Avoiding the back-to-back blues

The degree of difficulty of going through an entire season without back-to-back losses while playing in a conference is high. Digger Phelps did it – pre-conference days – four times, first in 1973-74 when the Irish went 26-3, and three times within a five-year span in the ‘80s.

Nothing allows doubt to creep into the minds of a team more than a loss…unless it’s multiple losses in a row.

Losing streaks shatter confidence and create vulnerability. Teams that can put an end to a bad patch with a victory immediately following a loss show confidence, resilience, basketball talent and – perhaps above all – leadership.

Seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant epitomize the quality leadership the Irish have had in 2014-15. Playing their final home game at Purcell Pavilion Saturday against Clemson, they have a chance to complete their final season in a Notre Dame uniform without having lost back-to-back games.

The Irish lost just one non-conference game – to Providence in Connecticut in late-November – but then bounced back with a convincing victory over Grambling State at home.

When the Irish fell to Virginia at home on Jan. 10, Notre Dame responded with a come-from-behind, three-point victory at Georgia Tech.

A loss at Pittsburgh on the last day of January was followed by a first-half explosion and eventual eight-point victory over Boston College. When Duke blew out Notre Dame in Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Irish traveled to Clemson and pulled out a two-point victory.

The greatest threat to avoiding a losing streak this season came after a five-point home loss to Syracuse at home on Feb. 24, followed by an eight-day layoff between games. But the Irish traveled to snowy Louisville earlier this week and handed the Cardinals a 12-point defeat.

A Mike Brey-coached Notre Dame team has not gone an entire season without at least a two-game losing streak. Even the 2010-11 squad that finished 27-7 lost back-to-back road games to Marquette and St. John’s. The 2007-08 team dropped back-to-back November games to Baylor and Georgia Tech.

The last time a Notre Dame team did not suffer at least a two-game losing streak in a season was 1988-89 – the 18th of Digger Phelps’ 20 seasons with the Irish. That squad – captained by Joe Fredrick and Jamere Jackson – lost nine times, including a second-round NCAA tournament game to Georgetown, but never back-to-back games. Of course, the Irish weren’t in a conference yet.

Under Phelps, the Irish had four seasons without back-to-back losses. The first came in 1973-74 when they went 26-3. The other three came within a five-year stretch in the ‘80s.

Virginia and Notre Dame are the only two ACC teams that have not lost two games in a row this season.

The following scenarios will allow the Irish to avoid a two-game losing streak for the first time in the Mike Brey era: 1) a victory today over Clemson and a win in the first game of the NCAA tournament, 2) winning the ACC tournament and 3) a win over Clemson and winning the NCAA tournament.

Obviously, tournament championships are a longshot. The Irish have never played in a conference tournament championship game. Notre Dame has been to just one Final Four – 1977-78 – and has not won a national title in basketball.

But this is Brey’s best chance for post-season success to date. Avoiding losing streaks during the regular season shows a resiliency that should pay dividends, at least through the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

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