All talk of a No. 1 seed has fallen silent.
A regional location for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament showed the first signs of slipping from their grasp.
The upcoming trip to Louisville – a promising road excursion as the Cardinals stumbled in recent weeks and lost a star player – looks more like a mountain again than a molehill.
One game does not change a season, and at 24-5, 12-4 and sitting in third-place in the ACC, No. 9 Notre Dame still controls its destiny.
Win in Louisville, hold serve in the regular-season home finale against Clemson, and put forth a solid showing in the ACC tournament after a North Carolina loss secured Notre Dame’s double-bye status. All will be right again.
But in the aftermath of Notre Dame’s 65-60 loss to Syracuse Tuesday night – dropping the conference home record to the same as the ACC road record (6-2) – the first real doubts about the upstart Irish couldn’t be avoided.
“We’ve got two games to improve and two games to improve our resume, more for the NCAA tournament than the ACC tournament,” said Mike Brey following Notre Dame’s 3-of-22 shooting performance from three-point range.
“I told them that as much as they’ve loved playing together, there are only four guaranteed games left. So we need to really cherish the time we have together down the stretch.”
As Brey and assistant coach Anthony Solomon hit the recruiting trail Wednesday with a week between games, an unexpected byproduct coming out of the loss to Syracuse was Notre Dame’s inability to make shots – an Irish calling card.
Some were contested, as Syracuse can do with its patented 2-3 zone, but many others were missed open looks and, to a large degree, a bit too much hesitancy against the Orange defense.
In the second half, the Irish attacked the paint/rim and played a much more competitive brand of basketball. But it was never enough to overcome the second-half deficit, and now it’s going to be a bit more of the same with Rick Pitino’s Cardinals, a team with a sense of urgency themselves after dropping three of the last six while holding on to the No. 4 seed in the ACC tournament.
“We’ve got to bounce back, and you know what? We’re going to have to attack zone Wednesday and we’re going to have to be better,” Brey said. “They’ll press us back into a zone at Louisville, so we’ve got to get better at that.”
One of the players Brey wants to aid is sophomore point guard Demetrius Jackson, who has had offensive games of three points (at home against Boston College), four points (at home against Wake Forest) and two points (at home against Syracuse) among the last six games.
Jackson is a combined 2-of-15 from the field in those three games and had particular difficulty against Syracuse’s zone front. (Conversely, he’s 13-of-23 and averaging 12.3 points per the last three road games.)
“When you have to play against that length and you’re a smaller guard, it’s tricky,” said Brey of the 6-foot-1 Jackson. “He’s a work in progress against zone. We’ve just got to get him work and help him with it.”
Louisville has held six of its last seven opponents under 60 points while the Cardinals have been offensively challenged themselves with a poor shooting team (42.8 percent from the field) and the added burden of playing without third-leading scorer Chris Jones, whom Pitino removed from the team last week.
Pat Connaughton – the only Irish player to convert a three-point attempt against the Orange – sounded like a coach himself when describing what Notre Dame had to do in order to be more effective against the zone.
“We can move the ball a little faster,” Connaughton said. “At times (against Syracuse), the ball was moving but we were standing. When you’re standing and you’re not really close enough to the three-point line, they really don’t have to play pressure defense, they can just sit back in the zone.
“It’s important getting into the gaps, being low when you catch it, putting more pressure on a zone like you do against a man-to-man defense, and trying to carry some of the principles over from man-to-man to zone.”
Despite the loss to Syracuse Tuesday night, the Irish nailed down a double-bye in the ACC tournament, which was consolation that would take on greater meaning once the sting of the Syracuse loss dissipated.
“That’s big time to know you’re going to finish in the top four of the ACC,” said Jerian Grant, who will be playing in his first and last ACC tournament the second week of March. “It’s huge.
“But we still have two regular-season games left to play and play well. Going into the post-season, that’s when it really counts.”
The Irish were much more concerned with the matter at hand than what lies ahead two weeks from now.
“(The double-bye) is a great opportunity for us and we’ve got to take advantage of it,” said freshman Bonzie Colson, whose 16 points against the Orange led the Irish for the second straight game.
“But we’ve got to get back to work because we’ve got Louisville on the road. This is behind us now and we’ve got to get ready for the next one.”
For what it’s worth – and its worth is merely a guideline – ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi dropped Notre Dame from a No. 3 NCAA tournament seed to a No. 4 in the Midwest, which would mean a date with No. 1 and undefeated Kentucky in the third game as opposed to the fourth – provided, of course, the Irish survive the first weekend.
How do the Irish stop the mini-slide?
“Leadership,” said Brey when asked to provide a reason as to why his team will weather this latest storm. “You feel really good about Jerian and Pat, their leadership. When they’ve taken a bullet, they’ve bounced back quick.
“I don’t think it changes our mindset. The biggest thing is how you play after a loss. Can you bounce back after a loss, and just try to keep it in the now and not think ahead?”
The potential for redemption is a week and a road trip to Louisville away.