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Men’s Basketball

Coolican: How can Notre Dame make the NCAA Tournament?

| Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Every February, like clockwork, Notre Dame fans ask themselves the same question. How can we make the NCAA Tournament? Recently, it has popped up after the Irish have made a late-season run, beating a few subpar ACC teams (looking at you, Duke) and have made just enough noise to be in the conversation. They are perpetually on the bubble of being a bubble team. In other words, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?” Yes, yes I am, and being an optimist, I’m going to explore that chance, even if it is far too early to talk about March Madness. 

The first step is to play (and hopefully win) as many games as possible. This may sound simple, but with the game against Clemson that was scheduled for Wednesday postponed and the status of the ACC tournament in Greensboro still up in the air, the Irish only have five regular-season games left on the schedule. Winning those last five games, which is a tall order considering two come on the road against Syracuse and Louisville, and another is against a 12-3 Florida State team, would put the Irish at 14-10 overall, and 11-7 in ACC play. Especially this year, with so many teams having games canceled by COVID, any team that plays 18 games in the ACC and finishes above .500 will at least be in the conversation. 

However, Notre Dame has only beaten one team in the top 50 of the KenPom rankings thus far. Despite the crack I made about Duke earlier, it remains Notre Dame’s best win, coming in at 34 on KenPom. The road win at Kentucky, despite the team’s struggles this season, also remains impressive, and the blowout win against a Pittsburgh team that is likely to finish above .500 could prove important. However, these last few weeks will be critical because getting a few more quality wins is vital if the Irish want to keep this dream alive. The Louisville and Florida State games in particular are ones to look out for. 

In the best-case scenario, the ACC tournament would continue as scheduled and Notre Dame could pick up another couple of wins in Greensboro, perhaps even against a ranked team like Virginia Tech. The ACC is the weakest it has been in the past few years; the last time the conference sent fewer than seven teams to the Big Dance was in 2015. This year may have even fewer, so the Irish would be much better off to win a few games in the ACC tournament. 

Discussing theoretical scenarios is the easy part. Putting them into place is where the difficulties arise. One of the primary reasons the Irish have vastly improved over the last month is the balanced scoring attack. With the thin, 7-man rotation that Mike Brey likes to use, it is crucial for everyone to contribute. Over the last six games, five different Irish players have led the team in scoring. The Irish offense functions best when point guard Prentiss Hubb can act as a facilitator rather than the primary scorer, and he’s been able to do that these last few games. Hubb is still the go-to guy down the stretch, but his ability to see the whole floor and find open teammates is unparalleled. His supporting cast needs to continue to step up, as it is incredibly difficult for opponents to game plan against Notre Dame when any given player can go off for 20+ points. 

The Irish also need to improve their defense. Their offense has been prolific, but they need to be able to fall back on a solid defense when the shots aren’t falling. The Irish rank 215th in scoring defense which is … not great. Part of this is the relatively fast pace Notre Dame plays at, and, playing only seven players while other teams are using nine or even 10 means fatigue is likely to set in late in games. They rank 189th in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot nearly 44% from the field, so there is clearly room for improvement. 

I started this column on a positive note, but I must end it on a more sobering one. This February push is not new. Last year, Notre Dame won seven of nine down the stretch before falling on its face against Wake Forest and losing a crucial game against Florida State. In 2018, the Irish won five of seven before coming up just short in an attempt to add a signature win against then-No.1 Virginia. Now, two seasons is hardly a trend, but it’s hard not to notice the similarities. Perhaps it is overly optimistic to even discuss the Irish’s chances for the tournament, or I have jinxed it by writing this column. However, there’s no denying the Irish have an opportunity to impress over these last few weeks of the season, yet have failed to do so in similar situations over the past few years. 

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

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