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Tuesday, April 23, 2024
The Observer

Irish hope to recapture 2015 magic in Greensboro

As Mike Brey prepares to coach his final game on the Notre Dame sideline, in his final ACC Tournament, he gets to revisit the site of what he calls his “ultimate memory:” Notre Dame’s 2015 ACC Tournament championship. 

The Irish came into Greensboro eight years ago as the third-seeded team in the conference and proceeded to rattle off three wins in three days to claim their first and only ACC championship. They knocked off then-No.2 Duke in the semifinals before a memorable 90-82 victory over North Carolina in the championship game. Jerian Grant scored 24 points in the final game on his way to MVP honors. 

That was the last full tournament held in Greensboro–the previous edition, in 2020, saw the Irish pick up a dominant win over Boston College in the second round before college basketball–and the world–was shut down. The Irish would have then faced a 23-7 Virginia squad in the quarterfinals. “Maybe we dodged a bullet, not having to deal with them that night,” Brey joked last week. 

The Irish return to Greensboro Coliseum this week with hopes of recapturing some of that magic from eight years ago. But they will have a much more difficult path this time around. They enter the tournament on the heels of a disappointing season which led to a 14th-place finish in the conference. 

As if that alone wasn’t challenge enough, the Irish have yet to win a game away from Purcell Pavilion this year. They are 0-10 on the road and 0-2 in neutral site contests. 

11th-seeded Virginia Tech awaits Notre Dame in the first round. The Hokies started the season slowly, losing seven of their first eight conference games, but have since turned it around, finishing the year with an 8-12 ACC record. 

“They’re really gifted, and they got off to a very tough start, but I think they’re in gear now,” Brey said after the two squads met in South Bend on Feb. 11. The Hokies closed the regular season on a high note, defeating Louisville and Florida State by 17 and 22 points, respectively. 

The Hokies won that Feb. 11 matchup, 93-87, the two squads’ only meeting of the season, behind 33 points from forward Grant Basile. The graduate transfer from Wright State joined Virginia Tech in the offseason, after deciding between several teams, including Notre Dame. The Irish even hosted him for an official visit in April. 

Shutting down Basile will be critical if Notre Dame is to pull off the opening round upset Tuesday night. He leads the team with 16.5 points per game on the year. Forward Justyn Mutts will also play a key role for the Hokies–he scores 12.9 points per game while simultaneously leading the team in assists and rebounds. 

Graduate student forward Nate Laszewski scored a career-high 33 points in that contest to match Basile, but it wasn’t enough. The Irish will need Laszewski to have an impact on both ends of the floor Tuesday–he has struggled since, scoring in single figures in three of his six games after his career performance. 

Notre Dame will be without JJ Starling as the star freshman guard continues to deal with a bruised knee, per a report from the South Bend Tribune’s Tom Noie. It appears increasingly likely that Starling may have played his last game of the year, and with his future in South Bend uncertain, in an Irish uniform as well. Starling was named to the ACC All-Freshman team Monday, the only Irish player to receive conference honors. 

If the Irish manage to get past the Hokies, they would face sixth-seeded North Carolina State Wednesday night. The Irish dropped a heartbreaker in Raleigh, 85-82, in the team’s only meeting this year. After that, the quarterfinal matchup would be with a Clemson team who dominated Notre Dame in the season finale. 

It will not be an easy path for the Irish, but each game might very well be Brey’s last at Notre Dame–along with the six graduate students. With that thought as a motivator, perhaps Notre Dame can recapture a little bit of that 2015 magic. 

“Call me crazy, but I feel the exact same way about this group that I did when I was talking to you guys in June,” graduate student guard Cormac Ryan told reporters after Notre Dame’s Senior Night victory over Pittsburgh. “I wouldn’t want to play us in Greensboro.”