SYRACUSE , N.Y. – Notre Dame has completed one-third of its Big East Conference schedule and looks incapable of winning a championship.
A season that began with player-stated expectations of nothing less than wire-to-wire contention for a league title is in danger of going off the rails in less than a month. The No. 12 Irish are now a mediocre 3-3 in the Big East, 12-5 overall after dropping a 93-74 decision to Syracuse before 30,021 at the raucous Carrier Dome.
"This one is on me," said junior Luke Harangody, who had 25 points and 16 rebounds but also missed 19 shots while being banged inside by the remarkably-improved Orange 6-9 post duo of Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson.
"I'm at the point in my career where I need to step up. I can't lay a goose-egg like that with my teammates counting on me."'
The defending Big East Player of the Year shouldn't be so hard on himself. There was plenty of blame to go around in this contest, lost before the largest college basketball crowd of the year.
"They came out and hit 3's like crazy, with a lot of energy, and I take the blame for not setting the tempo better," said point guard Tory Jackson, who was three-for-13 from the field, including one-for-six from three's.
The Central New York crowd – surely happy to be inside watching their beloved Orange after a week of near-zero temperatures – was in full throat start to finish as Syracuse (17-2, 5-1) whipped up an early 16-2 run to take a 26-14 lead less than nine minutes into the game. Notre Dame had a couple of gallant runs but never got closer than five the rest of the way.
"We have to do better with shot selection, especially on the road," said head coach Mike Brey, whose team shot 35 percent (27-for-76), with many of the misfires leading to spectacular Syracuse breakouts. "We gave the building an idea it was going to be a pretty good day right away."
The No. 8 Orange – with an extra spring in their step after losing Wednesday at Georgetown – had a stunning 39-11 advantage in fast break points, including a coast-to-coast lay-up by Onuaku.
"We gave up 10-12 uncontested baskets," said Jackson . "That is just unacceptable. The (Onuaku basket) just shouldn't happen."
Syracuse looked quicker and more athletic at every position. All five of its starters reached double-digits, with point guard Jonny Flynn (17 points, nine assists), Onuaku (19 points, eight rebounds), Jackson (14 and 10), and Paul Harris (15 and 10) playing particularly well. It was an effort that deserved the multiple standing ovations it received from the 30,000-plus.
"I think we were surprised early by how explosive they were," said senior Kyle McAlarney, who had a solid 24-point, five-assist effort. "We need to play better defense. We need to do a better job staying poised."
Poise wasn't supposed to be an issue with a team that starts three seniors and two juniors, but it apparently is. This team is just not getting it done on the road.
While the Irish have been assembling the nation's longest home winning streak, 45, they have been imminently beatable on the road.
Since beginning the home streak on March 4, 2006 with a victory over DePaul, Notre Dame is an astoundingly average 18-23 (.439) in road and neutral site contests. That record drops even more alarmingly to 7-13 (.350) in true road tilts.
That better change if the Irish want to contend for the top spot in the Big East and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Notre Dame, riding a two-game losing streak, will conclude this weekend no higher than eighth in the Big East and possibly as low as 10th.
"We knew we were going to take our punches," said McAlarney. "We're not happy about it, but it's not the end of the world."
True enough. But for the Irish to be successful, they need to have more than two offensive contributors. Senior Ryan Ayers showed a little more spunk, scoring 11 points on four-for-eight shooting, but starting forward Zach Hillesland was scoreless (all three of his shots were blocked) and Luke Zeller had as many fouls as points (five) in 16 minutes.
"Those guys," Brey said, referring to Hillesland and Zeller, "have to play well. We need them. I thought we would get a couple more baskets from (Zeller) today."
Syracuse led 42-35 at the half, extended to 56-40 with 14 minutes left. But with McAlarney and Harangody combining for 21 of next 29 points, it was a 74-69 contest with 5:55 remaining.
"One or two more stops," Brey said. "We just couldn't get them."
Flynn hit a floater, then got loose for an uncontested lay-up off an in-bounds pass. And the game slipped away for good after Flynn scored a transition hoop off a Hillesland turnover with just under three to play, restoring the lead to 10.
At about this time, the Syracuse student section launched into a "Just Like Football" chant. It was the final indignity.
While the last two seasons have been "feel goods" the Irish are now dealing with underachievement. Notre Dame scored no points in the final five minutes of regulation in its loss to Louisville Monday, and was outscored 19-5 in the final 5:12 of this one.
"In these frenzied atmospheres we've been in, we talked about how you can't let that speed you up," said Brey. "But it's easier to say that in the locker room. We have to be better. We have to get low-post feeds more consistently."
The Irish have to improve because it doesn't get easy any time soon. After a week off, the Irish host No. 4 Connecticut Saturday and No. 14 Marquette on January 26.
And those are teams that, at least so far, haven't blinked on the road. Heading into Saturday play, the top five teams in the Big East thus far (Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Marquette, Louisville and Syracuse) are a combined 15-1 in conference road tilts.
"You just have to laugh about it," Harangody said, talking about the quality of the Big East. "You can't get stressed out. And you have to get better."
(Alan Tieuli is the Editor-In-Chief of IrishEyes Magazine and can be reached at Tieuli@aatandsonspr.com)