Not yet December, this is a week for Notre Dame to make move toward March
SOUTH BEND − Visitors passing through the Purcell Pavilion main lobby on a sunny and early spring-like Monday afternoon were greeted with Holiday music playing on speakers somewhere overhead.
Right time of year, wrong type of musical selection.
We’re barely three weeks into a regular season that has still so much basketball to be played, but it’s already reached a critical stage/stretch for the Irish. The first of two massive games with postseason ramifications arrives Wednesday when No. 20 Michigan State (5-2) comes calling (9:15 p.m., ESPN2) in the soon-to-be retired Atlantic Coast Conference/Big Ten Challenge.
No disrespect to the Radfords or the Lipscombs or the Bowling Greens or even the St. Bonaventures of the college basketball world, but the regular season begins Wednesday for Notre Dame (5-1).
With a roster saturated by fifth-year guys and a pair of talented freshmen who all carry big basketball dreams come March, Notre Dame fancies itself a certain NCAA tournament team. Not just good enough to make the field of 68, but good enough, driven enough, old enough to play through the tournament’s first weekend and certainly the second. Heck, maybe even into the third, something this program has done only once, which would be a first since 1978.
This is an Irish team that believes it’s built to win big and win now. That means this is an Irish team that’s built not only to play in the type of game waiting Wednesday, but to win that type of game.
Fifth-year veterans/captains Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski and Cormac Ryan came back for one last college run to do exactly that. Play well and come up short? No-show, entirely, like they did in January against Duke? Not an option.
“Just staying in character, being ourselves,” said Ryan. “We’re due. We obviously know what we’re capable of. We’re ready for it.”
The season’s only 20 days old, but it already feels like it’s getting late for Notre Dame to make a move. In the ACC. In the nation. Their NCAA résumé remains relatively empty. Time to build it out starting now.
It feels like in the first five wins — all at home — that everyone Irish was OK with being just good enough to get by. Didn’t matter if they won by one point (Lipscomb) or 18 (Bowling Green). They won. They didn’t get clipped (before the Bonnies clipped them) but they also didn’t play all that impressively. At all. In any game. On every level. It still got them to 5-0 for the first time since 2017, but it also failed to provide much punch nationally for a program that needs some national oomph.
Even when it was 5-0, Notre Dame had slid out of the latest NCAA tourney Bracketology on ESPN.com. The message there was clear — the Irish hadn’t done anything close for consideration as one of the nation’s 68 best. Still haven’t.
An opportunity to grab some national attention — hey, look at us in South Bend — is running short. Really.
Wednesday gives this group a chance to take the Notre Dame flag and plant it firmly on the national landscape. Give the rest of the country reason to care about the Irish. Hey, look at them in South Bend.
We need to see that — and soon — from this team. Around the ACC, Miami (Fla.) has done it. Virginia Tech has done it. Third-ranked Virginia (5-0) certainly has done it. Notre Dame has a chance to do it.
“We gotta see,” said Irish coach Mike Brey, “if we can join that club.”
Notre Dame currently ranks 12th in the ACC in scoring defense (70.1), 14th in field goal percentage defense (.461) and 15th — last — in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.364). Those are nowhere near NCAA tourney-worthy numbers. The Irish also currently rank 13th in the ACC for assists (11.1). In Friday’s loss to an at-best average St. Bonaventure team, Notre Dame had a season low six assists. All of those were from one guy (Trey Wertz).
That’s as un-Irish as it gets.
“We know we’re better than that,” said freshman guard J.J. Starling. “We did things that aren’t like us. We’ve got things to fix.”
“We’re struggling to find that (offensive) rhythm,” Brey said.
Somewhere in Germany where he’s playing professionally, former Irish guard Prentiss Hubb shrugs. Didn’t think they’d miss him, did you? They do.
Most alarming Friday was that from the opening tip — heck, from layup lines — Notre Dame was unrecognizable. It played with little passion, even less poise and looked like it had no purpose. Young guys, old guys, coaching guys. Everybody. Who were those guys? What do they need to do to get back into character?
