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Notre Dame’s wish list for an ACC title run

| Monday, February 6, 2023

The fate of the Notre Dame men’s basketball season rests on the ACC Tournament. If that was not clear earlier, it certainly is after the Irish squandered an early 16-4 lead to lose to Wake Forest on Saturday and fall to 2-10 in ACC play. For Notre Dame to reach the NCAA Tournament in head coach Mike Brey’s final season, they will have to claim the ACC’s automatic bid by cutting down the nets in Greensboro.

This may seem like an unlikely proposition, and it is. To win the ACC title for the first time since 2015, the Irish, barring a late-season turnaround, would need to win five games in just five days. This scenario poses specific challenges for a team that has been notably inconsistent, having failed to win consecutive games since their 5-0 start to the season and leans heavily on a thin rotation.

At the same time, however, it doesn’t feel impossible. Highly competitive efforts against Miami, NC State and Syracuse (twice) have proven that the Irish can hang with the conference’s top teams. The task for Notre Dame will be to turn those narrow losses into wins and to string those wins together over the course of a week. So yes, it is unlikely and it will be difficult, but if the Irish are to put together a Cinderella postseason run, here are five things that need to happen.

Make 10 threes in every game

As a team that relies heavily on three-point shooting, Notre Dame does not have a large margin of error if their shots are not falling. It’s been a constant refrain from Brey that, to win ACC games, Notre Dame must make double-digit three-pointers. On the surface, it appears that the Irish, who average 9.5 three-pointers in ACC play, have just about done that. However, in a single-elimination tournament, averaging 10 threes is very different from hitting that mark in every game, which was evident on Saturday. The Irish finished just 4-21 from beyond the arc and could not muster up enough scoring to match Wake Forest’s high-powered offense.

Brey complimented Wake Forest after the game, calling them a team that isn’t “going to help you [win games]” by having off nights. In March, Notre Dame needs to be a team that doesn’t help their opponents and that starts with consistently shooting the ball up to their standard. Just one poor shooting night, like Saturday’s, would likely spell the end of the Irish’s season.

Lock the perimeter down

On the flip side, the Irish’s best chance to limit the ACC’s top teams offensively is to go all in on preventing three-point attempts. This can be seen by comparing Saturday’s game with Notre Dame’s December matchup with Syracuse. On Saturday, the Irish stifled Wake Forest in the first half, holding them to just 27 points. In the second half, Wake started to let it fly from long range and the Irish had no answer. The Deacons finished with 11 threes and 54 points in the second half alone and would cruise to an 81-64 victory.

Conversely, the Syracuse game was dominated by Orange big man Jesse Edwards. The Irish could not stop Edwards in the post and he finished the game with 22 points and 16 rebounds. However, Syracuse made just three three-pointers in the game. Despite their strong interior play, they finished with just 62 points. The Irish have the offensive firepower to keep up with teams that score from the inside, but often fall behind when hit by a barrage of threes. Notre Dame should look to prevent threes at all costs, even if it means allowing opposing post players to have a field day.

Utilize Laszewski in the pick and roll

When Notre Dame’s shots weren’t falling on Saturday, their points frequently came from finding graduate student forward Nate Laszewski rolling to the basket. Laszewski finished with a team-high 18 points and did much of his work in the paint. As knockdown of a shooter as Laszewski is, it’s tempting to keep him stationed on the perimeter. However, he has finished well at the rim all season and the attention that he draws in pick and roll opportunities allows his teammates to play to their strengths.

Screens from Laszewski provide open jump shots for graduate student guards Dane Goodwin, Cormac Ryan and Trey Wertz. They also create space for slashers like freshman guard J.J. Starling and graduate student guard Marcus Hammond to get to the basket. When Laszewski receives passes while rolling, he can look to the rim or find open shooters on the perimeter. The Irish have often gone on long stretches where they haven’t been able to get anything going offensively. Getting Laszewski rolling to the rim more frequently could provide a much-needed spark if Notre Dame goes cold in Greensboro.

Get healthy

This probably goes without saying, but a full-strength lineup gives the Irish their best chance of winning the ACC Tournament. On Saturday, Notre Dame was without freshmen forwards Ven-Allen Lubin and Dom Campbell and lacked an interior presence on both ends of the floor. Additionally, winning five games in five days is a test of stamina. Having eight regular rotation players available instead of six reduces the severity of the “tired legs” that Irish players would be feeling by the fourth or fifth game.

Brey provided an update on the status of both players after Saturday’s game. Campbell will likely return to action in two weeks after dealing with an ongoing inflamed Achilles issue. The timeline for Lubin’s ankle injury is uncertain, with Brey saying that “we’ll see where we are on Monday.” Junior forward Matt Zona stepped into a bigger role in their absence and played well on Saturday, but the Irish are counting on a postseason return for both of their talented freshmen.

Finish the regular season strong

Watching the NCAA Tournament, one will often hear an announcer make reference to a team that has “gotten hot at the right time.” Whether purely anecdotal or based in fact, it is widely believed that teams who play well at the end of the regular season and win their conference tournament carry crucial momentum into March Madness. Last year, Kansas rolled through the Big 12 tournament and eventually captured the national title.

For Notre Dame, the ACC Tournament is essentially a series of NCAA Tournament play-in games, so playing their best basketball over the next few weeks can only improve their chances of making a deep run. Brey said after the Wake Forest game that “you’d love to see if you could get a little momentum before you go to Greensboro.” He has consistently praised his team for bringing the same effort and energy every day, regardless of whether they are winning or losing, but picking up some big wins down the stretch would no doubt provide a confidence boost that finishing with a long losing streak would not.

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