Notre Dame's ACC tourney title shows Irish may be ready for historic NCAA run

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Under Mike Brey, Notre Dame always has been a nice basketball program.

A very nice guy, coaching generally nice players. Nice teams that won more than they lost, but were never serious threats to win anything meaningful.

Conference titles and Final Fours? Not for these guys. Perhaps because they were too nice.

There was a ceiling, and nobody seriously expected the Squabbling Irish – Fighting might have been too strong a term – to break it.

Time to shred that reputation.

The new Notre Dame kicked through the expectation ceiling. The new Notre Dame tore a hole through Tobacco Road. Saturday night in the belly of the powder blue beast, the new Notre Dame dove and battled and clawed and snarled until lordly North Carolina stuck out its pouty lip and stopped competing, with the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title on the line.

The new Notre Dame laid a 24-2 second-half lick on the Tar Heels, on the way to a 90-82 victory that makes it the champion of the ACC. That sounds weird – but so does the idea of a hyper-competitive bunch of Irish players who will match floor burns with anyone if a game is on the line.

Nice is out. Tough is in.

Notre Dame's Zach Auguste (30) celebrates with teammates after his team's win. (AP)
Notre Dame's Zach Auguste (30) celebrates with teammates after his team's win. (AP)

“There is a little toughness and an edge about this group,” Brey said, an ACC champion hat sitting on his head. “Certainly our two seniors [Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton] have it. ... This guy from Jersey [Steve Vasturia], he’s a flat-out killer. Demetrius Jackson is a killer. [Zach] Auguste is starting to develop that edge, and Bonzie Colson is another one.

“Our toughness level is the highest it’s ever been, mentally and physically.”

The most dazzling characteristic of this group is its ability to pass and shoot – they can be a very pretty basketball team that way. But the hard edge that Grant and Connaughton in particular possess is tangible. Basketball coaches have a phrase for it, one that cannot be repeated on a family website, but it applies to both those guys.

Grant will take over a game offensively, demanding the ball, posting up, driving, orchestrating. Connaughton will take any and every big shot – but he’s also willing to hurl his body around with reckless disregard for his million-dollar pitching arm. (His professional future lies in baseball, not basketball.) They set the toughness tone.

Along with their teammates, the grit they showed on the defensive end after falling behind by eight points with 9:21 left is what differentiates these Irish from previous editions.

Notre Dame was being waylaid inside by the taller Tar Heels, unable to stop them from scoring. For a while, every shot Carolina took was both open and on the money.

So the Irish adjusted. If they couldn’t stop the shots from falling, they would stop Carolina from taking shots. They would simply take the ball away, over and over and over.

Jackson made a 3, and then Vasturia stole the ball and laid it in. Then Connaughton stole the ball, and Vasturia hit a 3 off a three-pass ball-reversal sequence that will make purists weep. Vasturia made another steal. Then Auguste made a steal, flying up to fleece Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks, ripping the ball away from the blind side and driving for a dunk. Jackson added another steal 19 seconds after that.

Five steals in 2 minutes and 20 seconds. It was a feeding frenzy. And the Tar Heels rather meekly submitted.

“I think their sense of urgency at that point was a dramatic change,” UNC coach Roy Williams said, “and it was dramatically better than our sense of urgency was.”

A year ago, Brey’s sights were set considerably lower than going 29-5 and winning the ACC tourney. He was coming off the worst of his 14 seasons at the school, a 15-17 bust.

“When you lose 17 games, I didn’t put a non-league schedule together thinking, ‘Well, I want to get a two seed instead of a three seed.’ “ Brey said. “I’m hoping and praying and lighting candles at the grotto to be an 11 seed in freaking Dayton, so I could care less.”

Notre Dame's Jerian Grant (22) and Pat Connaughton celebrate with teammates. (AP)
Notre Dame's Jerian Grant (22) and Pat Connaughton celebrate with teammates. (AP)

Fast-forward through a trip to Italy, a low-stress non-conference slate and where-did-that-come-from 14-4 ACC season. Suddenly, coming to Greensboro, expectations were different. Suddenly, there was urgency.

Brey provided a window into Notre Dame’s urgency the night before, after the Irish surprised Duke in what was a 40-minute beating of the Blue Devils. Brey announced that winning the ACC tournament would be the greatest accomplishment in Notre Dame basketball history – a proclamation that surely wilted Digger Phelps’ carnation back in South Bend, but he meant it.

Notre Dame has been to one Final Four, in 1978. It famously ended the longest winning streak in college basketball history, upsetting UCLA in 1974. Those were the high-water marks of the Phelps Era, and they were good ones – but the decades since have largely marked the program as a basketball underachiever.

To join this league as a basketball member last season and win the tourney this season is big. To do so while beating Duke and North Carolina on successive nights in the league’s backyard of Greensboro is huge. Especially to Brey, a D.C.-area native who grew up steeped in the ACC.

“Personally, I’m really proud,” Brey said. “I had a [former Maryland coach] Lefty Driesell flashback, and maybe some of you old timers will remember this ... I remember Lefty when he won it, he said, ‘I’m going to hold the trophy to the hood of my car and drive all over Tobacco Road.’ So if you see a Buick Enclave in June with this trophy going from Asheville to Wilmington, that’s me.”