The 2016-17 academic year was one of the poorer ones at Notre Dame when it came to fall athletics.
The 4-8 result in football spoke for itself, but the Fighting Irish finished 35th overall in the final fall sports Directors’ Cup Standings with 155 points. A year earlier they produced 275 points in fall sports, and for the entire year finished 17th overall at the end of the season.
There is a lot of ground that needs to be made up in the winter and spring to near the successful results in the Directors Cup the past four years. Notre Dame finished No. 9 in 2013, a school record No. 3 in 2014 and No. 10 in 2015.
The marquee winter sports have been doing their part, especially in the month of February when men’s basketball, women’s basketball and hockey have combined for a 13-1-2 record while sharpening up for the postseason.
Men’s Basketball (21-7, 10-5 in ACC)
In the nation’s toughest basketball conference, head coach Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish already have posted their third consecutive 10-win season and could find themselves earning a double-bye (top-4 finish) in the 15-team ACC Tournament for the third time in three seasons, a remarkable feat in itself in the tradition-rich league.
Victories at Boston College and North Carolina State last week assured the Irish of a winning road record in the league (5-3), always an onerous task in itself, and extended their overall winning streak to four contests.
With this week serving as the bye in league play, and some much needed rest at an ideal time, the Irish next have eminently winnable home games this Sunday versus Georgia Tech in a revenge match and then Wednesday March 1 versus Boston College.
While North Carolina, Duke and Louisville appear to be locks for the top three spots in the ACC Tournament, Florida State and Notre Dame look to be in a battle for fourth spot. If both finish 12-6 in the league, FSU would win the tiebreaker based upon most wins against the top three. However, the slumping ‘Noles still have road games left at Duke and Clemson.
Notre Dame is the lone team in men’s college basketball to reach the Elite Eight the past two seasons.
This year it will attempt to become the first in school history to win a minimum two games in the NCAA Tournament three consecutive years.
Women’s Basketball (25-3, 13-1 in ACC)
In a week when head coach Muffet McGraw was named one of 14 finalists for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this year (votes will be announced April 3 at the Final Four), the Irish won two hard fought road outings by almost identical scores, 84-80 at Clemson and 85-80 at Syracuse.
That ran their winning streak to 13 in the conference and eight overall since the fourth-quarter meltdown in the 71-69 loss at Tennessee on Jan. 16.
Much more so than in recent years, the Irish have had to grind out victories, including rallying from 13 down at fired-up Syracuse and earlier in the year 62-58 versus top-15 Duke.
Quietly, Notre Dame is positioning itself for a sixth straight No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament after even McGraw conceded earlier this week about that ship having sailed. That still might not be feasible, but what is significant is the roster pieces are beginning to jell collectively, and mental fortitude is becoming stronger (although consistent play on defense remains the top issue).
Sunday’s game at home versus Florida State in the regular season finale could clinch a fourth straight outright league title for the Irish.
What is especially astounding is Notre Dame is now 69-2 in the ACC (including the league tournament) and sports winning streaks of 16 versus Syracuse, 11 against Duke and 10 versus Louisville, who have consistently been top programs, including recent NCAA Tournament runner-up finishes by the Orange and Cardinals.
Hockey (18-9-5, 11-5-4 in Hockey East)
No. 15 Notre Dame defeated No. 10 Providence 4-1 on Friday night and managed to salvage a 3-3 tie on Saturday night (it never led) at sold out Compton Family Ice Arena (5,022), to pick up a possible 3 points out of 4 in the weekend series and remain unbeaten this February (4-0-2).
All in all, it was a good weekend that put the Irish back into NCAA Tournament conversation.
“I am proud of the guys for coming back each time because earlier in the year that might not have happened,” said head coach Jeff Jackson of the tie. “It’s a sign that we’ve grown and matured as a team.”
• Notre Dame is now in sole possession of third place in the 12-team Hockey East with 26 points (11-5-4), just behind No. 2 Boston U.'s 27 points and 29 by first-place Boston College.
• The Irish conclude the regular season at Boston U. this weekend and look to clinch at least a first-round bye in the Hockey East playoffs before having home ice in the quarterfinals.
• For the 16-team NCAA Tournament, the Irish are right on the proverbial "bubble" with a 15th place tie with Air Force in the PairWise Rankings, each posting 45 points. Boston U. is in 6th place, so much can be achieved next week with perhaps even just one win in the two-game series.
“We’re going to play probably the most talented team in college hockey [this weekend],” Jackson said. “It’s going to be a big challenge, especially in their building.”
Meanwhile, the most consistently successful sport at Notre Dame the past 40 years, fencing, continues to thrive as it heads into the ACC Championships this weekend in Durham, N.C. The women are ranked No. 3 nationally, while the men are No. 4.
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