Saturday marked the end of Notre Dame’s fifth ACC regular season. In a hard-fought battle, Mike Brey’s squad attempted to claw to 9-9 in the league. Sadly, the Irish fell short and top-ranked Virginia prevailed 62-57. In only his second game back from injury, Bonzie Colson put up another heroic performance. In the end, Notre Dame ran out of gas. Too many questionable calls going the wrong way, too many empty possessions late, and too much bad luck in a season that has been defined by it. Notre Dame finishes 8-10 in ACC play and slips to the 10 seed in the ACC Tournament.
The loss keeps Notre Dame entrenched in many bracketologist’s “first four out” bucket. The Irish represent a great talking point for TV producers looking to stir discussion about this year’s NCAA Tournament field. If only crooked ACC officiating had not stolen Notre Dame’s home victory over UNC, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, but here we are.
— Notre Dame MBB (@NDmbb) March 5, 2018
The Irish walk in to the 2018 ACC Tournament in Brooklyn needing a series of impressive performances to play their way into the dance. Unlike 2014, when a broken and beaten team flamed out on the first day, this Irish squad has a chance to do some damage. Let’s walk through the Irish path in New York…
First up is Pitt. Like BC in 2016, the Panthers failed to win a single regular season ACC game. Sporting a KenPom rating of 236, Kevin Stalling’s bunch has spent the entire season overmatched. While I expect Pitt to put in a lot of effort, the Irish should cruise. Not much has changed for either side since last week’s game. I can see two sides of the coin for drawing the Panthers first. On the one hand, this is a game that has zero resume value. Beating a beaten team on a neutral floor isn’t going to impress anyone. However, it is another game for Bonzie Colson to play his way in to shape. If the Irish can get comfortably ahead of Pitt, Colson can get minutes without having to go all 40. Similarly, there’s no reason to extend Matt Farrell, TJ Gibbs, or Rex Pflueger to 40 minutes Tuesday afternoon. This game also lets young contributors like Nik Djogo, John Mooney, and Elijah Burns get their feet wet in tournament play. ND’s veterans have good feelings in the Barclay’s center. It would be great to help the young guys get some good mojo going early. If ND is going to go far, one or two of the three young guys is going to have to play valuable minutes.
If the Irish perform as expected over Pitt, Virginia Tech awaits Wednesday evening. Virginia Tech managed to escape South Bend 80-75 earlier in the season. Neither Matt Farrell nor Bonzie Colson participated in that game. With the full compliment of contributors, Mike Brey won’t be forced to sit in a zone and let the Hokies bomb away. Buzz Williams team shot 14-25 from deep in South Bend and only won by five. Virginia Tech is a team most prognosticators have locked into the NCAAT field. A comfortable win here would send a great message to the selection committee.
Winning the matchup with the Buzz Williams Coaching Show ™ would set up a showdown with the mighty Duke Blue Devils. The Irish were embarrassed at Cameron Indoor, falling by 22. Neither Farrell nor Colson were available in the first showdown with Duke. Given Duke’s reliance on the 2-3 zone to get defensive stops, this is not a matchup the Irish should fear. The Blue Devils are coming off a stirring home victory against their bitter rivals. It wouldn’t be inconceivable to catch a young Duke team looking past ND. If the Irish, specifically Matt Farrell, can find that Brooklyn swagger and shooting stroke, Notre Dame has more than a puncher’s chance.
A win over the vaunted Duke side and Supreme Leader Krzyzweski would be a major resume builder at the most crucial of times. The most telling statistic on the Irish resume would be their record with and without the heart and soul of the team. Notre Dame would then be 5-1 in games vs. ACC opponents with Colson and 6-9 without. If Bonzie can continue to put up big numbers, the Irish will hopefully pass the eye test.
A win over Duke would also set up a semi-final match-up against either Miami or North Carolina. Technically, Syracuse or Wake Forest could advance to this game, but it is unlikely. Miami was able to steal a 3-point win in South Bend a few weeks back. Of course, that win has to include the standard “without Bonzie” disclaimer. The Irish managed to beat UNC already this season. With fair whistles, the Irish would have beat the Tar Heels with Colson and Farrell both on the sidelines. With a fat stack of house money in front of him, Mike Brey could find a way to rally his weary troops for a fourth night. Win there, and it sets up a battle against Virginia (or Clemson, FSU, Louisville or NC State) to hang another banner. Five games in five days is a lot to ask.
If you’re reading this with an overwhelming sense of this being wildly optimistic tale – you’re right. There’s a ton of fan-talk in there. Notre Dame will be dependent on a guy who’s played in two ACC games in 2018. The Irish partially earned their “first four out” designation with losses to Indiana and Ball State before ACC play began. You’d also be forgiven if you came to the conclusion that this Irish squad is snake bitten and doomed to bad luck.
Let’s look at the KenPom breakdown of the tournament bracket and see how likely his model makes all of this…
For my next trick, the ACC. Let’s make a 6 vs. 10 semifinal game happen. pic.twitter.com/GTDg9eKre9
— Ken Pomeroy (@kenpomeroy) March 4, 2018
We start with a 91% win probability over the Panthers. From there, he’s got us in a coin flip with the Hokies. Remember, the 9% chance we could lose to Pitt factors into the odds for the Wednesday game. The model then gives the winner of that coin flip a 22% chance to beat Duke.
It is fascinating that Pomeroy’s model gives Notre Dame, the ten seed, the sixth best chance to win the whole thing. Keep in mind, the model is purely statistical, based on performances throughout the year. There’s no “Bonzie factor” in there. The fifteen games missed by the preseason ACC PoY skew the model. Nonetheless, I don’t think that moves the Irish from 1.8% to 18% — more like 5%. For reference, the 2015 Championship had an 8.2% probability according to this model.
So that’s where Notre Dame stands. A season where the Irish felt the heights of a top 5 ranking has been reduced to clawing their way through Brooklyn to scratch their way into the dance. Perhaps that’s for the best. Brey’s teams have never been great front runners. They tend to be at their best when backed against the wall and surrounded by doubt. Here’s to hoping the Fighting Irish can make some noise this week in Brooklyn. Rally the sons, shake down some thunder, and hope our Irish jig holds up in the big dance.