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Men’s Basketball

Mazurek: Irish enter critical stretch of season ahead of Duke matchup

| Monday, January 30, 2017

When Duke has come to Purcell Pavilion in years past, the Blue Devils have entered as the favored team, looking to fine tune their game before the home stretch of the conference schedule. On the other side, a hungry, underrated Notre Dame squad has looked to pull off an upset in front of a raucous crowd.

The crowd will be no less raucous Monday night, but there will be an air of trepidation mixed in as well.

Irish junior guard Matt Farrell advances the ball up the court during Notre Dame’s 71-54 loss to Virginia on Tuesday at Purcell Pavilion. Farrell had 15 points and four assists in Notre Dame’s loss to Georgia Tech on Sunday.Michael Yu | The Observer

Irish junior guard Matt Farrell advances the ball up the court during Notre Dame’s 71-54 loss to Virginia on Tuesday at Purcell Pavilion. Farrell had 15 points and four assists in Notre Dame’s loss to Georgia Tech on Sunday.

Because this year, the Irish (17-5, 6-3 ACC) are not the scrappy underdog they normally are. This year, the Irish started their ACC season 5-0 and currently sit in a tie for third place in the conference with a 6-3 record.

This is not the Irish team of the last two years that came out of nowhere in the final stages of the season to reach the Elite Eight.

This year, it is the Irish who need to fine tune before a run at the ACC regular season title. Thanks to Mike Brey’s system and the continuity from last year, this year’s Irish squad has been making headlines.

Going 5-0 to start conference play will do that. So will having junior guard Matt Farrell, who’s been dubbed one of the country’s most improved players by nearly every media outlet in the country.

This year’s Notre Dame team has a lot more noise and expectations surrounding it, and that can be hard to deal with. And it’s been a big reason Brey’s squad has struggled as of late.

After a 62-60 loss to Georgia Tech on a last-second layup, Notre Dame has dropped three of its last four contests. Granted, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Virginia are all good teams, but that’s the ACC — every team is good. There is no room for an off night.

But with a big home game against a rival, the Irish have a golden opportunity to hit the reset button. A win against the Blue Devils (16-5, 4-4) is almost a necessity. A loss can very easily push the Irish losing streak to four games with a road contest against No. 9 North Carolina on Saturday.

If Notre Dame winds up 6-5, any hope of an ACC regular season title vanishes. Any hope of a top-4 seed in the NCAA tournament becomes more and more bleak.

But in order to get back on the right track, the Irish have to win against Duke without being the underdogs. They can’t be hungry for an upset win, they have to be hungry for an ACC title.

Because Duke is looking for an upset. Last week, the Blue Devils lost to North Carolina State in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Though head coach Mike Krzyzewski is sidelined following his back surgery, he let his team know he expects better. He banned the team from the locker room — forcing them to have a team meeting at his house — in addition to forbidding his squad from wearing Duke-issued apparel around campus.

If there’s any team in the country more intent on getting a win, I’d like you to tell me, because I don’t think there is. Duke has fallen far from its preseason No. 1 ranking, but there’s still some fight left in the Blue Devils — and I’m not talking about Grayson Allen’s antics.

Including Monday night, the Irish have nine ACC games left. Now is when the Irish need to determine if they want to be a top-4 seed and make a third consecutive Elite Eight run come March. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Irish don’t make the big dance, but how they get in will likely determine if they get a chance to add to the program’s legacy.

A loss Monday could very easily start the Irish down the path toward a No. 7 or No. 8 seed. A win keeps them on track for a top-4 berth.

And right now, Duke is the one team standing in their way.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Marek Mazurek

Marek is a junior history major and lives in Carroll Hall. He has lived in Mishawaka for all 20 years of his life and covers Notre Dame football and men's basketball. He has loads of hand-eye coordination but lacks the height to be any good. Marek is also a proud esports supporter.

Contact Marek