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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
The Observer

Irish look for more late-season life against Demon Deacons

There can be something freeing in sports about letting go of expectations. A season that began with fairly high hopes for the Irish men's basketball reached the point of no return a while ago. Probably even sooner than when legendary head coach Mike Brey announced 2022-23 will be his final season on Jan. 19. The failure of the season and of most of the last six years was weighing down the entire program.

A reckoning is coming for the Irish not too far down the line. In some ways, what happens the rest of the way for this team does not really matter. But maybe that is exactly what the Irish need to return to the looseness that defined the best years of the Brey era. It certainly looked that way on Saturday. Notre Dame won in regulation for the first time in conference play, creating the smallest inkling of momentum heading into Saturday's clash with Wake Forest. Although that inkling is more like a supernova compared to the tsunami of disappointment that came before it.

Irish freshman guard JJ Starling lays the ball up against FSU on January 17.

Granted, Notre Dame's convincing 76-62 win on Saturday came against Louisville, perhaps the only more hapless team in the ACC. The loss dropped the Cardinals to 2-19 on the year and 0-10 in conference play. And it was not even as close as the score indicated. The Irish led by as many as 30 and led by double digits for the final 28 minutes. It was a rare glimpse where the Irish were everything they promised to be at the start of the season.

The play of underclassmen, especially standout freshmen guard J.J. Starling and forward Ven-Allen Lubin, is obviously the most important thing worth monitoring the rest of the way. Purely through that lens, Saturday was a mixed bag. Lubin missed the game due to a foot injury suffered Friday in practice, per the South Bend Tribune's Tom Noie. The injury is serious enough to keep Lubin out of Saturday's contest as well, as also reported by Noie.

However, Starling looked every bit the part of a McDonald's All-American, especially in the first 20 minutes. Starling went 8-9 from the field in the first half, punctuated with a textbook steal and slam to close the frame. Starling finished with a game-high 22 points and was second on the Irish with six rebounds. Graduate student forward Nate Laszewski, whose playing time was limited in Notre Dame's prior game due to foul trouble, put up 17 points on 3-4 shooting from beyond the arc with five boards to boot.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Notre Dame's victory against Louisville is it offered a blueprint for the Irish to follow the rest of the way. The Irish avoided sloppy mistakes or having their weaknesses exploited. They hung tight on rebounds, losing the margin by just three, notched 16 assists and finished plus-nine on turnovers and plus-12 on points off them.

Doing that against the abysmal Cardinals is one thing. Repeating it against a March Madness hopeful in Wake Forest would be quite another. While the Demon Deacons are a bit buried in the ACC standings — their 6-6 record in conference play is tied for eighth — they are on the edge of the bubble and a strong last month of the season could propel them into the tournament. So far, Notre Dame's only conference wins have come against the two teams below them in the ACC standings — Louisville and Georgia Tech. Beating the Demon Deacons would be a whole different echelon of victory.

It is not that the Irish are not capable of hanging with good teams. They have proven that with competitive games against top-six ACC teams in NC State and Miami. A game half as clean as the one they played Saturday might have been enough to win those games. While fixing these mistakes will not change this season's fate, getting things back in the right direction is always a good thing.

Of course, Wake Forest will not be eager to provide the Irish with a much-needed confidence boost. The Demon Deacons actually could be an ideal matchup for the Irish, who have struggled on defense all season. Wake Forest does the same, allowing 73 points per game, third-most in the conference. Like Notre Dame, Wake relies heavily on the three, shooting at nearly an identical clip and volume as the Irish while also defending them at a similarly poor rate. Better still, if the Irish can continue to protect the rock as they have done all season, they can mitigate one of Wake Forest's biggest strengths — their ability to force turnovers.

The similarities do not stop there. The Deacs also have four players in double figures scoring, with guard Tyree Appleby leading the way. The Florida transfer is a duel threat, ranking second in the ACC in points per game and first in assists. Damari Monsanto leads the conference in threes per game. Andrew Carr and Cameron Hildreth are just outside the top ten in rebounding in the ACC. The one obvious advantage Wake has is depth. Nine players average at least 10 minutes per game for them, compared to seven for the Irish (who might be at six if Ven-Allen Lubin cannot go).

Either way, the Irish and Demon Deacons meet for the first time this season Saturday at Purcell Pavilion. Tip-off is at 1 p.m. The game is available on local regional sports network and the Notre Dame Radio Network.