Carson: Irish still on track for March despite top-15 setbacks
Alex Carson | Saturday, December 17, 2016
INDIANAPOLIS — Let’s be real: Irish head coach Mike Brey is right about a lot of things. Of Villanova and Purdue, Notre Dame’s two losses, Brey said Saturday, “We’re not in their league right now.”
And while “not in their league” is probably discrediting his Irish squad a bit, Brey’s right about this, too. Unlike those Wildcats and Boilermakers, Notre Dame can’t only play its best game for a half and expect to win, nor can it fail to get contributions from key players in a big game.
The story will be similar as Notre Dame heads into ACC play, when Louisville, Virginia, Duke and North Carolina will roll onto the Irish schedule, teams that — like Villanova and Purdue — are among the class of college basketball this season. Like they do just about every year under Brey, the Irish will find their way to one, maybe two of these wins, on the back of a total team effort that probably happens at Purcell Pavilion.
But instead of focusing on what Notre Dame isn’t — a bona-fide, top-10 team — let’s focus on what it is with conference play on the horizon in two weeks.
If you’re looking for a phrase to describe Notre Dame’s November, it might be “better than expected.” With matchups against Colorado, Northwestern and Iowa, most would’ve been pleased with a pair of resume-building wins. Instead, the Irish positioned themselves ahead of projections, and the “bubble” with an unbeaten month.
Remember a year ago, when Notre Dame blew a similar lead to Indiana in this event, that it followed a disappointing November where the Irish fell to Monmouth and Alabama. These Irish are well ahead of the curve set by last year’s team which, as you might remember, ended the year in the Elite Eight.
In junior guard Matt Farrell, the Irish have found an offensive leader, not a guy who simply broke out for a few solid performances last March. If freshman guard T.J. Gibbs is seeing more significant time, like I thought he would by the end of the season, it’ll be because he offers something with Farrell, not in lieu of Farrell. That’s not a bad spot to be in.
In junior forward Bonzie Colson, one of college basketball’s toughest players to guard, Notre Dame has a potential All-American power forward that people still can’t figure out. When you’re looking for matchup problems, which basketball often is a sport laden with them, Colson almost always provides a key one in Notre Dame’s favor.
Perhaps, though, what we’ve learned the last two Saturdays is where this Notre Dame team is at so far. Before the season, Brey was interested primarily in getting into the NCAA field. While that’s still the priority — at least until the Irish navigate the games they should win in the ACC — it’s no longer anyone’s minimum expectation; now, most have their eyes set on getting to the second weekend of the tournament for a third year running.
On the flip, we know Notre Dame isn’t on par with the top teams in college basketball and, quite frankly, that’s quite fine. The Irish still lost their best two players from a No. 6-seeded squad last year, and sit here midway through December ahead of that team’s progression curve.
If Notre Dame gets progression in the right spots — like figuring out how to better get senior forward V.J. Beachem involved when opponents key in on him during the second half — there’s no reason it can’t be back on the national stage again in March. Is another Elite Eight, or even Sweet 16 appearance likely? Probably not.
But last year’s Irish outfit was a couple steps behind this one last December. Between that Indiana loss and the NCAA tournament, Brey refined his rotation, identified new contributors and found a way to start getting the best out of his team when he needed it most.
Don’t doubt his ability to do the same this year.