Noie: Notre Dame gets second chance to make first ACC men's basketball impression
A different direction driven by new-found determination or the same old story?
This is the crossroads where the Notre Dame men’s basketball team currently stands as it barrels back into Atlantic Coast Conference play with a Tuesday visit to Pittsburgh (5-7 overall; 0-1 ACC). Twenty-five days ago, the Irish first dipped their toe into league play thinking that the water would be warm and inviting.
It was cold and confounding. When Notre Dame visited Boston College on Dec. 3, it never led. It trailed by as many as 23 points. It lost by 16 to a team picked in preseason to finish last in the 15-team league. It arguably was among the most embarrassing losses in the now 22-year tenure of Irish coach Mike Brey.
Ironically, that forgettable league effort came on the heels of another also there in terms of emptiness and embarrassment. Prior to losing at Boston College, the last time Notre Dame played an ACC game was in the league tournament last March. It trailed by 50 to North Carolina before losing by 42 in Brey’s most lopsided loss at Notre Dame.
Memories of that March night in Greensboro, N.C., these Irish believed, would fuel them. Focus them. Stuff like that wasn’t going to happen again on their watch, they said. It would be different. They would be different.
Then Boston College happened. Notre Dame looked lethargic and disinterested and largely out of its league. The following days mandated a players-only meeting where the old guys and the young guys had some difficult conversations to figure out what they wanted this team – and this season – to be.
Coming clear of Boston College, Notre Dame (6-5; 0-1) has won three of four. It beat a Top 10 team (Kentucky) at home for the first time since January 2017. It went back out on the road and hung close for 34 minutes against Indiana in a “neutral” site game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. It wrapped its non-conference home schedule with two wins where it averaged 84 points and looked more like the Irish of old.
Nineteen remaining ACC games will dictate if Notre Dame really is better or just more of the same. How is this group different now than the one that didn’t bother to compete at Boston College?
“We’ve had game experience; we’ve been in close games,” said senior guard/captain Cormac Ryan, a starter for that league opener but now fitting in just fine as one of the first off the bench. “We’ve been in road atmospheres that have been great. We’ve had to lean on each other. That experience has been very valuable for us.”
The Irish have come to understand that it’s just them. Nobody’s going to help them climb out from the league basement and find its footing in the middle of the league pack. It’s the 13 guys in the locker room, on the bus, in the hotel. That’s it. This season’s on them.
“Continuing to just trust each other and find ways to get it done,” Ryan said. “That’s going to be important for us as we go (back) into ACC play.”
That trust and togetherness wasn’t there first time around, for whatever reason. Maybe the Irish thought it was going to be easy. Maybe for all the losing they’ve done the last three years, the Irish just don’t know how to win. Now, they insist, they do. They’re together. They’re different.
“We hadn’t found ourselves yet,” said senior guard/captain Prentiss Hubb, who’s been in and out and back in the starting lineup the first 11 games. “We sat down as a team, just the players, and we figured out what we needed to do to be successful.”
We’ve seen snapshots of it the last four games, even in the loss to Indiana. There’s more structure to what had been a freewheeling Irish offense. There’s less freelancing and more sets – Down One, Wheel – with harder back cuts and screen and rolls. More movement and less standing. There’s more of freshman guard Blake Wesley to run the show, which allows Hubb and Ryan to work more off the ball.
If the Irish have to win games that don’t get out of the 60s or 70s, they don’t get worked up with having to play games in those 60s and 70s. They’ve seemingly accepted that they’re not going to run and jump and dunk over their ACC colleagues. That’s not what this team is, not what this program is. But if they play their way, they can succeed. Even if style points — outside of the occasional Wesley dunk — are minimal.
“We don’t have the five-star dudes and all that, but we’ve got a lot of grit on our team,” Hubb said. “We’ve got guys who are grimy and gritty and want to win.”
What a perfect time and a place to show it Tuesday — in the Oakland section of a city that’s got its share of grime and grit. Dig in, defend and go beat Pittsburgh, a team picked in preseason to finish ahead of only Boston College in the league, in an arena where Notre Dame has won four of the last six visits.
For all the conspiracy theories those around the Notre Dame program like to float about being done wrong by the ACC schedule makers — Duke and North Carolina were scheduled to visit Purcell Pavilion while the student body is on winter break — nobody can argue with the early league gift of an opportunity handed Notre Dame. Yes, the Irish were given two road games to start, but those were two road games against what many believe are the league’s two worst teams.
A good team takes that opportunity and starts 2-0 in league play.
Notre Dame let the first chance get away earlier this month. For this league run to mean anything, it can’t let another escape. It has to go and get this one, or it gets really, really hard at 0-2 with No. 2 Duke and North Carolina up next.
Tuesday actually offers Notre Dame a rare second chance to make a first league impression.
“We figured out that it’s going to take a lot for us to win,” Hubb said. “We can’t make any excuses.”
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI
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