More importantly, how do they get back to being who they should be? Who they need to be?
“I don’t know,” Brey said.
Uh … that's never a good answer. Brey might not know — but really should — about what he calls his team’s fabric. The veterans insist they do. They’ll be all right. And ready.
“I think playing with pace, being aggressive, make some adjustments,” Ryan said. “Picking our pace up, picking our energy up and playing with a little bit of fire.”
Michigan State is a mountain of a challenge in the Challenge. The Spartans are big and rebound relentlessly and have already played a battle-tested early schedule. All true, and all concerns for Brey and this bunch. But this one — as well as Saturday’s ACC opener against Syracuse — has to be more about Notre Dame and the way it plays, what it can be, what it has to be.
A year ago at nearly this same calendar time frame, Notre Dame lost a game it had no business losing (Boston College) in a game that it never led. It pushed that season to a crossroads. Next time out, Notre Dame beat a ranked non-league opponent (then-No. 10 Kentucky) at home and it opened a whole new world of opportunity the rest of that season.
Notre Dame is still stinging from a loss to an opponent (St. Bonaventure) it had no business losing to in a game where it also never led. Along comes another ranked non-league opponent in a game at Purcell Pavilion. A March-like opportunity awaits.
Can history repeat itself? For the Irish and for the coming weeks and months, it has to. Otherwise, the soundtrack of this season turns decidedly darker.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.
ACC/BIG TEN CHALLENGE
WHO: Notre Dame (5-1) vs. No. 20 Michigan State (5-2)
WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).
WHEN: Wednesday at 9:15 p.m. (Please note special start time).
TICKETS: A limited number of upper arena seats available.
RADIO: WSBT (960 AM).
ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com/tnoieNDI
NOTING: Guard Tyson Walker scored 16 points with five rebounds and forward Joey Hauser added 14 points and seven rebounds as all five starters scored double figures Sunday to lead Michigan State to a 78-77 victory over Portland in the Phil Knight Legacy Invitational in Portland, Oregon. The Spartans shot 52.5 percent from the field, 57.1 percent from 3 and 72.7 percent from the free throw line. They finished with (+9) rebound advantage and scored 42 points in the paint. … Michigan State also has played Gonzaga (loss), Kentucky (win), Villanova (win), Alabama (loss) and Oregon (win). … Wednesday is Michigan State’s first true road game. It has played only twice at home with five games at neutral sites. … Spartans swingman Malik Hall (12.0 ppg., 5.3 rpg., 32.0 mpg.) is sidelined for the next two weeks with a stress reaction in his left foot. … Eight Spartans average double figures for minutes while four average at least 30.0 minutes. … Michigan State returned two starters off last year’s team that finished 23-13 overall, 11-9 and tied for seventh in the Big Ten. Conference media picked the Spartans this preseason to finish fifth in the 14-team conference. The Spartans opened this season unranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll but have been as high as No. 12. … Now in his 28th season at Michigan State, head coach Tom Izzo has seen his teams qualify for each of the last 24 NCAA tournaments, the second-longest active streak behind only Kansas (32). Izzo has coached the Spartans to eight Final Fours. … Michigan State is the last Big Ten team to win a national championship (2000). … This is the 24th and final edition of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, which started in 1999. The Atlantic Coast Conference leads the series 12-8-3 heading into this week’s play. The Big Ten has won each of the previous three Challenges. … Michigan State is 9-12 overall in the Challenge, 1-8 on the road with the win at North Carolina in the Challenge debut in 1999. … Notre Dame is 4-5 overall and 3-1 in the Challenge since joining the ACC in 2013-14. The home loss was to Ohio State in 2020, when it also last played Michigan State (away), an 80-70 loss. … Notre Dame is 60-37 overall, 35-11 at Purcell Pavilion, against Michigan State in a series that dates back to 1908. … The Irish have lost two straight and four of the last five to the Spartans. The teams have met twice previously in the Challenge with each team winning on its home court.
QUOTING: “It will be a good test for us, but it’s kind of what we need right now.”
-Irish fifth-year senior guard/captain Cormac Ryan on Michigan State.