INDIANAPOLIS -- So, Mike Brey, how’s that preparation for Notre Dame’s first season in the ACC going?
“There ain’t nobody on our bandwagon,” he was saying in a Bankers Life Fieldhouse hallway Saturday. “We’ve been the most analyzed team and program in the country.”
The relief in his voice on this winter’s day was as subtle as a snowball in the face. He sounded like a man who had just dodged a falling meteorite. The Irish had won a game against Indiana 79-72, and all it did was save the week, probably the month, and perhaps the season.
To understand why, let’s review what has happened to the team ranked No. 21 in the preseason Associated Press college basketball poll.
First, Notre Dame was beaten at home by Indiana State. Brey had gone 48-0 in South Bend in November. Ouch.
Next, the Irish visited Iowa for the first time in 63 years, shot 51.5 percent, committed only seven turnovers, but still managed to lose 98-93 in overtime. On defense, they couldn’t stop the popcorn man. Double ouch.
Last Wednesday, they were stunned at home by North Dakota State, a school they’d never played before. Another home loss to another mid-major. That’s waking up the wrong echoes. Triple ouch.
“Guys,” leading scorer Jerian Grant mentioned, “were hurting.”
Which brings us to this past Saturday, when the Irish (8-3) applied a defibrillator to their season, and not a day too soon, with their inaugural ACC cruise leaving port soon.
“We’re not stupid,” center Garrick Sherman noted. “We knew we had to win this one. We had to turn it around, there wasn’t an option. The sense of urgency was through the roof.”
No, they’re not stupid.
“Nobody on this team likes to lose,” Pat Connaughton said. “I guess nobody on any team likes to lose, but we’ve been together for so long, we feel like when we lose we’re letting each other down. That’s not something that feels good.”
No, they haven’t been feeling good.
“After Wednesday night, you’re thinking, if you come here and take this punch, who are you going to be?” Brey said.
No, there was not an easy answer for that.
But now that Notre Dame has shut down Indiana, before a Hoosier-heavy crowd in Indianapolis, the mission ahead seems a tad less daunting. “It gives you some life,” Brey said.
The Irish will not go gingerly into their first ACC season, as if they were entering a cold swimming pool. Their first league game in history is with Duke. Before that, there is still a nonconference game against Ohio State.
So the Indiana win was nicely timed, just when outsiders were beginning to size up Notre Dame as a possible flop-of-the-year candidate. Another defeat might have really shaken the confidence, and it is not hard to imagine what could happen to an unsure team in a league that takes no prisoners.
North Dakota State? What’s going to happen against North Carolina and Syracuse?
Brey is relying on the savvy from having three seniors in the starting lineup and a grad student coming off the bench. “They’re old guys, they know. We’ve got to be better, or this could get really ugly.”
What’s a coach to do when December brings a mini-crisis? Brey refused to let his players watch one second of the North Dakota State game film, rested them Thursday, scrimmaged them Friday to try to get the blood pumping, and did not send anyone to solitary confinement or the hot box.
“The loosest coach in America right here,” he said. “I’m not going to get uptight with them. They’re their own worst critics when they don’t do well. They don’t need me.”
Then he sent them out there Saturday to take down Indiana. No team anywhere this season has probably had a more medicinal victory. So bring on the ACC soon.
“We know we have flaws that have to be fixed,” Sherman said. “We were panicked. We know we have good players, we have experienced guys, we know what we’re capable of.
“It looked worse to the outside than it really was.”
Connaughton said the Indiana game showed what the Irish can do at full focus. “But we’re not good enough to do it in spurts. We have to do it all the time.”
Saturday, for instance. Against unbeaten Ohio State.
“This slows the bleeding a little bit,” Brey said. “Next Saturday would stop the bleeding.”