Ready to be impressed with Notre Dame basketball? Maybe even see it in a new, more-flattering light?
Dig this: The Irish haven’t lost back-to-back games since the 2013-14 season.
You almost can count on one hand the other Division I programs that can boast of the same achievement. Kentucky and Kansas are two of them, both giants, of course. The others, including Villanova and Maryland, are proud programs that seem to be ascending to new levels.
Can the same be said of the Irish?
They were 32-6 last season, winning the ACC tournament and reaching the Elite Eight. A little over 10 months since they came tantalizingly close to beating Kentucky and summiting the Final Four mountain, they’re 15-6 and unranked. So, ascending? OK, maybe not quite.
Yet Notre Dame’s 6-3 mark in ACC play has put it in position to play meaningful games from here on out. Beginning Wednesday night at Miami, the Irish will face four consecutive opponents that are in contention for the league’s regular-season title.
When you have a way of never losing two in a row, a four-game gauntlet of Miami, North Carolina, Clemson and Louisville somehow doesn’t seem so daunting.
“To rip off four in a row may not be realistic against the schedule we have coming up,” said coach Mike Brey, “but one of the things I’m really proud of is the ability we’ve shown to bounce back when we have to.”
A year ago at this time, Notre Dame was ranked in the top 10 but about to be destroyed 90-60 at Duke in front of a national CBS audience. When that embarrassing debacle happened, many figured the Irish had been outed as pretenders.
But Brey’s team won a two-point game at Clemson three nights later, got sensationally hot from there and completed the best season in the coach’s 15 years at the school.
Early Tuesday afternoon, as Brey gathered his things for an important trip to South Florida to take on the 17th-ranked Hurricanes, I asked him if his 16th Irish team can peak at the right time and carry on the postseason legacy of last year’s senior stars, Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton.
It would come as a surprise to many around the country, for sure. But to Brey?
“We lost two NBA players, an All-American [Grant], two great leaders,” he said, “but I’m very pleased with what we’ve got. I’m very pleased with Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste and their leadership.
“The thing I keep reminding our ground and our staff is that, yeah, I think we’ll continue to improve and find our identity right up until the NCAA Tournament and in March.”
Late last March, the Irish were felled by a Kentucky juggernaut that hadn’t lost a game all season. In 2015-16, pretty much everybody seems beatable. In the endlessly competitive ACC — where defending national champ Duke is down, and Virginia has yet to separate from the pack — the conference tourney will be there for the taking.
Look, it’s February. This is when we’re supposed to start talking about these things.
“We’ll find out who we are,” Brey said.
The next four games will be a great indication of that.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
No. 10 Michigan State at Michigan (Saturday, 1 p.m., Ch. 2): No doubt, the hot-again Spartans have kicked it into a higher gear. But the Wolverines have been remarkably resilient over the month-plus since Caris LeVert was knocked out of the lineup with an injury; Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin and Duncan Robinson all have come up big offensively. Michigan has won four of the last five at home in this series.
No. 3 Villanova at No. 11 Providence (Saturday, 1:30 p.m., FS1): Villanova enters Wednesday’s date with Creighton having won 23 of its last 24 Big East games, positioning it as the clear favorite in the most under-discussed league in college basketball. Yet the lone loss came just two Sundays ago on the Wildcats’ home court, where they were toppled in overtime by — did you guess it? — Providence. The Friars’ Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil may be the best one-two punch in the country.
No. 18 Purdue at No. 4 Maryland (Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN): The Boilermakers will have had a full week to collect themselves after a solid, if somewhat disappointing, 7-3 start to the Big Ten campaign. Yo, senior seven-footer A.J. Hammons, are you ready to teach Terps freshman star Diamond Stone a few lessons? We never know which Hammons we’re going to get in big games like this one.
Up: No. 9 Virginia. After staggering out of the gate to a 2-3 start in league play, the two-time-defending ACC regular-season champs have won four straight and appear to be completely locked in.
Down: No. 12 SMU. At 18-0 but ineligible for the postseason, Larry Brown’s Mustangs were becoming quite the story. At 19-2 after losing two of their last three, not so much.
Up: Tyler Ulis, Kentucky. The Wildcats aren’t the Goliaths they were a season ago, but don’t miss what’s happening with Ulis, the 5-9 point guard and former Marian Catholic star. He’s binge-scoring. He’s climbing the national rankings in assists. Simply put, he’s blossoming into an eventual All-American.
Um, down: Duke. Or should we say, unranked-for-the-first-time-in-more-than-eight-years Duke. That Krzyzewski kid will never make it in this business.
10.0: This almost surely will the 21st season out of the last 22, and the 27th in 29, when no player in college basketball averages double-figure assists. (Oakland’s Kahlil Felder has the national lead, with 8.8 per game.) Since Southern’s Avery Johnson averaged 10.7 in 1986-87 and an amazing 13.3 the following season, only LIU Brooklyn’s Jason Brickman (an even 10 in 2013-14) has pulled it off.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.