It only takes a couple of numbers – and opinions -- to trash one of the most impressive turnarounds in college basketball.
Notre Dame – ranked by the Associated Press among the nation’s top 10 and solidly positioned in second place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, just a game behind No. 2 Virginia – shows signs of being a paper lion with post-season play approaching and bracketology talk of a No. 3 NCAA tournament seed.
Depending upon which Ratings Percentage Index you choose to use as a gauge, Notre Dame’s resume breaks down something like this: record vs. top 25 RPI – 2-3; record vs. Nos. 26-50 – 2-0; record vs. Nos. 51-100 – 4-1; record vs. Nos. 101-200 – 5-0; record vs. Nos. 201-351 -- 9-0.
There’s no doubt that Irish head coach Mike Brey and Notre Dame’s athletic administration built a non-conference schedule conducive to racking up November-December victories and stoking Notre Dame’s confidence level for when it was time to enter ACC play. The Irish finished 6-12 in conference play in their first year in the league in 2013-14, losing nine single-digit games, including seven-out-of-eight on the road determined by eight points or less.
So Brey and Co., gathered a batch of opponents such as Grambling State (No. 351 RPI, last in Division I), Binghamton (No. 338), Chicago State No. 327), Coppin State (No. 324), Fairleigh Dickinson (No. 286), Navy (No. 278), Hartford (No. 245) and Northern Illinois (No. 218). Notre Dame defeated those eight opponents by an average of 33 points per game.
The result was a 12-1 non-conference record with the only loss coming in Connecticut against Providence (current No. 25 RPI). Notable non-conference victories came against Massachusetts (No. 43), Michigan State (No. 47) and Purdue (No. 78).
As the Irish began working their way through the ACC – winning their first three, including a victory at North Carolina, falling to Virginia, and then ripping off five more wins in a row, including Duke at home – they quickly rose up the rankings and settled in among the nation’s top 10, where they’ve been for several weeks now.
Now, with five games left in the regular season, the Irish are 10-3 in conference play, one game behind first-place Virginia and a game ahead of Duke, Louisville and North Carolina as the rest of the league catches up to Notre Dame’s game-heavy early portion of the schedule.
So how good – or not so good – is Notre Dame? In ACC games only, the Irish are No. 1 in the league in three-point field-goal percentage , No. 2 in three-pointers made and field-goal percentage, No. 3 in assist-to-turnover ratio, and No. 5 in scoring margin, assists and turnover margin.
Translation: they score it, shoot it and protect it well.
The Irish struggle in anything related to rebounding, defending and now free-throw shooting. Among the 15 ACC teams, the Irish are in the bottom one-third statistically in free-throw percentage (10th), field-goal defense and defensive rebounding (11th), offensive rebounding (12th), rebounding margin (13th) and three-point defense (14th).
And yet the Irish rank No. 28 in their own RPI with a 2-2 record against Virginia (0-1), Duke (1-1) and North Carolina (1-0 in Chapel Hill), all of whom are among the nation’s top 10 in RPI.
Notre Dame sports a 5-2 record in conference play on the road with victories over the Tar Heels (No. 9 RPI), North Carolina State (No. 63), Clemson (No. 89) and Georgia Tech (No. 102). The Irish also defeated Miami (No. 66) at home.
Notre Dame lost by one to Providence (No. 25 RPI) and at Pittsburgh (No. 61) by four. Opportunities to add to the regular-season accomplishments await at home against Syracuse (No. 59) and Clemson (No. 89), and at Louisville (No. 10).
“I think Mike Brey was brilliant in his approach to the season,” said ESPN analyst and former Irish great LaPhonso Ellis to Irish Illustrated. “After the loss in the ACC tournament last year, rallying the guys, getting guys on the same page, and then putting together a trip (Italy in August) that allowed this team to get some confidence.
“He wisely, wisely put together a pre-conference schedule that was pretty soft and allowed these kids to win some games and get some confidence.”
Are bracketologists overrating Notre Dame by virtually ignoring their weak non-conference schedule and placing them as high as a No. 3 seed? It’s a fair argument, one which the Irish will have a chance to rebuke in coming weeks, both down the stretch of the regular season, in the ACC tournament and in the NCAA tournament, where Brey teams perennially have struggled through the years.