Ready or not, here comes Atlantic Coast Conference play for Notre Dame men

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Notre Dame freshman guard J.J. Starling will play and start in his first Atlantic Coast Conference game against a school in Syracuse located close to his hometown of Baldwinsville, New York.

SOUTH BEND − According to the analog clock on the wall of Hammes Auditorium — that's room C-14 inside Purcell Pavilion for you locals — midnight the other night was 10 minutes away, but a new day already had already arrived for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team. 

About 30 minutes prior, the Irish (6-1) put the finishing touches on their most complete/impressive/needed victory of a young and long season. An old Notre Dame team did just about everything right from the start in a 70-52 dismissal of No. 20 Michigan State in the final ACC/Big Ten Challenge. 

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Notre Dame showed something about itself it hadn’t shown. It also showed how good it could be. There was more urgency, more focus, more everything. It was a big moment, and the Irish had to embrace it. Big games usually force you to do that. 

“It,” said fifth-year senior guard/captain Cormac Ryan, “adds a little layer of want-to.” 

Add a couple more layers of that to Saturday. As good as the Irish were earlier this week, they have to be even better late in it, again at home, again in a big game, only this time, with higher stakes. 

Chat:Grab a seat and something to eat, this might take you some time to chew on

Saturday brings the start of Atlantic Coast Conference play for Notre Dame as long-time conference nemesis Syracuse (3-4) comes to town. The Orange are the itch the Irish can’t seem to consistently scratch. You know, that one that really never goes away. That 2-3 zone. That length. That whiny coach.

You know the drill. Make some shots over the top of the zone. Keep the ball moving, which keeps the zone from settling in. Send it to the high post for some quick open looks. Don’t get spooked by the 2-3. Don’t fall in love with shooting so many 3s. The game plan is as old as Jim Boeheim.

There have been a lot of games and a lot of guys (we still see you, Gerry McNamara) for Syracuse who’ve been way too comfortable at Purcell. Saturday can’t be another of those games, can’t see another of those guys (cough, cough, Joe Girard, cough, cough

Big win Wednesday for the Irish for sure, but bigger opportunity Saturday. 

“You know my philosophy — the biggest game is the next one on the schedule,” said Ryan, who’s long preached the one-game-at-a-time mantra. “It’s as simple as that.” 

Notre Dame super senior guard Marcus Hammond might make his debut Saturday after missing the first seven games with a knee injury.

Not really. For as much as Ryan takes the one game at a time road, he was willing and able and ready to look at the entire ACC picture this offseason. The same guy who’s talked openly and honestly and convincingly about this Notre Dame team having all the pieces to get to its first Final Four since 1978 is also big on what the Irish can be in league play. 

Like finishing first. Ahead of Duke and North Carolina and Virginia and Virginia Tech and everybody else in the 15-team league. Ryan was the first to talk that talk. He and the Irish now must walk that walk in early December and the first of 20 league games. 

“Cormac Ryan, who wears it and sells it and talks it and backs it up, said this summer (that) we want to win the regular-season championship,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “I said, awesome. You’ve got to start with 1-0.” 

Remember last year's ACC run

Usually, dreaming that conference championship dream would be too big for this team, for this program, for this time. But Ryan is a cornerstone of a core that’s been there and almost done that in the ACC. Last year, Notre Dame went 9-1 at home in league play. It won a school record 15 league games. It finished one game in the win column from tying Duke for a regular-season championship. 

Why not do it all again, only better? First, Notre Dame has to start better than it did last year when it lost at lowly Boston College in a game it was never all in. The Irish still remember that one. It still stings. They can’t repeat that one. 

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A new conference run starts Saturday with the core that did a lot of good league stuff last year, with a few different/new pieces. 

Like freshman guard J.J. Starling. Someone in the league office had a sense of irony when they drafted this league schedule. Starling likely couldn’t help but smile when the slate was finalized and he saw the opponent for his first ACC game. It's against the school that’s located about 13 miles from his home in Baldwinsville, New York. 

Starling has been to the Syracuse campus plenty. He knows the Syracuse coaches. He knows the Syracuse players. He knows that this one isn’t going to be just another game. 

It should be, but it isn’t. It’s the ‘Cuse. 

“I don’t want to really say this one is more important because I’m playing Syracuse,” said Starling, who knows this one is more important because he is playing Syracuse. “It is big for me (but) we step between those lines, it’s game time. There’s no friendships on the court. 

“I just gotta come in with focus and do my part.” 

Same goes for the rest of the Irish rotation, which consisted the first seven games of six main guys. That may stretch all the way to seven Saturday with the anticipated/expected/hopeful regular season debut of super senior guard Marcus Hammond. The Niagara transfer has been out since the start of the season with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee. 

Hammond was supposed to return two weeks ago. He didn’t. He was supposed to return last week. He didn’t. There was a chance he could’ve returned Wednesday for Michigan State. He didn’t. Brey said the other night — just before midnight — that Hammond might play Saturday. 

“I’m hoping we have him,” Brey said. “We’re trending that way.” 

Notre Dame needs him. He might be the team’s best player. Better than Ryan and better than Starling and better than super seniors Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski and Trey Wertz. 

Through the first 25 practices, nobody on the roster racked up more efficiency points in practice than Hammond. He’s that good. Giving the Irish another handler option opens up so much for everybody else. Ryan can concentrate even more on his defense. Starling can move more off the ball. Wertz, now the primary handler, could benefit from someone else initiating the offense so he can go and get his feet set behind the 3-point line, where he’s tied with Goodwin for the team lead in 3s (13). 

As for finding enough minutes to go around for seven guys, Brey figures he’ll figure it out. 

“We’ll be,” he said, “one big happy family.” 

Even happier if Notre Dame caps a big week with a bigger win. A conference win. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.