NOTRE DAME, Ind. – This one felt different, although not for the reasons you might expect.
It didn’t feel different because this was Notre Dame’s ninth comeback from a seven-point-or-more deficit to defeat No. 4 Duke and legendary head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
It felt different because when the clock finally ran out on No. 8 Notre Dame’s 77-73 victory over the Blue Devils, an over-the-top celebration was not in order. The student body didn’t rush the court, and the players weren’t treating it like the fall of the Roman Empire.
It felt different because Notre Dame did what it expected of itself on its home court, where head coach Mike Brey is now 14-7 versus top 10 teams.
This was no upset, although the line-makers pre-game number said so. The 2014-15 Notre Dame men’s basketball team is for real. Notre Dame won. Notre Dame should have won and they know it.
“When our program can beat the programs like Duke and North Carolina, it’s a great endorsement of who we are in this league,” Brey said.
“We had to do it in the Big East with Syracuse, Georgetown and UConn. You have to get those guys to (take you) seriously. (We’ve) gotten North Carolina and Duke this year. (It’s like), ‘Okay, these guys do belong in the ACC.’”
Not only do the Irish belong, they sit with the rest of the great teams at the front of the pack. That’s right, great, at least as it pertains to the first half of the ACC season.
Ten days from now, when the Irish make the return trip to Durham, N.C., the Cameron Crazies will be out in full force, perhaps evening the score and then some.
But what kind of team goes on the road to North Carolina State and overcomes an 18-point deficit against a home team desperately trying to avoid falling to .500 play in the conference? What kind of basketball team takes virtually every pressure situation it’s faced halfway through the ACC schedule and makes mincemeat of it on the heels of a 6-12 conference season?
A quality team, a great team, undoubtedly the best and most complete team Brey has fielded in 15 seasons at Notre Dame.
“They’ve won some really close games because they can put five people on the court who can score,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re unbelievably well-coached. They’re together. They’re a tough team to defend.”
All that is true, spoken by the master himself, who is 19-2 in head-to-head meetings with protégés. Brey has handed both of those setbacks to Krzyzewski in a 12-month span.
Brey has had other great offensive teams in the past, although probably not as well-rounded and deep as this one). The real difference is that when the Irish need to put a halt to the other team’s momentum, while they can make it happen by scoring in droves, it begins on the defensive end.
“This group has been down, but the last seven, eight minutes of the game, we’ve guarded the heck out of people,” Brey said. “I know we’re thoroughly exhausted, but we fight through it. We really defended to come back and win.
“Yeah, we make big shots and (Jerian) Grant gets going, but it’s locking in defensively when it’s really on the line.”
Speaking of the line, the Blue Devils sabotaged their chances of coming out of Purcell Pavilion with a victory. Probable No. 1 NBA draft choice Jahlil Okafor missed five of his seven free-throw attempts, and Duke finished 10-of-20 from the free-throw line.
In a game in which one field goal and one three-point bucket separated both teams, the chink in Duke’s armor showed itself, although after hitting 10-of-12 from the line, the Irish – namely V.J. Beachem and Bonzie Colson – missed a collective three-of-four from the line to make it a little more interesting down the stretch.
“Jah had a heck of a game,” Krzyzewski said. “If he had hit those free throws, we’d be talking about Jah having an amazing game, not Grant.”
Playing post defensive with a 6-foot-5, 226-pound freshman on a 6-foot-11, 270-pound superstar is a strange formula. Notre Dame has problems on the backboards, and when this magical journey finally ends somewhere in the NCAA tournament, we’ll likely look back on what the Irish lack on the interior.
Every team, however, has its shortcomings. Duke’s is the free-throw line. Rather than dwell on what the Irish can’t do, it is a more accurate reflection on reality to admire what this team can do, which is give virtually any team in the country a run for its money at any time, in any venue.
“It’s the winning mentality,” said Connaughton, a player who oozes the belief that no situation is too difficult to overcome. “There’s just something about us that when we’re down, we never think we’re out of it. We’re able to rally around each other. Someone sets a spark and then we’re able to make plays.”
