When it was announced that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish would join Syracuse and Pittsburgh as invaders to the ACC from the Big East to start the 2013-14 college basketball season, many thought that the former Big East trio would join North Carolina and Duke in a five-way battle at the top of the ACC that would leave everybody else on the outside looking in.
A 79-77 win over Duke in South Bend on Jan. 4 got Notre Dame’s conference season off to a great start and seemed to confirm many people’s suspicions about what role the Fighting Irish were going to play in the ACC race. But in five conference games since that win over the Blue Devils, Notre Dame has won just once and that was over a confirmed bottom-feeder in Virginia Tech.
More troubling for the Fighting Irish, the losses weren’t necessarily to ACC powerhouses. Notre Dame somehow found a way to lose three consecutive games to N.C. State, Georgia Tech and Maryland — three teams whose combined conference record currently stands at 7-11.
On Tuesday night, Notre Dame might have put another nail in the coffin containing its NCAA Tournament selection hopes with a 76-74 loss at the Florida State Seminoles. On its own, that loss isn’t that bad. Florida State is 7-1 at home this year and the only loss was to Virginia, who is currently 5-1 in the conference and tied with Pittsburgh for second place.
But when you combine Tuesday’s loss with those aforementioned defeats, the Fighting Irish are 2-4 in the ACC. With only a modest 11-8 overall record, saying Notre Dame is even on the NCAA Tournament bubble right now might be a serious stretch. The good news for Notre Dame is that of its final 12 conference games, only five are against teams that currently have winning ACC records. The Fighting Irish have to play Virginia twice, as well as one game each against Clemson, Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
To make the NCAA Tournament, or to even avoid a low seed in the ACC Tournament, Notre Dame is going to have to win two or three of those games, and go a healthy 6-1 or so against the rest of the schedule. Losing then-top scorer Jerian Grant to academic issues certainly has hurt the Fighting Irish. Their defense has been a question mark all season, so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Notre Dame is struggling. Garrick Sherman, Eric Atkins and Pat Connaughton combine for 43 of Notre Dame’s 77 points per game. But if any of that trio has an off night, Notre Dame will struggle.
That was seen Tuesday in the loss at Florida State, as Atkins had 24 points to lead the Fighting Irish, while Sherman scored 21. But Connaughton managed just nine on 3-for-12 shooting from the field. Any more of a contribution from him and Notre Dame might have gotten out of Tallahassee with a badly needed road win. Instead, it was the Fighting Irish’s fourth loss in six conference games and coach Mike Brey and his players are now left with the knowledge that a major turnaround is required for Notre Dame to make the NCAA Tournament.