Can the Atlantic Coast Conference again be a true power league in 2022-23?
SOUTH BEND —Even now, all these months later and days away from the start of another college basketball season, it defies any logical explanation or rationale.
How does a team that finished second in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a team that won a school record 15 conference contests and was this close to sharing the regular season league title, find itself that close to missing the 2022 NCAA tournament? How do they get handed a No. 11 seed and get sent to Dayton, Ohio to play in the First Four? How were they basically the last at-large team in?
That was Notre Dame (24-11) in March. Second place in a power league. A school record for league wins. All of it barely enough to get the Irish back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017.
It was staggering to think that the Irish were closer to missing the tournament than making it, something nobody around the program then could comprehend. There was no time. It was get packed, get on a bus, get to Southwest Ohio and get ready to play Rutgers in a play-in game that went to double overtime. Then it was get packed, get on a plane, get to San Diego and get ready to play Alabama less than 48 hours later in a first-round game.
Only in the weeks and months that followed did Irish coach Mike Brey come to terms with how his team found itself hanging by its fingernails with its tournament chances. As March Madness neared, the perception that the ACC wasn’t that good exploded. It didn’t do enough in non-league play. It didn’t deserve even a half-dozen tournament bids.
Brey didn’t buy that in March. But as spring became summer, he realized perception was reality. The ACC didn’t deserve more than the five bids it received into the Field of 68.
“We made our bed as much as some of our coaches complained at our spring meetings,” said Brey, one of those coaches who complained. “We were 5-15 in non-league (power games). We really had nothing to stand on so we didn’t bring any juice from the non-league.”
No, the ACC didn’t. In terms of non-league power wins, the ACC really had three. Duke had two with wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga. The other was Notre Dame’s home win over Kentucky, when former Irish guard Blake Wesley dropped home the game-winning jumper with 11.7 remaining in a tie game.
“That’s all the league had in the non-league,” Brey said.
The ACC fought a losing battle that it was a down year last year. It might have to fight a similar perception this year. Only three league teams are ranked in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 — North Carolina (No. 1), Duke (7) and Virginia (18). Notre Dame is among four league teams to have also received votes. The Irish garnered one Top 25 vote (from ESPN’s Dick Vitale).
The early message to the rest of the league is clear — we don’t think you’re that good, so you better go and show us in November and December.
“I think we can rotate back out of five (NCAA) bids,” said Brey, whose team is picked to finish sixth in the ACC. “But you’ve got to win some non-league stuff.”
Notre Dame has three power non-league games — against Georgia at a neutral-site in Atlanta and at home against Marquette and Michigan State. Georgia is picked to finish 13th — second to last — in the Southeastern Conference, while Marquette is tabbed to finish ninth in the 11-team Big East. Lose one of those, even if you beat unranked (for now) Michigan State, and Notre Dame might find itself walking another NCAA tournament tightrope.
It used to be that getting to 10 wins in ACC play meant you were an NCAA lock. Last year, Virginia and Wake Forest won 12 and 13 league games and didn’t get in. Virginia Tech won 11, but the only way the Hokies got in was by winning the ACC tournament to snag the automatic bid. Otherwise, they might’ve also been left home. If not them, then the Irish.
“That does worry me long term,” Brey said. “By Christmas, we’re going to know what we’re taking in (Ratings Percentage Index) wise.”
ESPN’s preseason Bracketology has Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament for a second straight season — the first time that would happen since 2016-17 — as a No. 10 seed.
A fish story
Fall break allowed the Irish to get away from the game for a few days for the last time until a couple days around Christmas, but even that will be brief.
No practice and no class offered super senior power forward Nate Laszewski a chance to retreat to his family’s home in Northern Wisconsin and do what he loves to do — go Muskie fishing.
Laszewski wound up catching — and releasing — a pair of muskies. One measured 39 inches. The other was 41. That’s still short of his all-time best of a 47-inch fish he caught about five years ago.
“I went fishing all summer when I was home and didn’t catch a single one,” Laszewski said.
Laszewski caught them in Three Lakes, Wisconsin, a six-hour drive from campus. It’s past Green Bay and closer to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He shares a love of fishing with his father, Jay. If Laszewski’s not on a basketball court, odds are he’s in a boat. Just him and his dad fishing.
“It’s pretty awesome when you catch something like that, for the both of us,” Laszewski said. “Even if you didn’t catch it, it’s awesome.”
The question hits Brey every October, and this month was no exception.
Is this the season that the believer in a short bench lengthens his rotation to eight or nine or even 10 players?
Uh, no. Again.
Brey recently answered the query the way he always does — saying he has an open mind to play more guys (i.e., not a chance). He also said that when it all starts for real Nov. 10 at home against Radford, his rotation is rolling seven deep — the five super seniors in Laszewski and fellow captains Dane Goodwin and Cormac Ryan, Trey Wertz, Niagara transfer guard Marcus Hammond and freshmen Ven-Allen Lubin and J.J. Starling.
That’s it. For now. Maybe, if everyone stays healthy, for good.
“Those five old guys have to play a lot,” Brey said. “They came back to play a lot. Those two young guys have to play a lot.”
When Brey divvied up game minutes among the seven main guys on the white board in the coaches’ conference room, it added up to 201 minutes, one more than allotted in a 40-minute game. So even his math needs a little more math.
“You’ve got to keep everybody ready,” he said.
Three main guys from last year’s team are all in the early stages of their professional basketball careers:
∎ Power forward Paul Atkinson is a starting small forward for Atomeromu SE Paks, an A Division team in Hungary. Through five games, Atkinson is averaging 13.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 32.4 minutes. He’s shooting 77.1 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from 3 and 64.7 percent from the foul line.
∎ Point guard Prentiss Hubb has appeared in two games for Ludwigsburg in the Germany BBL (highest level). As a starter, Hubb is averaging 15.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists in 26.0 minutes. He’s shooting 8.3 percent (1-for-12) from the field, 57.1 percent (8-of-14) from 3 and 100 percent from the foul line.
∎ A first-round pick by San Antonio, Wesley did not appear in any of the Spurs’ first three games. That included the team’s only visit to Indiana, Wesley’s home state, last week to play the Pacers. Wesley was called back to San Antonio during a road trip this week for preseason camp with the team’s G League affiliate, the Austin Spurs, where he’s expected to spend time during his rookie season.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.