Notre Dame’s path to its historic run to the ACC tournament championship a year ago required a tall order – defeating Duke, the eventual national champion, and North Carolina in Greensboro.
This year’s trip will require a similar trek, only this time, chances are the Irish will have to begin with Duke in the quarterfinals and continue with North Carolina in the semifinals before perhaps the tallest of orders -- defeating either No. 2 seed Virginia or No. 3 seed Miami in the championship, two teams with which the Irish have struggled.
“It was important to go into D.C. with a little momentum,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey following Notre Dame’s 89-75 victory over North Carolina State Saturday, which set the stage for a double bye in the ACC tournament when the Tar Heels knocked off the Blue Demons to give Brey’s squad a No. 4 seed.
“It was important to find some kind of offensive rhythm again. If we would have lost 92-91, I would not have been (upset) because I would have been thinking, ‘Okay, we’re scoring that thing; we’ll figure the other stuff out later.’”
The victory – and quality performance – ended a streak of four games in which the Irish lost three times and averaged less than 60 points per outing, including 56 against Florida State last Saturday and 50 against Miami mid-week.
Notre Dame’s 89 points against the Wolfpack were the most scored by the Irish since tallying the same total at Clemson on Feb. 8.
“For us, as teachers, just be organized with these guys because they’re smart and they believe, and they really have each other’s back,” Brey said.
“After last year’s team, I didn’t know if I’d ever enjoy coaching a team as much as that one. This group is right there. I love coaching them. We’ve got interesting personalities and I am so excited to go into post-season play with them.”
While the ACC tournament kicks off at noon Tuesday with No. 12 seed N.C. State taking on No. 13 seed Wake Forest, it will be more than 48 hours later before the Irish take the hardwood at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
The No. 4 seed Irish will play the winner of N.C. State-Wake Forest vs. No. 5 seed Duke on Thursday at 2:00 p.m. ET. Notre Dame – which finished with the same record as the Blue Devils in conference play (11-7) – earned the spot ahead of Duke by virtue of its 95-91 victory in Cameron Indoor Stadium in January.
Waiting at the top of the bracket is No. 1 seed North Carolina, which will face off against the winner of No. 8 seed Pittsburgh vs. No. 9 seed Syracuse.
Notre Dame is 1-0 against both Duke and North Carolina this season. The Irish knocked off the No. 2 Tar Heels at Purcell Pavilion on Feb. 6.
But the Irish struggled mightily against Miami and Virginia. Notre Dame lost by nine at Miami and by 18 at home against the Hurricanes while the Cavaliers and head coach Tony Bennett continued their mastery over Notre Dame with another decisive victory (77-66) in Charlottesville in the ACC opener.
In other words, the journey back to the ACC championship game is, on paper, perhaps even more difficult than it was last season, although Duke likely isn’t national-championship caliber as it was a year ago and the games won’t be played along Tobacco Road.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has Notre Dame as a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament, which can be altered a spot or two during ACC tournament week. As a 7 seed, the Irish would open against a No. 10 seed – currently St. Mary’s, Virginia Commonwealth, Butler and South Carolina, according to Lunardi.
The winner of the No. 7 vs. No. 10 seed takes on the winner of the No. 2 vs. No. 15 seed in the second round. Current No. 2s on Lunardi’s board are Michigan State, Oklahoma, Miami and Xavier.
The Spartans are a prime candidate to move to a No. 1 slot with a strong showing in the Big Ten tournament. Lunardi has North Carolina, Virginia, Villanova and Kansas as his current No. 1s. Another potential 2 seed is Oregon, which won the Pac 12 regular season title Saturday.