Déjà vu or a second chance to get it right? Last winter, the Notre Dame men’s basketball season first jumped the tracks in mid-January and spiraled into a seven-game losing streak. The Irish labored nearly five weeks without a win and never could fix it. As a result, hopes for a program-defining run through the NCAA tournament quietly faded. This winter finds Notre Dame stuck in a slump that again surfaced in mid-January. The Irish have lost four of five and three in a row on the road, culminating in Saturday’s shocker against Rutgers, which had been winless in Big East play. A Notre Dame team known for its patience and poise has lately shown little of either. It has played in a way - sloppy, ill-prepared, bored about defending and competing - rare from a program that built its reputation around the league of being steady and solid, and resilient and ready. Can it get worse before it gets better? When will the Irish get moving in the right direction? Has the program become too stagnant? Is change needed? At what level? There may be no easy answers in the coming days and weeks and months. Following is what is known as the Irish move toward Thursday’s home game against the team - Cincinnati - that started the slide last month.
- Records may be all Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson have left to chase. Harangody remains on track to become the all-time leading scorer and rebounder in school and league history. Jackson likely will set the school record for career games. Both would trade it all for something that, barring a serious shift in momentum, attitude and focus, won’t happen - a return trip to the NCAA tournament. When their college careers end in less than eight weeks, Harangody and Jackson will have accomplished more than anyone ever imagined. They could headline the most successful four-year class in school history, but one that went their final two seasons without an NCAA bid. Will that mean anything? Ask former Irish guard Chris Thomas. Third on the school’s all-time scoring list, Thomas is remembered more for not getting the Irish back to the NCAA tournament following a sophomore trip to the Sweet 16 than for any of his myriad individual accomplishments. By the end of his career, fans had seemingly tired of his talents. The closer the Irish move toward another post-season National Invitation Tournament, the more a similar sentiment could await Harangody and Jackson. Both have meant much to the program, but their legacies may lean more toward what they weren’t able to do than what they did.
- Shelve any NCAA tournament talk. Surprisingly, Notre Dame still was touted last weekend as one league team with a chance to make a run at a bid. Now that thought sits at the curb with the rest of this week’s trash. At 15-7 overall, 4-5 in the Big East, the Irish have a steep hill to climb just to get back in the mix. Prior to Saturday’s game, Notre Dame seemingly was on the right track with a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 55. That number dropped 16 spots to 71 following the loss to Rutgers. Notre Dame beat three Top 10 teams last season and still couldn’t get in. This year’s resume has one quality win - over No. 6 West Virginia. Nothing has been done to erase the loss to Loyola Marymount, and now there’s Rutgers. One bad loss can be explained. Two bad losses means said team simply isn’t very good. Nine league games remain to make a little noise, but with road games against Louisville, No. 7 Georgetown and Marquette looming, anything more than a whimper and seven more league wins would take serious work.
- The Rutgers loss was a new low. Pressed following Saturday’s game to pinpoint another outcome that was as bitter a pill to swallow, coach Mike Brey couldn’t immediately produce one. Given time, he said he could offer four or five that hurt as much. There have been painful league losses during his 10 seasons, but none sting as much as this one. In football terms, think of it as Notre Dame losing at home to Syracuse. Only make it a winless Syracuse team instead of the two-win outfit that stunned Notre Dame Stadium in 2008. Rutgers just wasn’t bad a league team. It was a bad league team that seldom was competitive in its first eight conference losses. It lost by an average of 19.1 points and trailed by at least 16 in each of its previous eight conference contests. The Irish then played with a maddening air of indifference that made the Knights look good. That’s bad. Notre Dame has not hit such disappointing depths - losing on the road in league play to a winless conference colleague - since being beaten by 0-9 Boston College in 1999. That season culminated with the “resignation” of coach John MacLeod.
- Now it gets interesting. For all the shouts that something must change and should change and better change, Notre Dame was right where it should be eight games through the league schedule. The Irish were picked in preseason to be an average outfit. Opening 4-4 offered little evidence of being anything more or anything less. Now tied for eighth in the league, Notre Dame doesn’t belong on the same floor as Syracuse and Villanova. It doesn’t have the bodies to beat Cincinnati and Connecticut. On a very good night, it can compete with some colleagues, but often needs everything to go right to beat anyone, be it DePaul, Providence or even South Florida. For the first time in league play, Notre Dame has lost a game it should have won. Forget the empty promises of opportunities that await and reminders that the league is tough. The Irish just have to be better in every phase and in every way. Today. Lean on Harangody and Jackson as leaders. Lean on any combination, regardless of class rank, that will run through a wall no matter the time, the place, the score or the stats. Don’t settle for average. Decide today to turn it around and salvage something for an Irish fan base infected with discontent. Keep skidding south, and this program might take a long tumble, at which point nothing about the future is certain.
Staff writer Tom Noie: firstname.lastname@example.org (574) 235-6153