Assorted story lines have shadowed the Notre Dame men’s basketball team through its jumbled Big East journey. Free throw failures, better bench production, defensive deficiencies, rebounding woes, offensive execution and late-game decisions all have had their separate chapters three-quarters of the way through league play. The newest nugget revolves around the right knee of All-American Luke Harangody. He is expected to miss a third consecutive game, Wednesday against No. 12 Pittsburgh, with a bone bruise. No matter the situation, the Irish (17-10 overall, 6-8 Big East) face one cold reality with four regular-season games remaining: For this season to wind down in a way everyone in the program had first planned back in October - with a trip to the NCAA Tournament - it’s time to start winning. Now. Tomorrows are no more for Notre Dame, which has put itself in this position by losing five of its last seven league games, including suspect setbacks to Rutgers, Seton Hall and St. John’s. The Irish last enjoyed success Feb. 7 with a victory over South Florida. “We’ve forgotten the taste of winning a little bit,” said junior power forward Tyrone Nash. The Irish know well what it’s like to lose a league game - a close league game. Notre Dame has lost its last three conference contests by a total of six points. The Irish had chances in the closing seconds of regulation against Seton Hall and St. John’s and multiple opportunities in the double-overtime loss at Louisville, but couldn’t close any of those out. What will it take? “Just have that one defensive stop, that one key basket where we be efficient and run the play correctly,” Nash said. “We put things together on both sides of the fence, I think we’ll be good.” One more loss guarantees that the Irish finish no better than average - 9-9 - in the league and likely wipes out, how ever slight, a chance of earning an at-large NCAA bid. Two losses saddle Notre Dame with a losing league record for the second consecutive season and third time in the last five years. Three losses, and who knows how far a team picked in preseason to finish eighth might slide? “We just have to find our way,” said senior point guard Tory Jackson. “We just gotta win, how ever it comes, any way it comes, whoever does it. Just get us a win.” One game, one win. That’s as far as the Irish can afford to look without Harangody, their leading scorer and rebounder and guy who keeps everyone believing, against a schedule that still includes games against sizzling Pittsburgh (21-6; 10-4), consistent Georgetown, surging Connecticut and always-dangerous Marquette. A four-game win streak to end the regular season would help dissolve some of the critical karma hovering over the program, but the Irish know that if they peek too far into the future, they’ll lose focus on the present. “I’m not talking any big picture with them,” said coach Mike Brey. “That’s too big. We need to try and win a league game. Any win would be a quality win.” The first step back toward success arrives against the league’s premier program. Other schools (Connecticut, Syracuse) have won national championships or advanced to the Final Four (Georgetown, Louisville, Villanova) in recent years, but no Big East team has enjoyed as much sustained success the last nine years as Pittsburgh. The Panthers routinely win at least 20 games overall and 10 league games each winter. Look up the word “program” in the college basketball dictionary and the reference likely says, “See, Panthers, Pittsburgh.” All the Panthers lost off last season’s team that raced to a 31-5 record were four starters, including staples Levance Fields and Sam Young. All coach Jamie Dixon did was plug in four new faces, albeit veterans, give a little tweak here and there and before many around the country noticed, Pittsburgh put itself in position for a first-round league tournament bye - and may challenge for the regular-season league title. “They’ve been the best program in my 10 years,” Brey said. “They’ve been there every year. This year is no different. “They just have a system that is good.” Players too. Fields and Young and DeJuan Blair step out, and Gilbert Brown, Ashton Gibbs, Gary McGhee and Nasir Robinson step in. The names on the backs of the jerseys may change, but the M.O. seldom has, dating back to the days of Ben Howland and Fitzgerald Field House. “They’ve got guys who just go out there and play and work,” Jackson said. “They figure out ways to get it done.” As for Notre Dame, the search continues.
Staff writer Tom Noie: email@example.com (574) 235-6153