Make no mistake, this team belongs to Connaughton and Grant, who not only has played himself into contention for ACC Player of the Year, but first-team All-America status and – quite frankly – national player of the year talk.
In 40 minutes of action, Grant scored 23 points, dished out a career-high 12 assists, grabbed six rebounds, made three steals and blocked two shots, including Tyus Jones’ last-ditch attempt seconds after Grant’s clutch find of Steve Vasturia in the corner for the game-clinching three-pointer.
“We beat a top five program,” Grant said. “It’s Duke and we’re 8-1 in the ACC. That’s really the most important thing, just getting another win.
“We’re playing with a lot of confidence. When we get down, we know that as long as we keep playing, it will come.”
Connaughton is one of the great leaders in Notre Dame basketball history. Grant is one of the great offensive players in Notre Dame history. Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste have grown tremendously, and Bonzie Colson is a godsend. Vasturia doesn’t always look pretty, but he has skills, is a winner and obviously possesses the clutch gene. V.J. Beachem shows streaks of greatness, particularly as it pertains to shooting the basketball.
There is not one single NCAA tournament team that will feel good when their team’s name is placed in the same bracket as Notre Dame come tournament time. They are a multi-faceted, well-oiled, incredibly confident basketball team with numerous ways to achieve success.
They’re not perfect, but no basketball team is. At 8-1 at the halfway point of conference play, they are one of the great stories of the 2014-15 college basketball season.
RESPONDING TO THE HEAT
It’s interesting to note Brey’s attitude in recent weeks, particularly as Krzyzewski was approaching his 1,000th victory. Brey was asked repeated questions about Coach K’s milestone. Brey is not one to show his annoyance with the media, usually turning displeasure in the line of questioning into a light-hearted moment.
“Did anyone ask him what he’s learned from my 300th victory?” joked Brey a couple of weeks ago.
Asked again this week about the significance of Krzyzewski’s accomplishments, it was clear – in Brey’s subtle way – that he was more interested in discussing his team’s great story than Krzyzewski’s brilliance.
The guy’s only human. He’s done a remarkable job at Notre Dame during the regular season. The Irish are every bit the giant killer they were during the glory days of Digger Phelps, who willed Notre Dame to national prominence.
But because Brey has won just two NCAA tournament games in the last 11 years, he is – and rightfully so – short on plaudits and accolades. Where it goes too far is in the way the fan base often treats him as someone to be tolerated, not cherished for his accomplishments.
He’s done a brilliant job making the Irish relevant on a national level, and the disrespect/disdain that Irish fans express hits home to Brey, particularly during high times like these.
He knows coaches are measured by their post-season results. He also knows that he’s done one of the most brilliant coaching jobs in America in a sport that stresses sheer athletic/basketball talent over student-athletes and teamwork.
In the glow of another huge victory, Brey wasn’t quite ready to enshrine his team with a challenging yet winnable game at Pittsburgh about 60 hours away.
“We would have every reason to be a little flat and a little under-energized given what we had to do against N.C. State and what we did tonight,” said Brey, when asked to look ahead to Saturday’s noon tipoff at Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center.
“I told the team, ‘If you get the one in Pittsburgh, I’ll start to refer to you as having special qualities.’ Human nature would say you’re not going to be very good. I’m very interested to see how we are at high noon on Saturday.”
If the Irish claim a victory in Pittsburgh this weekend, it will complete an incredible two-and-a-half week stretch in which the Irish went unscathed on three road trips (after winning at North Carolina on Jan. 3) and responded with six straight victories since falling to Virginia at home.
This is one special basketball team, much like Miami two years ago and Virginia last year, although the Hurricanes’ style is much closer to Notre Dame’s than Virginia’s is.
Upsets no longer occur for the home team at Purcell Pavilion, which puts Notre Dame in a select category. Shortcomings? To be sure. Strengths and intangibles? Off the chart, even against the most successful coach in the history of the game.