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Friday, March 1, 2024
The Observer

Irish vie for tournament bid in final five-game stretch

The Notre Dame men’s basketball team encountered yet another speed bump on the road to the post-season this week.

Slated to host Clemson (13-5, 7-5 ACC) in a conference matchup Wednesday, COVID issues left the Tiger program unable to make the trip, causing the Irish (9-10, 6-7) to cancel a home game for the fourth time this season. Despite head coach Mike Brey’s best efforts, no replacement game was scheduled, resulting in the fifth unexpected pause the Irish experienced this season. Having beaten Miami on Sunday and scheduled to travel to Syracuse on Saturday, Notre Dame has been without a contest for five consecutive days this week, the fourth time they’ve had a break at least that long this season. It’s the eighth scheduled Notre Dame game that’s been impacted by the virus.

The Clemson cancellation comes at a particularly unfortunate time for the Irish, who have won six of their last eight games, tripling their ACC win-total in the process.

“Very frustrating because we’re playing well,” Brey said of the cancellation. “It’s a week to make a move: [Sunday] with Miami, Clemson coming Wednesday, at Syracuse and Louisville — their [NCAA Evaluation Tool] is all higher than ours. They’re all Quad-Ones, … so it’s been a little frustrating.”

Quad One refers to an NCAA classification of wins, which ranks opponents according to their projected tournament seeding. Victories in Quadrant One are classified as those home games won against top-30 opponents, neutral games won against top 50 opponents and away games won against top-75 opponents. The selection committee uses such wins to evaluate a team’s resume and explain its inclusion in or exclusion from the post-season tournament.

“We’re going to have to win some of those to talk about having a shot at that thing,” Brey said.

Photo Courtousey of ND Athletics
Irish graduate student forward Juwan Durham contests an opponents shot during Notre Dame's narrow 80-82 loss to Georgia Tech at McCamish Pavilion on Feb. 6.

Notre Dame has five games left to close the gap on a tournament bid, with Selection Sunday taking place in less than a month on March 14. Currently, six ACC teams are expected to qualify, leaving the Irish, No. 10 in the conference, on the outside looking in. If the Irish miss the tournament, it will be the third consecutive season they’ve done so (excluding 2020 such that March Madness was canceled).

Despite their position in the ACC table, Notre Dame has picked up a few marquee wins this year — notably beating Duke at Cameron Indoor for just the second time in program history, as well as topping Kentucky in Rupp Arena for the first time ever. Brey remarked that the experience his team has helped propel them to victory in each of those cases, a factor that will be critical in finishing the 2020-2021 season strong.

“We’re a little older,” Brey said. “No program has been able to get into much of a consistent rhythm. When young guys can’t get reps and rhythm, it’s really going to show. Old guys can miss some practices.”

The youngest player in Brey’s seven-man rotation is a junior. His starting five are averaging 31.68 minutes a game. Syracuse faces a similarly thin roster, relying heavily on a six-man rotation, but the Orange lineup includes a more mixed bag age-wise, featuring guys across all age groups.

Coming into the matchup, Syracuse has won six ACC games just as Notre Dame has, but the Orange boast a stronger overall record of 12-6. They are 10-1 at home, having lost to Pittsburgh on a last-second three in early January after leading the entire game. Syracuse is riding a two-game win streak, defeating NC State on the road 77-68 and Boston College at home 75-67.

In terms of common opponents, Syracuse defeated Virginia Tech by 18 four days before the Hokies bested the Irish by 11. Both Notre Dame and Syracuse have beaten Boston College and Miami by 10 or more.

The Irish are 3-1 when playing after cancelled or postponed game and are currently the only team in the country with two players shooting better than .600 on at least 125 field goal attempts — Nate Laszewski with .652 and Juwan Durham with .602. Senior forward Durham leads the entire ACC in field goal percentage during conference play (.633), though Laszewski is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 15.2 points per game. The junior forward is also the team’s leading rebounder, averaging 7.5 a contest. Offensively, the sharp-shooting duo is assisted by junior guard Prentiss Hubb, who’s averaging 14.0 points himself. Hubb leads the team in assists with six a game, having embraced his role as a true point guard, not a shooting guard, in the latter half of the season.

On the other side of the court, Syracuse has a shooting trio of its own in junior forward Alan Griffin, sophomore forward Quincy Guerrier and junior guard Buddy Boeheim, who average 15.8, 15.5 and 14.3 points per game, respectively. At seventh in the conference, the Orange are poised to be the first ACC team out, and among the eight first overall teams out, of the NCAA tournament. Syracuse has played in nine of the last 11 NCAA tournaments, including the last two that have been played.

The meeting between Notre Dame and Syracuse in the Carrier Dome on Saturday will be each team’s chance to close in on a spot in the Madness. Tipoff is scheduled for 2 p.m.