Analysis: Though ACC challenges await, destination clear for ND men's hoops

Tom Noie
ND Insider

There’s now a map with specific dates and opponents and some tip times still to come, so go find a way back to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. 

That's really all that matters, isn’t it? The ultimate college hoops end game? Doesn’t matter how Notre Dame gets there. Just get there. After four years of sitting out Selection Sunday and the fun days that followed, just get there. 

If that means going to Dayton, Ohio and playing in the First Four, that’s fine. Get there. If that means being handed an eight or a nine or a 10 or an 11 seed, that’s fine, too. Just get there. Four seasons is a lifetime in college hoops. This Irish men’s basketball program is way overdue to return. And to do  something once there? Whoa. One step at a time. 

Mike Brey is pointing to this season as one that the Notre Dame men's basketball program can get back to the NCAA tournament after a four-year absence.

On Thursday night, the Atlantic Coast Conference officially revealed the schedules for its 15 men’s basketball programs and the 2021-22 season. Last week, Notre Dame unveiled its non-conference slate. Piece both together and whaddya got? 

Hope? Optimism? Doom? 

Check back in six months. 

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Wondering how the league will seemingly stick it to Notre Dame has become an annual schedule release surprise. What’s it going to be? A crusher three-game road swing in February? Opening against a conference power in a not-ready-for-prime-time game for the Irish? 

Irish fans were forced to sit through 45 minutes of the hour-long schedule release program on the ACC Network before finally being able to digest the game dates. Notre Dame was the 11th of the 15 league teams to have their schedule announced. That's what you get for a program that trailed by 50 points the last time it played an ACC game.

This slate seems rather manageable – and fair. The Irish have two instances of consecutive league road games – in early January going from Virginia Tech to Louisville with a side trip/non-league game at Howard squeezed in and an early February road swing at Miami (Fla.) and North Carolina State. 

The ACC also went the full circle route in scheduling Notre Dame’s home league opener. In 2013, Notre Dame’s first league home game was against Duke. This season, the last for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Notre Dame’s first league home game also is against Duke (Jan. 1). 

The annual thanks-for-that-one from the ACC? Notre Dame’s first two home games are Duke and North Carolina. Another thanks for nothing fact? At least nine of Notre Dame's league games are scheduled to be on ACC Network, still not carried locally by Comcast. Another four league games are parked on the dreaded RSN (Regional Sports Network). Those were picked up last season by Marquee.

Conference play commences on Dec. 3 at Boston College, one of six repeat league opponents and a repeater every year since Notre Dame joined the league in 2013. 

This Irish outfit isn’t going 14-4 in the ACC as they did in 2014-15 when Notre Dame finished 32-6 and should’ve gone to its first Final Four since 1978. But this group, senior dominated but still wildly unproven, isn’t going 3-15 like in ‘18-’19. They’ll settle somewhere in between, but will have to find a way to get north of 10 wins – the infamous league break-even mark – to get back to the NCAA tournament. 

Anything less won’t be enough. 

Can this program win 11 league games? Twelve? Thirteen? It might be the only way Notre Dame gets to the NCAA tournament. How do the Irish get there against this schedule? This league schedule? 

They can start by being better at home. That’s a needed and necessary and long-overdue way to start. When Notre Dame was going to the NCAA tournament in 2015, ‘16 and ‘17, it went a combined 21-6 at home in ACC play. It never lost more than two home league games. The last four years, even with the patchwork home league schedule of last season, Notre Dame is a combined 18-18. It has never won more than six. 

That won’t get you anywhere that matters in March. 

What also must be different? Finding a way to stop the extended losing slides in league play. When it’s gone bad, it’s really gone bad of late in league play. The Irish seemingly hit a wall and a point every year where they simply run out of answers. Can’t get a stop; can’t make a shot. Can’t win a winnable game.  

Notre Dame lost seven straight league games in 2017-18, then seven in a row again in 2018-19. It lost four of five in 2019-20 and four in a row in an abbreviated/coronavirus affected league schedule last season. 

