NOTRE DAME, Ind. – At the halfway point of the ACC basketball season, Notre Dame sits near the top of the leaderboard, tied for third with four other teams.
The Irish have easily made the cut.
Now comes the back nine. Be ready for some blind shots, sharp doglegs and plenty of sand and water hazards.
“We’re under par on the first nine holes at 6-3,” said Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey following Notre Dame’s 85-62 stroll-in-the-park victory over Wake Forest Sunday at Purcell Pavilion.
“The back nine of this ACC course is much harder and we’re well aware of that.”
With a victory at struggling Duke the highlight of the first half of the ACC course, the Irish must take on a series of conference frontrunners over the next two weeks, and if that meat grinder hasn’t taken its toll by then, the Irish follow that up with a three-game road trip.
“This will be one heckuva test,” Brey said.
After falling to 1-2 in conference play with an 86-82 home loss to Pittsburgh on Jan. 9, the Irish reeled off four wins in a row and five out of six, including that stunning 95-91 victory at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.
But alas, reality hits home quickly. First, the Blue Devils’ loss to the Irish would be one of four in a five-game stretch. Second, the back nine will challenge Notre Dame like an elite links course.
Notre Dame had it pretty easy in the first half of the ACC schedule. In addition to the victory over Duke, there are two victories against ACC-winless Boston College, Sunday’s win over 1-8 Wake Forest, a home win over 2-6 Georgia Tech, and a hard-fought home victory against overachieving Virginia Tech, which is now 4-5 in ACC play.
In other words, five of Notre Dame’s six conference victories have come against the 11th- (Virginia Tech), 12th- (Georgia Tech), 14th- (Wake Forest) and 15th-place (Boston College) teams in the ACC.
Notre Dame’s losses were at Virginia and at home against Pittsburgh – both tied for third in the ACC – and resurgent Syracuse, which has won five of six and is eighth in the league.
The combined record of the first nine ACC opponents is 112-80, including a telling 28-50 ACC mark.
Over the final nine games and, in particular, the next two weeks, the Irish must play four ranked teams, including at No. 15-ranked Miami Wednesday, at home against No. 2 North Carolina Saturday, at Clemson (Feb. 8) – which is tied for third with Notre Dame, Virginia and Pittsburgh – and then back home to take on No. 16 Louisville (Feb. 13).
The one unranked opponent among the next four -- Clemson -- was ranked before losses at Virginia and at Florida State the last two weeks.
The Irish get a “break” after that with games against Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Florida State – currently 13th in the ACC – although all three are away from home during the dog days of February conference play.
The Irish conclude the regular season with two games at home -- struggling but long and talented North Carolina State, and Miami – which could help soften the blow of the next three weeks, or complete a sporadic back nine against mostly quality competition.
The combined record of the last nine opponents is 129-60 overall and 39-37 in ACC play. Four of the nine games are against teams currently in the top seven of the conference.
If the Irish go 5-4 in their final nine ACC games, they’ll finish 11-7 in ACC play, which easily would qualify for the NCAA tournament. A 4-5 mark to finish 10-8 would get the job done as well, although seeding would be less favorable. A 9-9 overall mark – meaning a 3-6 finish – might put Notre Dame on the bubble, depending upon how the Irish perform against the ACC’s best down the stretch.
The Irish have not lost two games in a row since the last game of the 2013-14 regular season and the first round of the ACC tournament.
“I love our bounce-back mode,” Brey said. “We’re been pretty consistent with that. We’re going to need it a bunch here coming up because February and early March are quite a challenge.”