Noie: Move through ACC standings beckons Notre Dame men's basketball, but will it answer?

Tom Noie
ND Insider

They’re not there yet. 

Wednesday’s win over North Carolina in its Atlantic Coast Conference home opener was big on several fronts for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team. It was a consecutive league win on the heels of a last-second escape last week at Pittsburgh. It was the fourth win in a row, a streak that hasn’t been seen around these parts since early 2019-20. It was additional evidence that maybe – just maybe – this Irish core that has spent three years wandering Tobacco Road finally had turned the corner. 

But the good vibes are tempered. For the way the Irish have worked and won of late, there’s a loooong way to go this season, one they believe still can end with an NCAA tournament trip for the first time since 2017. 

Noie:Another blueblood beaten

If this was a journey through the teeth of Chicago traffic, Dad would be gripping the steering wheel of the family minivan in a simmering silence. Mom would be in the passenger seat on her phone. The kids would be getting restless and bouncing around in the back, anxious to ask how much longer. 

Like that ride, this one’s a slow and methodical process, one that eventually might get the Irish to their final destination. If – and that’s a big IF for this program – they build on what they’ve recently constructed. 

The frame’s already up. No setbacks – or steps back – now. 

The Journey:Notre Dame game by game

Saturday sends Notre Dame (8-5 overall; 2-1 ACC) back on the road and to its ACC nightmare of a venue that is McCamish Pavilion to face struggling Georgia Tech (6-7; 0-3). The Irish have been close but not close enough, good but not good enough, in that building since joining the ACC in 2013-14. Fitting that on the Saturday morning of their first-ever ACC road game in midtown Atlanta, tornado sirens howled across the Georgia Tech campus for an incoming weather system. 

Notre Dame's Dane Goodwin (23) smiles after making a free-throw late during the Notre Dame vs. North Carolina NCAA men's basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

It’s been that rough of a ride since in subsequent Irish visits to Atlanta. Notre Dame’s six losses at McCamish have been by a combined 19 points. That includes three by two points, and another by one. A year ago, against a Georgia Tech team that would win the ACC league tournament, Notre Dame scored 50 points and led by 17 in the first half. But it couldn’t get a stop, then couldn’t get a shot the final 7.2 seconds of an 82-80 loss. 

“Our guys remember we were in position last year playing really well,” said coach Mike Brey. “We couldn’t finish it.” 

With this group, in this current stretch, Notre Dame now has to finish it. It’s the logical next step. It figured out a way to beat Pittsburgh. Check. It protected homecourt (don’t look now, but the Irish are 6-0 at Purcell Pavilion) and beat one of the league’s premier programs. Check. 

Now go and stack together some league wins. Take the current ACC streak of two to three. Then four. Lose? Fine, but rip off another consecutive win run. Then whoa, what do you know, here come the Irish. 

Do that, and maybe this season goes somewhere. 

“We’ve had a good mantra here at home, kind of the way we’re attacking things,” said senior guard/captain Dane Goodwin. “Coach Brey has talked about that a lot – we need to carry whatever we have here on the road and start Saturday.” 

Start Saturday the way they ended Wednesday, with the core guys doing the core work. For much of the early part of the season, it had been one or two guys here, another one or two there. Seldom did the Irish get it from all different angles. The last two games, they have, with the senior core of Goodwin and Prentiss Hubb and Nate Laszewski and Cormac Ryan playing like seniors. 

The more freshman guard Blake Wesley can be just another piece to the puzzle, the better it is for the Irish. And for Wesley. 

Goodwin’s been good from the start. Hubb only recently started to show more of his former self. Laszewski has been too in the shadows. He broke loose Wednesday for a season high 20 points. He continues to rebound among the league’s best, but showed against North Carolina that he hasn’t forgotten how to shoot it. He took seven 3s. He made six. 

Notre Dame's Nate Laszewski (14) dunks as North Carolina's D'Marco Dunn (11) defends him during the Notre Dame vs. North Carolina NCAA men's basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.

Bottle that efficiency, bottle Hubb’s late swagger that he played with at Pittsburgh and add Goodwin’s quiet steadiness and the Irish have something moving forward. When those three are good, everything else, and everybody else, just fits. 

“It would be nice to ride those three guys in Atlanta,” Brey said. “You all ready now? Here we go.” 

Winning in the ACC is hard. Winning on the road in the ACC is even harder. But given what Notre Dame has done over its win streak of four straight and five of six, it would be a disappointment if it returned home late Saturday without another win. This is a team that insisted it needed more time, more games, more practice reps, more work to figure it out. How the Irish could play with a rotation that features only seven. How they could adjust their offense to include more movement and more screening and more moving and still be efficient. How they could be better on the defensive end than what they showed early. 

Since the loss to Indiana, they’ve been better. On offense. Defensively. Maybe most importantly, collectively. Goodwin said it the other night after the Irish held off run after run from the Tar Heels. Nobody got nervous. Nobody wondered. 

“We’ve shown some real toughness and poise and belief,” said, Brey, “which is great to see.” 

So go get greedy and collect a few more league wins. This is a down year for the ACC. It’s a good time for the Irish to stop looking up at the rest of their conference colleagues from wherever they wallow in the league standings. Notre Dame is too veteran to be average. 

“If you can get to 3-1 in this league, man, you are starting to really feel it,” Brey said. 

A move beckons. Time for Notre Dame to make one. 

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