Notre Dame hopes to close regular season with share of ACC title
Alex Carson | Friday, March 3, 2017
When Notre Dame lost at North Carolina on Feb. 5, it dropped its fourth consecutive game and completed a slide from 5-0 in the ACC to just 6-5.
Now, as the No. 19 Irish head to No. 8 Louisville nearly a month later, they sit alone in second place in the conference, riding a six-game winning streak into Saturday’s 2 p.m. tipoff. A win would secure the conference’s No. 2 seed and potentially procure a share of the ACC regular season championship for the Irish, completing the rescue of a season that once looked like it could head off the rails.
If Notre Dame (23-7, 12-5 ACC) wins Saturday afternoon, and No. 17 Duke defeats No. 5 North Carolina (25-5, 13-4) later that night, the Irish will share the regular season championship with the Tar Heels.
“It’s unbelievable. I’m so proud of this group,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said. “And I told them, ‘I don’t want anybody talking about a double bye. I want us thinking about trying to share the regular season championship.’ We win on Saturday, and we’ll root for the Blue Devils on Saturday night, and we’ll see where we stand.”
Brey said he hasn’t been surprised by his team’s six-game winning streak — one that featured a demonstrative win over No. 15 Florida State and tight wins over bubble squads Wake Forest and Georgia Tech.
“I never doubted we’d be back in form,” he said. “We’ve got a stable group, we’ve got a mature group — the schedule was gonna change, there’s no question about it. And we’ve taken advantage of that, so really proud of our leadership. We’re healthy, and I think we’ve got good energy heading to this postseason.”
While the Cardinals (23-7, 11-6) are one of college basketball’s best teams this year, this senior class has handled Louisville teams throughout the last three years — since the Cardinals joined the ACC for the 2014-15 season, Notre Dame has won all three contests between the teams. Senior forward V.J. Beachem said the Irish have nothing to lose Saturday, and the Irish will enter the KFC Yum! Center confident.
“We’re a very confident team, not only with our history against them, but the last six games we’ve played,” Beachem said. “We’re just gonna go down there and let it rip — we have absolutely nothing to lose, we just want to play up to the best of our abilities.”
Wednesday’s 82-66 win over Boston College gave Brey a chance to work junior forward Martinas Geben back into the rotation. After not playing at all the previous two games, the former starter was handed 10 minutes, stepping up for a six-point, four-rebound performance. Beachem said the Irish will need the depth and energy Geben can provide the rest of the way.
“Those guys have just been working so hard in practice,” Beachem said. “Marty has had a great week of practice from our bye week on, and he was ready when his number was called tonight. … It was great to see him with great energy and activity, and we’re going to need him in March.”
Not only has Notre Dame had Louisville’s number the last few seasons, but the Irish have already registered a win over the Cardinals this season, a 77-70 triumph back on Jan. 4 — a game that doesn’t even feel like part of this season for Brey.
“It really does feel like last season,” Brey said. “When you play somebody the second game [of ACC play] — we’ll have to go back; I remember a little bit of the game, not much of it.”
Since that game, Notre Dame has spent more time downshifting — and that could prove to be the difference one way or another against a Cardinals team with high-level forward play.
“Here, we face one of these teams that can pound us on the backboard when we’re playing small,” Brey said. “Can we hold our own? We did here; we were able to hold our own here on the backboard, but if we’re playing smaller longer, can we not get beat up on the backboard? And I think we’re hard to guard, though, if they’re playing two big guys, so you’re trying to balance what’s being effective for us.”
Notre Dame will look to seal the No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament — and potentially grab a share of the conference’s regular season title — Saturday afternoon at Louisville, with tipoff scheduled for 2 p.m.