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On the Bubble

By Jamison Cook | February 08
On the Bubble
Notre Dame forward Paul Atkinson Jr. drives against Miami

Notre Dame Men's Basketball off to best ACC start in program history

The Notre Dame men’s basketball team made it through their ridiculous home stretch by winning the games they were supposed to win. They took care of NC State and Virginia before shooting 27.9% in a blowout loss to Duke.

It seemed as if Notre Dame had shown us exactly who they were: an above average – but not great – team that is near the top of the ACC standings because the conference is in a down year. They would beat the teams they were supposed to beat but couldn’t quite compete with the elite teams.

But then the Irish went on the road – where they have not had a ton of success this season – and surprised everyone by knocking off Miami, who had been leading the ACC at the time. Paul Atkinson Jr. led the way with a dominant 23-point, 11-rebound double-double, while Prentiss Hubb and Dane Goodwin contributed 15 and 14 points, respectively. It was encouraging to see Notre Dame beat a good team despite a subpar performance from star freshman Blake Wesley, who scored just five points on 2-13 shooting.

They then followed up this upset with a 69-57 win at NC State that was one of the most balanced performances of the season. Five players scored in double figures, and the Irish shook off the loss of Nate Laszewski (lower leg injury) early in the game to hold off the Wolfpack. Wesley bounced back by shooting 7-13 for 14 points, and Atkinson recorded another double-double with 15 points and 10 boards. Hubb continued his midseason resurgence with 13 points, and Trey Wertz contributed 12 points off the bench.

The NC State game was a rollercoaster of a win, with Notre Dame building an early 19-3 lead before going down 38-37 with 15 minutes left in the second half. Ultimately, however, they took NC State’s best punch and responded with a double-digit win. It was a gritty display that was encouraging to see as an Irish fan. It provided some proof that they can win close games down the stretch.

But perhaps the most significant part of the win at NC State was the fact that it moved Notre Dame to 9-3 in the ACC, the best conference start in program history. Coach Brey has this team playing well and playing together, and his strict seven-man rotation is getting it done on both ends of the court. They play mostly turnover-free basketball, and they guard well without fouling. Goodwin and Wesley do most of the scoring, but Atkinson, Laszewski and Hubb seem to always contribute when called upon.

Now, after winning five out of their last six in the ACC, the Irish will return to Purcell Pavilion to host Louisville on Wednesday, Feb. 9th. Notre Dame beat the Cardinals on the road just over two weeks ago in convincing fashion, and they should be able to do so again on their home court. Students will be out in full force to support a team that is the best it has been in years and now looks like it has a legitimate shot at making the Tournament. ESPN currently has Notre Dame listed as one of the First Four teams out of the Tournament, but CBS Sports firmly has the Irish in as a 10 seed.

All that Notre Dame can do is continue to win. If they finish in the Top 3 in the ACC during the regular season, I believe they would be a lock for March Madness, barring a first-round collapse in the ACC Tournament. And as of now, their chances look pretty good given how the Irish are playing and how the conference is shaping up around them. Following Duke’s loss to Virginia on Monday night, Notre Dame is now tied for first in the ACC with the Blue Devils, Notre Dame’s best position in the standings to date this season.

Losing Laszewski - even for just a game - would be a major blow as the bench is very short, but that doesn’t seem likely given how optimistic Brey was about Laszewski’s chances to suit up against Louisville. Brey said of the injury: “It’s a bruise, nothing structural. Hopefully, [Nate] should be back Wednesday.”

This encouraging news clears the way for Notre Dame to continue to dominate at Purcell – where they are currently 9-1 – when they host the Cardinals. Looking ahead at the rest of their schedule, there are a lot of games in which the Irish should be favored. If all goes according to plan, Brey and co. should be looking at their first March Madness appearance since 2017.

Knock on wood.