At the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Operation Basketball event in October, members of the media voted Notre Dame and Florida State to finish seventh and eighth, respectively, in the 15-team league.
Entering Thursday, those two teams are a combined 33-5 and 10-2 in the ACC and in a three-way tie for first-place in what is widely considered the premier basketball conference in the country.
Unpredictable, yes. But according to Irish head coach Mike Brey, it has been captivating a third of the way through the 18-game slate.
“Everybody is watching this league,” Brey said. “Fans are watching this league. It’s riveting, coaches in other power leagues are watching our league and they should.”
No. 15 Notre Dame (16-3 overall, 5-1 in the ACC) got off to a 5-0 start in league play prior to Wednesday night’s road loss at No. 10 Florida State (17-2, 5-1). Those two programs are in a tie with No. 9 North Carolina (17-3, 5-1).
But what stands out to Brey is the depth of the league, which at season’s end might rival the 2010-11 Big East that put 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Carolina is the ACC’s highest-ranked team, followed by Florida State, No. 12 Louisville, Notre Dame, No. 16 Virginia and No. 18 Duke. Unranked teams like Virginia Tech, Miami, North Carolina State, Syracuse and Clemson all could make a strong case for inclusion by Selection Sunday.
“I coached in the Big East when we had 11 bids and nine and 10, and I always felt this league when we came to it would evolve into that kind of depth,” Brey said. “In year four, we have it. We’re the best league, we’re the deepest league, it’s just trying to survive enough. We are pointing toward getting 10 NCAA Tournament bids.
“It’s a grueling league, but it’s a fun league. It’s a fun league to coach and play in. It’s big games, great challenges every night, really good players. It’s awesome what has been set up here with the expansion.”
Perhaps Notre Dame’s toughest stretch is upcoming. The Irish host Syracuse on Saturday, then host Virginia on Tuesday. They then travel to Georgia Tech Jan. 28 before hosting Duke Jan. 30 and going to North Carolina Feb. 4.
The five games over the next two weeks will be telling.
“The regular season champion, who knows?” Brey said. “It’s going to be a great race all the way through. What’s helped our league is the teams that maybe struggled in previous years at the bottom of the league, they’re much improved. This is the recipe for 10 bids, 11 bids.”