That has to change this year with a veteran team. All those “Ls” they’ve been handed in seasons past? Start handing them out this year. To Louisville. To North Carolina. To Virginia Tech. To Virginia. Ah, never mind. Three out of four might have to do. 

Purcell Pavilion no longer can be the win wasteland that it's been for the home team the last four years. Home league games have to again matter. The arena has to be a tough/tougher place to play. Another average year, and Notre Dame’s going to again be average at best, regardless of experience and/or expectations. 

With wins last season at Miami (Fla.) and at Pittsburgh and at Duke, Notre Dame rediscovered some of its “road dawg” mentality it carried in those Elite Eight runs. Now, can they be less of a home dog? For the third straight year, Notre Dame closes regular season league play at home. That’s part of an ACC run of four of the last six at home to end the year. 

The Irish are going to be picked somewhere around or below the middle of the pack in the ACC, as well they should. Nobody’s going to put Notre Dame into any early NCAA Tournament Bracketology in the coming weeks and months, and again, it’s all warranted. 

The Irish have shown nothing in terms of being a legit NCAA Tournament outfit, but that’s where they need to go. This team. That tournament. This season. 

The road’s been mapped. Time to figure a way through. 

Now a senior, guard Dane Goodwin and his veteran classmates know the next logical step for this program is to hear its name called on Selection Sunday.

• NOTRE DAME MEN'S BASKETBALL 2021-22 SCHEDULE 

Home games in CAPS 

OCTOBER 

29 Friday, NAZARETH (N.Y.) COLLEGE, 7 p.m. 

NOVEMBER 

5 Friday, ST. NORBERT (Wis.) COLLEGE, 7 p.m.; 13 Saturday, CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE, TBA; 12 Tuesday HIGH POINT, 7 p.m.; 22 Monday Saint Mary's (first round Maui Invitational), 11:30 p.m. (South Bend time); 23 Tuesday Maui Invitational (TBD); 24 Wednesday Maui Invitational (TBD); 29 Monday at Illinois (Big Ten/ACC Challenge), 7 p.m. 

DECEMBER 

3 Friday at Boston College, 6 p.m. (ACCN); 11 Saturday KENTUCKY TBA; 18 Saturday INDIANA (Crossroads Classic) TBA; 20 Monday WESTERN MICHIGAN 7 p.m.; 22 Wednesday TEXAS A&M CORPUS CHRISTI TBA; 28 Tuesday at Pittsburgh, 8 p.m. (ACCN). 

JANUARY 

1 Saturday DUKE, 6 p.m. (ACCN) 5 Wednesday NORTH CAROLINA, 9 p.m. (ESPN2); 8 Saturday at Georgia Tech, 6 p.m. (ACCN); 12 Wednesday CLEMSON, 9 p.m. (RSN); 15 Saturday at Virginia Tech, 6 p.m. (ACCN); 17 Monday at Howard, TBA; 22 Saturday at Louisville, TBA; 26 Wednesday NORTH CAROLINA STATE, 9 p.m. (RSN); 29 VIRGINIA, 4 p.m. (ACCN). 

FEBRUARY 

2 Wednesday at Miami (Fla), 7 p.m. (RSN); 5 Saturday at North Carolina State, 3 p.m. (ACCN); 9 Wednesday Louisville, TBA; 12 Saturday at Clemson, 7 p.m. (ACCN); 16 Wednesday BOSTON COLLEGE, 7 p.m.; 19 Saturday at Wake Forest, 1 p.m. (RSN); 22 Tuesday SYRACUSE, TBA; 26 Saturday GEORGIA TECH, 5 p.m. (ACCN). 

MARCH 

2 Wednesday at Florida State, 7 p.m. (ESPN2/U); 5 Saturday PITTSBURGH, 8 p.m.; 8-12 Tuesday-Saturday at Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Barclays Center, New York, TBD.

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI