BOSTON — Notre Dame’s debut in the ACC did not go as planned. Rare home losses to Indiana State and North Dakota State set an ominous tone early in the season. It got worse before conference play even began when Jerian Grant, who was averaging 19.0 points and 6.2 assists per game, withdrew from the university. That all resulted in the Fighting Irish failing to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.
Head coach Mike Brey, who is entering his 15th season, is turning to past experiences as the Fighting Irish enter Year 2 as members of arguably the best conference in college basketball. When Brey was hired at Notre Dame in 2000, he was inheriting a team that had a 35-53 record in the Big East, not once having a record above .500.
“We were fighting for an identity [in the Big East],” Brey told NBCSports.com on June 28 at The Basketball Tournament championship game at Boston University. “We’re in familiar territory right now, fighting for an identity in this ACC. I don’t know if I have the answers for what it is yet, but I got a little better feel than the first year.
“The league is only going to get better, it’s getting deeper. You’re trying to get a feel for teams. When you’re in the Big East as long as we were, you had a book on how Georgetown played. A book on how Syracuse played. Now you’re flying blind. I think we have a little better feel for systems and styles of play. I think that’s going to benefit us in Year 2.”
In conference, Notre Dame had only one win over an NCAA tournament bound opponent with a 79-77 upset win over Duke. It won’t get easier next season with Duke, North Carolina and Virginia projected to be in the preseason top 10. That doesn’t include the conference’s newest member, Louisville, which figures to contend immediately.
Brey should have plenty of intel on the Cardinals, including a thrilling five overtime win back on Feb. 9, 2013. Though, Louisville would defeat Notre Dame two times later in the season, en route to a national championship.
The biggest advantage the Fighting Irish have heading into the 2014-2015 season is the return of its back court, Grant and Pat Connaughton. The Balitmore Orioles drafted Connaughton in the fourth round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft, but will allow him to finish is playing career on the hardwood. Grant was readmitted in May. The Irish will also benefit from rising sophomore guards Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia both seeing more than 22 minutes per game as freshmen.
Notre Dame has the pieces to finish in the top half of the ACC standings. If Notre Dame was still a member of the old Big East, Brey would be optimistic this summer, instead it’s a bit of a precarious feeling as the ACC only received six tournament bids last March. Brey’s suggestion has been for the ACC to play 20 conference games. The old Big East was the first to go to 18 games in 2008, which helped improve the RPI for bubble teams in search of an at-large bid.
“I hope we can get this thing to eight and nine bids because that’s what earmarked the Big East as the best,” he said.
Notre Dame finished 15-17 (6-12 ACC) last season, but are ranked as the seventh-best team, according to College Basketball Talk’s early conference power rankings.