Men's Basketball: That was then, this is now for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Jan 12, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey signals to his players in the second half against the Clemson Tigers at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Message received. 

Earlier this week while answering a question about how the Notre Dame men’s basketball team has delivered at home of late, head coach Mike Brey referenced what the Irish did late last year, something everybody (including this reporter) so conveniently forget. 

You mean, Brey said, like how Notre Dame beat Florida State at home? That was when Florida State was ranked No. 11 in the country and Notre Dame was playing out the string of another season going nowhere. 

Like that? 

Yes, Coach, kind of, sort of, exactly like that. 

Notre Dame Men's Basketball:Here's what you need to know for Saturday's game at Virginia Tech

That led Brey to get on his soapbox of sorts, as much as someone with his disposition gets on a soapbox (when he’s not climbing atop tables in the dining halls). He went on to again mention last year, and how he was kind of, sort of, exactly tired about how anytime anybody says anything about his team they preface it by referencing how the Irish hadn’t done this or hadn’t done that last year or the year before. 

Then he chuckled, his go-to default that tells you that he’s just joking, but not really. What he’s really saying is, yeah, I’m not happy with the question or comment, but let’s move past it, OK? 

OK. Point made. Brey has tired of all the talk about last year and the previous years when it comes to this basketball team and this season. In fairness, until what the Irish (10-5 overall; 4-1 ACC) have done of late in ripping off four straight Atlantic Coast Conference wins and six straight overall, all we had for reference points were those previous years when Notre Dame did little of the stuff it’s doing now. 

There was no road map to what we’ve seen of late. Now there is. 

That was evident Wednesday at home against Clemson. 

Having won three straight in the league and six of seven overall after beating No. 10 Kentucky at home, something that hadn’t happened against a Top 10 team at Purcell Pavilion since 2017 (sorry, Coach), Notre Dame had hit a crossroads of sorts against Clemson. For the first time in too long, the Irish entered a league game with an overall expectation that they would play well, that this recent win streak was no fluke, that they win would a league home game with little drama attached. 

► Noie:J.J. Starling a special talent

Then they did, with maybe the most convincing league victory of the season – 72-56 – in a game that seldom was close. That Notre Dame won, given the way it won and how it looked, should about close the book on references to seasons past. 

Do what they did Wednesday, play the way they played, and they can do it again and play that way again. For now, for this team, it’s about this season. About getting even the non-believers and pessimists (you know who you are) to believe and be optimistic. Again. 

Climb aboard because there’s plenty of room on this bandwagon as it barrels toward Blacksburg, Va., and Saturday’s ACC game against Virginia Tech. Then, it’ll grind four hours up Interstate 81, probably through some rain and snow Sunday, for Washington and a unique/marquee matinee against Howard on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. 

► The Journey:Notre Dame game by game

Jan 12, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Blake Wesley (0) is helped up by guard Prentiss Hubb (3) and forward Paul Atkinson Jr. (20) after he was fouled in the first half against the Clemson Tigers at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

This year, this team is different

There remains a long way to go in this college basketball season – Selection Sunday still is nine weeks down the road – but there’s much to currently like about where Notre Dame is and maybe most importantly, what it is a quarter of the way through the 20-game ACC schedule. 

The Irish are 4-1 in the league, sole possession of second place as the weekend arrives. One betting site (if that’s your thing) recently put odds on five league teams and its chances of winning the regular-season ACC championship. Duke was included. Miami (Fla.), currently in first place, was included. Also in the mix was Notre Dame, which nobody would’ve had after it opened with a no-show loss at Boston College in early December, but is now on the verge (a win Saturday certainly would do it) of becoming the feel-good story in the ACC. 

Move over Mike K. Step aside Paolo B. Here come the Irish. 

It’s a down year in the ACC, as evident of Saturday’s opponent. Virginia Tech (8-7; 0-4) was a handful last season and looked to be again this season. Instead, the Hokies stagger in as the league’s lone winless team in conference play. They’re a snapshot of what this league’s been to date – too many teams underperforming and too much bad basketball. Virginia Tech’s not Virginia Tech. Virginia’s not been Virginia. North Carolina has shown flashes but it’s not the North Carolina we’ve known. Even Duke, the league’s lone Top 25 team at No. 8, still doesn’t look like DUKE. 

That’s left the door open for somebody to scramble through and be one of the league’s feel-good stories, to be a team that no one sees coming and possibly snag one of the league's few expected NCAA tournament bids. Notre Dame has staked its claim doing what it’s done it the last few weeks. Done it with a veteran lineup that’s played like veterans. Done it with an understanding of how to win. How to stack wins together and keep chasing more. Staying greedy. 

This team is different. Guard Prentiss Hubb isn’t the same player as he was last year, and that’s OK. Power forward Nate Laszewski is doing stuff he didn’t do last year, and that’s really OK. Guard Blake Wesley still was down the road at Riley High School last January, now he’s pushing toward ACC freshman of the year. Dane Goodwin still looked the part as a high school power forward. Now he plays like an all-league guard. Power forward Paul Atkinson, Jr. was sitting out his final season at Yale; now he’s a big man the Irish have long needed. 

Even the head coach was more preoccupied last year with what this year might/could/should be. 

That all was then; this all is now. 

Notre Dame really hasn’t proven anything, but it’s at least on the right track. Now, stay the course and pick off a few more road wins. Continue to hold serve and build back trust with the fan base. Force people who otherwise didn’t want to talk about your team in seasons past to put you in the conversation. For a potential finish in the top half of the league. For a team that’s starting to dream big dreams and might see those dreams realized. 

Enough about the past and where Notre Dame had long been. This season’s about this team, about where it’s going. About what’s happened, about what’s to come. 

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