Column: Big-Picture And Small, Breaking Through Remains Notre Dame Men's Basketball’s Problem
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Engel: Big-Picture And Small, Breaking Through Remains Notre Dame’s Problem

Notre Dame was back here again.

In an attempt to avoid a loss to last-place Boston College on Saturday, it shaved its deficit to six points for the sixth time in the second half thanks to some timely baskets, once again keeping the lifeline alive. Trailing 76-70 with 5:33 left, the Irish needed a couple more stops, a couple more shots, and the path out would be in front of them.

Instead, their defensive problems kept them in the booby trap in which they had already stepped.

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball
Defensive problems fueled Notre Dame's 94-90 loss at Boston College Saturday. (ACC)

Boston College’s ensuing possession was a layup attempt, offensive rebound and putback. Eight-point hole. Two Irish three-point misses then led to a Boston College wide open triple. Eleven-point deficit – and a stronger feeling of inevitability. Just like the prior five times, Notre Dame hit a wall at that six-point figure because it couldn’t get stops.

In a 94-90 loss, Notre Dame allowed a team that hadn’t played in two weeks, was missing three double-figure scorers and just fired its coach to put up its most regulation points since Jan. 1, 2017.

“It was a mirage,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said of his defense. “You know a matador in a bull fight, olé? We just moved the cape and they shot layups. It was not good.”

Added junior guard Prentiss Hubb: “We need to defensive rebound a lot better, stay down on shot fakes.”

Those are familiar maladies Notre Dame keeps finding itself trying to fend off. With the loss, the Irish are 171st nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. This will be their third straight year below 100. Even with some stretches of better play, they’ve been unable to fully eradicate the defensive shortcomings.

“We had made some progress earlier this month, but that was the old habits of December,” Brey said. “They know it. We didn’t have a whole lot of punch there.”

Not in Conte Forum Saturday afternoon. Not often enough in the last three seasons.

It’s an illustration of a larger-picture theme. Notre Dame’s rotation is filled with juniors and seniors who have played meaningful minutes since they stepped on campus in 2018-19. The exceptions are transfers who gained plenty of experience elsewhere. There’s an expectation for improvement over time.

But three years in, the same tripwire keeps disrupting progress. Improvement isn’t linear, but an upward trend isn’t smack-you-in-the-face obvious. Notre Dame is 9-13 and 6-10 in the ACC with a rotation full of upperclassmen. One wonders if this is what it looks like with this roster and staff.

No, this isn’t a last-place team anymore like it was in 2018-19, but is it too crazy to expect it to be closer to the NCAA tournament than it currently is and eventually find ways to conquer the recurring bugaboos?

Hubb was asked a version of that Saturday.

“I guess so,” he said. “It comes with the ups and downs of a season.”

If there’s a stretch that illustrates the stagnancy, it’s this last week. Just seven days prior, on Feb. 20, the Irish sliced up Syracuse for a 46-32 halftime lead on the road, full of swagger and self-assurance. They were a half away from hitting the .500 mark, touting some real progress and getting a step closer to the tournament bubble.

It fell apart. Old habits, again.

Notre Dame wilted when Syracuse pressed and applied ball pressure, committing and spoiling a 20-point lead in a 75-67 loss. A usually sound ball-security team did a U-turn and threw the ball everywhere, as it had a few times in these spots before.

Since surrendering the lead in Central New York, the Irish haven’t held an advantage. They trailed nearly wire-to-wire in a Tuesday loss at Louisville and did the same at Boston College. The conversation now revolves around doing enough to ensure an NIT bid. The pieces that would allow them to reach higher, whatever they might be, are still missing.

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“You try a little bit of everything,” Brey said. “I don’t think I’ve been able to help them very well, quite frankly. I blame myself for not being able to get us in that .500 zone. We thought maybe we could pick off a couple and get close to .500 again.”

But even that became a big ask when Brey observed his team looked “mentally tired” when getting on the plane to Boston.

“I was worried about today overall. We took some punches last week,” Brey said. “The Syracuse game took some wind out of your sails psychologically. We didn’t know what we were going to see today because they had new personnel and a new coach. They had great spirit. Basically, what I worried about played out. We’re beat up a little bit.”

Just when it seemed they were one more swing away from breaking through, their axe broke and halted all the good vibes.

That applies to Saturday. To last Saturday. To this season. To this entire program since early 2018.

Notre Dame has locked in consecutive season No. 4 of double-digit ACC losses and non-winning league records. Four straight NCAA tournament misses will seemingly follow. The losing streak against ranked opponents is in its fourth season and sits at 28 games.

ACC-leading Florida State comes to Purcell Pavilion for the regular-season finale, presumably giving the Irish a chance to snap the top-25 skid. A win wouldn’t change everything, but it’d be a weight off the backs and some tangible evidence of progress for them to tout.

“Now it’s pride and will,” Brey said. “These are great kids, proud kids. They were 0-5 [in the ACC], came off the mat and showed some life. I’m going to ask them that I need that same recipe. Do you have it in you? I’ll be interested to see their answer.”

He’s surely hoping it’s one that means his program isn’t back here again.

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