The assumption is that because Mike Brey plays with such a short bench, by the time his basketball team reaches the end of the regular season, the players are functioning on fumes and the Irish stagger to the finish line.
The results say otherwise.
In 10 of his 14 previous seasons at Notre Dame, the Irish have won their final regular-season game. In fact, up until the last two seasons – when the Irish closed at Louisville and couldn’t pull out a two-point loss at North Carolina last year – Notre Dame had won at least its final regular-season game seven years in a row.
Notre Dame actually closed the regular season in spectacular fashion in 2006-07, 2007-08, 2009-10 and 2010-11.
• 2006-07: The Irish were just 6-5 in Big East play with five regular-season games remaining. They won them all, defeating Providence at home (by 3), Cincinnati on the road (by 12), DePaul at home (by 24), Marquette at home (by 12), and Rutgers on the road (by 7) to land an NCAA tournament bid with an 11-5 conference mark.
• 2007-08: Through 11 Big East games, the Irish were 8-3 with seven games remaining. Notre Dame won six of its last seven, including each of their last three (at DePaul by 7; at home against St. John’s by 13; and at South Florida by 7). The Irish also defeated Pittsburgh at home (by 12) and Syracuse at home (by 7) with the only blemish in the final seven games coming at Louisville (by 5).
• 2009-10: Notre Dame was a dismal 6-8 in conference play with four games to go – without the school’s No. 2 all-time leading scorer, Luke Harangody, due to a knee injury. Yet the Irish defeated No. 12 Pittsburgh at home (by 15), No. 11 Georgetown on the road (by 14), Connecticut at home (by 8), and Marquette on the road (by 3) as Harangody returned in an off-the-bench role for the final regular-season game. Notre Dame won a couple of games in the Big East tournament to qualify for the Big Dance.
• 2010-11: There wasn’t much doubt about qualifying for the NCAA tournament at 10-4 with the Irish ranked solidly within the top 15 all conference season. But Notre Dame left no doubt by closing with four victories to cap the regular season: at Providence (by 1), at home over Seton Hall (by 12), at home against No. 19 Villanova (by 21), and at No. 16 Connecticut (by 3). The Irish then demolished Cincinnati (by 38) in the Big East tournament before falling to Louisville, and then landing a No. 2 NCAA tournament seed.
Today, with its second Saturday off in the last three weeks as the rest of the ACC catches up, Notre Dame (12-4) currently sits in third place in the ACC, three games behind No. 1 Virginia (14-1) and a game behind No. 2 Duke (12-3), which split with the Irish during the regular season, but pounded Notre Dame by 30 in the rematch.
Even with a loss to Louisville (10-5) this coming Wednesday, the Irish have an excellent chance of finishing as the No. 3 seed for the ACC tournament, which is somewhat of a pick-your-poison proposition over finishing as the No. 4 seed.
Louisville is at Florida State Saturday, at home against Notre Dame, and then closes at home against Virginia. So if Notre Dame loses to Louisville and beats Clemson, and Louisville loses at Florida State or versus Virginia, the Irish would take the No. 3 seed heading into the ACC tournament. Here’s where the pick-your-poison proposition comes in.
As the No. 3 seed, the Irish would play Thursday night (9 p.m. ET) against the winner of the No. 6 seed (N.C. State, Pittsburgh or Miami) versus the winner of seeds 11 and 14.
As the No. 4 seed, Notre Dame would play at 2 p.m. – a much better time slot – against the winner of the No. 5 seed versus the 12-13 winner. (Note: Keep in mind that current No. 6 Syracuse will be ineligible for post-season play.)
The current No. 5 seed is North Carolina, whom the Irish defeated in Chapel Hill early in conference play. That would be a pretty tough first game to play, particularly with the wealth of talent the Tar Heels are capable of unleashing when they put it all together.
And yet as the No. 3 seed, presumably after getting by North Carolina State, Pittsburgh or Miami, the Irish would have to play No. 2 seed Duke in Greensboro, which is a home game for the Blue Devils, as would be a match against North Carolina in Notre Dame’s first ACC tournament game.
As the No. 4 seed, even if the Irish got by North Carolina, they’d have to play Virginia, and Tony Bennett-coached squads have a proverbial hex on Mike Brey-coached teams.
Any way you slice it, the Irish are going to have to go through a likely Pittsburgh-Duke-Virginia gauntlet as the No. 3 seed or a North Carolina-Virginia-Duke troika as a No. 4. The former of the two scenarios is more attractive, although the opening time slot is not.
But first things first. A trip to Louisville, which Notre Dame is capable of winning considering a) Louisville just lost is third-leading scorer and b) the Cardinals are not the most cohesive bunch that Rick Pitino has coached.
There is an outside chance that Duke – winners of eight straight since losing to the Irish in late-January – falls to Syracuse and at North Carolina with the Irish winning both of their remaining games to snag the No. 2 seed. But counting on the Blue Devils losing two of their last three is pretty much a hope and a prayer.
Bottom line: The Irish shouldn’t be stumbling to the finish line this season because a) Brey’s teams rarely do and b) Notre Dame will have closed the regular season with five games in 25 days, hardly a backbreaking conclusion to what has been a pleasant and productive 2014-15 conference campaign.