Clutch, experienced Notre Dame flying under the radar — as usual

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Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia has been at his best as a senior. (AP/Robert Franklin)

It wouldn’t have been the least bit out of line had Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey and his team done some serious squawking about the ACC media’s preseason rankings.

The Irish finished third in the ACC two seasons ago, and a year later they finished tied for fifth. More impressively, both seasons ended with the Irish knocking on the door to the Final Four.

Alas, the Irish — coming off back-to-back thrilling runs to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight — were picked to finish seventh in the 15-team ACC.

But we suppose that’s the sort of thing that can happen when a league has the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Louisville all fighting for the top spot. Those teams as well as Syracuse — which made the Final Four last season — and North Carolina State were, in the order listed above, the ACC media’s top six.

As it stands now, only one week into conference play, No. 23 Notre Dame is the last of seven ACC teams ranked in the AP’s Top 25. Not surprisingly, Duke, Louisville, Virginia and UNC are holding up their ends of the bargain. Surging Florida State and Virginia Tech are above the 12-2 Irish in the weekly poll, too.

But this week — with ninth-ranked, 12-2 Louisville and unranked, 11-2 Clemson visiting Purcell Arena — is a chance for the Irish to make a move.

Knocking off the Cardinals for what would be a hard-to-believe sixth straight time in South Bend would put Brey’s team at 2-0 in ACC play. The Irish are coming off a thrilling 78-77 overtime victory at Pittsburgh in which senior Steve Vasturia scored 10 of the team’s final 12 points, including the pair of free throws that forced the extra session and the three-pointer with two seconds left to play that won it.

“That guy has made more big shots in his career, you’ve just got to keep coming back to him,” Brey said. “I really thought when he got a clean look, I’d have been shocked if it didn’t go down.”

Vasturia is the perfect example of what Brey’s program does as well as any in the country — player development — which was perhaps the most important ingredient in each of those Elite Eight runs. Seniors Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton led the first one. Junior Demetrius Jackson and senior Zach Auguste led the second one.

Now it’s Vasturia who’s paving the way to another excellent season with career-high averages in points (14.4 points), assists, rebounds and steals and his best three-point percentage (43.8) yet. Fellow senior V.J. Beachem and junior Bonzie Colson also have been terrific.

Brey’s recent teams have been intelligent and extraordinarily clutch, and this group could be just the same. Notre Dame has won its last six overtime games in all, and 14 of its last 17.

“When I went into the huddle in overtime (at Pitt), our veterans were already talking about it,” Brey said. “I said, ‘Fellas, this is what we do.’ There’s a great psychological advantage for us right now because we’ve had success in overtime.”

Of course, coincidence or good luck doesn’t make six in a row and 14-3 happen. That’s good coaching. And it’s the product of the development of players who are eager to learn and get better.

More good stuff from what has been one of the most under-appreciated programs in college basketball.


There was an interesting exchange last week between Illinois coach John Groce and a Champaign television reporter. This was a few days after the Illini were blown out by 25 points at Maryland in their Big Ten opener.

“What’s your message to fans who are obviously frustrated?” was the perfectly reasonable question asked of a fifth-year coach whose teams have missed the last three NCAA tourneys.

For a moment, Groce appeared to be stunned by it.

“What kind of question is that?” he muttered. “Goodness gracious.”

Fact is, many fans are quite frustrated with Groce and his program. The Illini are a respectable 11-4 — and coming off an important home victory over Ohio State to even their league mark at 1-1 — but getting to the Big Dance might be a long shot this season.

Groce is under contract through the 2018-19 campaign, but will he get there? Many believe the key for him is surviving until next season, when Illinois is expected to have one of the top freshman classes in the country.

Yet it’ll be difficult even then for the Illini to get to March with high hopes. The current team has so many seniors in key roles — Malcolm Hill, Tracy Abrams, Maverick Morgan, Mike Thorne Jr., Jaylon Tate — it won’t be easy to replace them.

To date, the media haven’t given Groce a particularly hard time. If the losses start piling up, he’d better be ready for one unwelcome question after another.


No. 1 Villanova at No. 18 Butler (Wednesday, 5:30 p.m., FS1): It’s beginning to look every bit like the Wildcats can be as good as they were last season, when they won it all. Josh Hart has become a superstar, Kris “Mr. Big Shot” Jenkins always is a threat — and check out former Stevenson star Jalen Brunson, who’s coming off a 27-point outing. Hinkle Fieldhouse is one tough place to play, though.

No. 9 Louisville at No. 23 Notre Dame (Wednesday, 8 p.m., WCIU): We can’t say for sure who’s going to win, but we know it’ll happen in overtime. Seriously, six of the last 13 meetings between Mike Brey’s and Rick Pitino’s programs have required more than 40 minutes of game time. Remember the Irish’s five-OT, 104-101 victory in 2013? We wouldn’t mind watching another one of those.

No. 21 Virginia Tech at No. 12 Florida State (Saturday, 1 p.m., ACCN): Forget winning the Orange Bowl — FSU is 14-1 overall and off to a 2-0 ACC start in hoops. Are Dwayne Bacon, Jonathan Isaac and the Seminoles the next team to make a major move in this league, as Virginia and Notre Dame have in recent seasons? The Hokies, meanwhile, have been every bit as impressive. Just ask Duke, which lost to them by 14 on New Year’s Eve.

No. 13 Wisconsin at No. 20 Purdue (Sunday, 3:30 p.m., Ch. 2): It’s early, but it won’t be the slightest bit surprising if these are the two teams that end up at the front of the Big Ten race, leaning for the tape. Can versatile, highly skilled Badgers big guys Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ hold their own against the Boilermakers’ massive duo of Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan?

Oklahoma State at No. 2 Baylor (Sunday, 6 p.m., ESPNews): Don’t be fooled by the fact the Cowboys are unranked — they’re wickedly dangerous, scoring in excess of 90 points per game. Did we mention the defense-fueled Bears are allowing well under 60 points per game? Whichever team sets the pace should win.


Up: Minnesota. Who saw these Gophers coming? They’re 13-2, have won seven of eight (the lone defeat coming in overtime against Michigan State) and just shocked Purdue in West Lafayette. Maybe coach Richard Pitino is going to make it in this business after all.

Down: Syracuse. From the Final Four to a bumbling 8-6 start? Jim Boeheim already is praying for an unlikely spot on the NCAA tourney bubble.

Up: Freshmen. UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf. Kentucky’s Malink Monk and De’Aaron Fox. Washington’s Markelle Fultz. Kansas’ Josh Jackson. Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen. Florida State’s Isaac. They’re everywhere this year, and they are spectacular.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.


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