NOTRE DAME — With hindsight forever being 20-20, the buzzer-beating 62-60 loss Saturday to Georgia Tech for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team can now be considered either a badly missed opportunity for the Irish to move up the league standings ladder, or not that big a deal.
After all, surprising upsets like these are just part of life in the uber-competitive Atlantic Coast Conference.
Any road loss in this league is understandable, and Georgia Tech provides plenty of evidence as to why. The Yellow Jackets are only a middle-of-the-pack ACC team in the standings but they've already recorded wins at home over three of the league’s top-shelf teams in North Carolina, Florida State and now Notre Dame.
“Georgia Tech is a very good team,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said immediately after his No. 14 Irish dropped a tough one in Atlanta, making them one of four ranked ACC teams to fall in road games this weekend. “I believe they are going to be an NCAA Tournament team.”
Three conference losses for Notre Dame in the last four games is troubling, for sure.
But the bigger concern is how the Irish have recently lost their confidence, identity and efficiency.
In consecutive losses last week to Virginia and Georgia Tech, Notre Dame:
* Managed only 22 assists with 22 turnovers — this from a team that ranks at or near the best in the country every year in assist-to-turnover ratio.
* Was outrebounded 75-51 against two opponents not known as premier teams on the backboard.
* Scored just 54 points against Virginia and 60 versus Georgia Tech, respectively, its two lowest scoring outputs of the season.
* Made just 18 of its 28 free throws (64 percent) after entering last week as the best foul-shooting team in the county at nearly 85 percent.
The back-to-back losses marked only the second time since the 2013-14 season that Brey’s Irish have dropped consecutive games in conference play.
And with a ticked off and dangerous Duke team (16-5, 4-4) in town Monday against Notre Dame (17-5, 6-3), the Irish face the real threat of losing three straight in league play for the first time in more than three years, begging the question as to whether this is a must win game?
Not even close, Brey insists, as Monday begins the “back nine” of the 18-game ACC season.
“I don’t think we’re in that situation,” he said. “And I’m hoping because we got out of the gate with five (consecutive) league wins and we have six (wins) here in late January, that maybe nothing is a must-win situation in the regular season, but we’ll see.”
Duke, which entered play last weekend losers in three of its previous four ACC games, found a get-well moment Saturday against Wake Forest with a thrilling 85-83 comeback win that could well jump-start its season.
And if beating a Blue Devil team that was picked in the preseason as the favorite to win the national title isn’t difficult enough, Notre Dame follows this game with a Super Bowl Sunday trip to ACC-leading North Carolina (19-4, 7-2).
With six league wins already in the bank and a strong national profile, Notre Dame has no reason to panic, at least not yet. And Brey is confident his team will get things turned around, starting against a Duke program that Notre Dame has remarkably beaten five times in the last six tries.
“Those have been great wins for our program, they’ve been great credibility wins nationally,” said Brey, explaining that that mood of his team couldn’t be better. “ ... We never panic. This the is the most un-panicked program in the history of college basketball. We just kind of methodically keep going through it.”
Todd Burlage is a freelance columnist covering Notre Dame athletics.