 28th time in league history that the conference tournament championship is held at Greensboro Coliseum. Approximately 3,100 fans will be allowed to attend under coronavirus protocols. … Wake Forest and Notre Dame each had eight games affected by coronavirus issues. The Deacons were shut down from Nov. 30 to Dec. 20. … Winner of this game advances to the second round against No. 6 seed North Carolina (16-9) Wednesday at approximately 9:30 p.m.

QUOTING: “There’s really not one voice that stands out because we’re all equal. We’re all parts of the team, parts of the culture.”

—Notre Dame junior guard Dane Goodwin.