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Gut Check Time

By Jamison Cook | January 24
Gut Check Time
Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey talks to an official earlier this season

Notre Dame Men's Basketball faces one of the biggest weeks in recent memory

The last week of January is a huge stretch for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team. In my opinion, the biggest week for the program since the 2017 NCAA Tournament, when the Irish beat Princeton in the First Round before falling to West Virginia. It has been four straight seasons without a Tournament appearance for Coach Brey and his team, but this week could go a long way towards ending that streak.

With matchups against NC State on Jan. 26th, Virginia on Jan. 29th, and Duke on Jan. 31st, Notre Dame has the opportunity to make a huge push for the top of the ACC. Even in a down year in the conference, beating these perennial powers goes a long way towards strengthening a Tournament resume.

NC State is 10-10 overall and just 3-6 in the ACC, but the Wolfpack are coming off a surprising 77-63 win over Virginia. Guard Dereon Seabron does everything for the Wolfpack, leading them in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. NC State does have a slightly deeper bench than Notre Dame, but most of their scoring is done by just three players. If the Irish can keep Seabron, Terquavion Smith, and Jericole Hellems in check, this is a very winnable game.

Virginia, despite the recent loss to NC State, is 11-8 overall and 5-4 in the ACC. The Cavaliers have been up and down as of late, and this may be a year where the Irish should knock off Tony Bennett and company. As usual, Virginia is a great defensive team that doesn’t score very much, and they only have two players averaging double figures. If Notre Dame can get out and run in transition and not allow Virginia to settle into a slow, halfcourt game, they should be in great shape. First one to 60 in this game wins.

Following Virginia is the game we have all been waiting for, especially after it was delayed from New Year’s Day. Coach K will visit Purcell for the last time in his storied career, and Duke will enter the game as a Top 10 team. The 15-3 Blue Devils have the same ACC record as the Irish at 5-2, and this game will have huge implications on the final conference standings. This game will also feature a duel between star freshmen, with Notre Dame guard Blake Wesley poised to take on Duke forward Paolo Banchero. Banchero is averaging 17.9 points per game and 7.9 rebounds per game to lead the Blue Devils, and Wendell Moore Jr. has had a breakout season with 15.2 points per game. This should be a much higher scoring affair than the Virginia game, and the atmosphere in Purcell is sure to be electric.

And while beating teams like Duke and Virginia may seem like a tall task for a team that fell to Virginia Tech and barely beat Howard a week ago, the Irish have a habit of winning games in which no one expects them to be competitive. For example, take a look at their wins over Kentucky and North Carolina. They also just beat Louisville by double digits on the road, using a dominant second half to pull away from the Cardinals. Freshman phenom Wesley continued to play at an extremely high level, recording 22 points that included a sequence in which he made back-to-back threes followed by an and one. Notre Dame had four players score in double figures and all seven players who saw the floor scored at least six points.

Additionally, the Irish are undefeated at home (as is the women’s basketball team), and Purcell Pavilion has become a tough place to play. Students have been coming out in droves to cheer on a team that is better than it has been in years. The last three men’s home games have all required a ticket lottery as more students applied for tickets than the University has to offer. Amazing what winning does for your program.

With all that in mind, the importance of this next week cannot be overstated both for this year’s team and for the program going forward. With the potential of a few big recruits coming to South Bend next season, winning late-season conference games and re-establishing themselves as a March Madness team would be a huge step in the right direction for Brey and the Irish.

This time next week, Notre Dame could still be red hot, having won four in a row and entering a massive matchup with Duke with Coach K on the sideline for the last time in Purcell. The level of excitement for that game on campus would be unprecedented during my time here, as the Irish have never been in position to make the postseason this late in the year since 2017.

This is the Notre Dame basketball program that I remember: competing for an ACC championship in January and February and preparing to make some noise in March. Next Monday will be an enormous day for Brey and his program, let’s hope the team marches into that game with confidence, not after stumbling through one of the biggest weeks for the program in recent memory.