Notre Dame Basketball Battling Its Uncomfortable Life On The Edge
As he left the computer screen and virtual dais somewhere inside John Paul Jones Arena, his four-minute postmortem of another ACC loss complete, head coach Mike Brey shouted words of encouragement to an unidentified player.
“Head up!” he said, right before going out of earshot.
A simple attempt at a boost. Brey sure knows his team needs it and even needs some words of encouragement himself. By his own admission, Notre Dame is a downtrodden group getting a bit too close to the edge. The Irish are 0-5 in the ACC, alone in last place. The latest defeat was an 80-68 loss to No. 18 Virginia Wednesday afternoon in which they led for 19 inconsequential seconds in the first half.
During the game and now after it, Brey is searching for whatever he can to snap his team out of a mental slide, much less an on-court one. There are still 16 scheduled games left, plus the ACC Tournament. Going to be a long two months if they’re largely spent sulking.
“We’re not the most confident group,” Brey said. “You can’t be when you play the teams we’ve played and just haven’t been able to go in the locker room and celebrate. We’re not real confident.
“You can’t inject that in somebody. I love that we fought and made it interesting.”
Notre Dame did push back after it was nearly run out of the gym, turning a 12-point halftime deficit that later ballooned to 24 into a positive final 12 minutes. The Irish tied Virginia 43-43 after halftime and averaged a stout 1.39 points per possession. Their four primary guards, absent in three halves against Virginia this year, combined for 33 points in the game’s last 20 minutes.
Some life. Some fight. Better than the alternative.
But a footnote rather than a game-changing stretch.
The first half — where Virginia drilled 7 of 14 three-point attempts and found what it wanted around the rim — was too big a hole. Too familiar a plot.
“They made big jump shots in the first 10 minutes and we made none of our open ones,” Brey said. “The game was kind of over after that.”
A predictable outcome. Even to Brey. Notre Dame’s not good enough to beat Virginia right now. Or Virginia Tech three days earlier. Or any ranked team. The Irish’s skid against top-25 opponents hit 27 with Wednesday’s loss. All eight of their losses this year are against KenPom top-50 teams, five of them by at least 10 points.
With the exception of a Dec. 8 home loss at Ohio State and a Dec. 12 win at wayward Kentucky, most of the defeats haven’t been too suspenseful. The Irish are too often not a threat to superior opponents, of which there are more than four and five years ago. They just kind of … exist.
“These two teams that beat us [this week] are better than us,” Brey said. “If we played them again in late February — we don’t — maybe we could close the gap a little bit. But we can’t beat them yet. I’ve been matter-of-fact with our guys.
“We’re not going to jump off buildings. We’re going to try and come back and figure out how to get one league win.”
The core of this Notre Dame team has been together since summer of 2018. Two years later, it has a 13-35 conference record, a nuclear bomb to sustaining confidence.
In response, with another lost season nigh, Brey wants to milk as much out of Wednesday’s second-half spurt as he can. Notre Dame cut Virginia’s lead to 10 with about five minutes to go, but got no closer the second time after reckless drives by fifth-year senior forward Juwan Durham and junior guard Trey Wertz led to a turnover and flailing shot attempt on the next two possessions.
“I’m trying to find some silver linings because we still have a lot of games to play,” Brey said. “To see Wertz and [Cormac] Ryan in some kind of offensive rhythm feeling good, playing with our key guys, I’ll take that out of the second half.
“I didn’t think we could get over the hump against them. Tried to. But couldn’t.”
Ryan, the Stanford transfer in his first year, entered the game averaging 8.7 points and shooting just 30.3 percent from the floor. He finished with a team-high 16 points and drew five fouls, with all of his scoring in the second half. His free throws trimmed Virginia’s lead to 68-58 with 5:08 left. It was largely not influential on the outcome. But it’s something. Anything. Enough for Ryan to put on a poised face and to pique a defeated Brey’s interest.
“It’s a combination of getting stops and playing our style of basketball,” Ryan said. “When we do it, we’re a tremendous team. Sometimes we lose sight of it for whatever reason. It’s something we continue to work on as we grow.”
The path of most resistance is over, for now. Notre Dame returns home to play Boston College, itself 13-31 in the ACC since 2018-19 and 1-5 this year. That’s followed by a road game at low-major Howard and a trip to injury-riddled Miami. It’s a needed reprieve against lesser teams. Now or never for Notre Dame if it wants to take some steps and keep the uncomfortable big-picture questions from creeping too close.
“I’ve been in this position many times in coaching, when you’re flat on the mat, you’re trying to come off,” Brey said. “When you do come off, those are some of the great memories of my tenure at Notre Dame, when you’re jammed up. And we are. We’re flat on the mat.”
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