Men's Basketball: Notre Dame reaching must-win in regular season to even think postseason

Tom Noie
ND Insider

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A blanket and a bed beckon on another winter’s night, but there’s a full slate of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball on the television, so decisions must be made. 

In so many seasons past, there would be no debate. Collapse on the couch or settle in at the desk while finishing some work and soak up a long evening of good (quality) basketball. 

Flip between the ACC Network/ESPN/Marquee Sports Network (an RSN hoops awakening for us in Northern Indiana) and catch as much hoops as the remote allows. Then do the same in the 9 p.m. window. Maybe stay up really late and catch some recap shows, or the start of a West Coast game (Gonzaga) that matters little in the bigger picture, but hey, it’s January and you’re wired to live and breathe and watch and report as much college hoops as possible. 

Jan 17, 2022; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey reacts against the Howard Bison during the first half at Burr Gymnasium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Then there’s this season, this slog of a season, in the ACC. A season that as January and its 54 days (or so it seems) grind away in the snow and cold of the Midwest, just doesn’t seem like the others. Really, any of the others. Honestly, none of the others. 

This is beyond a down year for the ACC. The league this season, in a word, stinks. As February nears, only one ACC team (guess the one) is ranked in the Top 25. For the longest time, it was an ACC who’s who in the weekly Associated Press poll. Teams in the top five. In the Top 10. In the Top 15. Mainstays of Duke and North Carolina and Virginia and Florida State. Often, Louisville. Occasionally, Notre Dame (remember those days?). A few others would slide in for a cameo. 

There were so many different numbers next to ACC schools up and down the league standings. There were good games. Gotta-see games. Good teams. 

► ACC power rankings:Who's 1? Who's 15?

Then there’s this year, where it seems like the only basketball being played is bad basketball by meh teams. 

Two nights earlier this week were an example. On Monday, Josh Pastner, the aw-shucks, golly-gee coach of Georgia Tech pushed North Carolina as Final Four good. He even called Notre Dame a Sweet 16 type of team, but we digress. 

North Carolina traveled to South Florida that night and was boat-raced by league-leading (and unranked) Miami. The Tar Heels trailed by 20. Trailed by 30. Were a complete no-show in an 85-57 loss. Clemson lost at Syracuse in front of seemingly select dozens at the Carrier Dome. Sigh. Next night, Virginia Tech jumped to a 15-0 lead on North Carolina State – in State’s gym. Boston College and Louisville held a rock fight that tipped 75 minutes late because the roof in the ‘Ville’s $238 million arena – the 11-year-old KFC Yum! Center – sprung a leak. 

So has the league. 

Late Wednesday, you could watch Virginia and Pittsburgh grind through their game, but why? Go and get a good book. Or dive into that bed and a blanket. See if anything is popping on Netflix? 

Ozark, anyone? 

► The Journey:Notre Dame game by game

The ACC is so down that it’s practically begging a middle-of-the-road outfit that kind of, sort of has played just OK this season to step in and make a run. Into the top five of the standings. Maybe to the NCAA Tournament. 

Are you listening, Notre Dame? 

Got your attention, Irish? 

This. 

Means. 

You. 

It’s as down of a year as the ACC has seen in too many, a year where at last look, might be worthy of just four NCAA bids. Duke’s a lock. Miami, maybe as well. North Carolina? Ehhhh. Wake Forest? Ditto. Four. In 2019, three of the tournament’s four No. 1 seeds came from the ACC. Three. 

There’s room this year for a team or two from left field. Why not Notre Dame? 

To do anything this season, in this blah league, a certain sense of urgency must be carried into every contest, home or away, the rest of the way. For Notre Dame (11-6 overall; 4-2 ACC) that starts Saturday in the aforementioned Yum! Center against a Louisville team that’s a lot like many an ACC team – struggling to get out of its own way at times, good at others, scrambling to figure everything out. Notre Dame has been there (see November, December). The Irish still are there after letting league road win No. 3 get away eight days ago in Blacksburg. 

How good is Notre Dame? Do we know? Do the Irish know? 

This is a league matchup that used to have so much juice. The anticipation was awesome. The product on the court was compelling. You know the backstory. When Notre Dame and Louisville played, 40 minutes weren’t nearly enough. The teams played the longest regular-season game in Big East history one year (2013) that featured five overtimes. They played double overtimes in the old barn of Freedom Hall.  

It’s been nearly seven years (March, 2015) since Notre Dame last won at Yum! Remember that one? Snowstorm sweeping through the city. Irish hearts heavy after the funeral that day for The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh. Notre Dame played inspired that night. Did inspired stuff. Won, and looked Final Four worthy. By the end of that season, the Irish nearly were. 

Since that night, the series has gone the way of the current ACC. Just kind of there. No juice. Just another league game. Still, it’s one Saturday that Notre Dame needs. These are the kind of games those Irish used to get. A lot. They’re old. They’re experienced. They understand the NCAA clock is ticking. 

After what we saw Monday in the great escape from (cough, cough) Howard (cough, cough), can we trust these Irish? To handle pressure? To take care of the ball? To close out a close game? Couldn’t do it Blacksburg. Have to now do it in the ‘Ville, especially with three straight home games waiting. 

Saturday is a move-making opportunity. Can’t waste it. 

February’s so close that you can see it. Will the seniors play like seniors? Will freshman Blake Wesley not look like his class status? What’s it going to be? Who are these Irish going to be? Do we know? Do they know? Does anyone know?

Keep a good book or that blanket handy, just in case. 

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