As halftime approached, Mike Brey's shirt had half-untucked itself, giving his open-collared stockbroker-at-happy-hour vibe a distinct time-to-call-an-Uber tinge. The Notre Dame coach had flailed his arms and hitched up his belt so many times he was starting to look a little disheveled, even by his relaxed sartorial standards.
There's only so much even Brey can do with Notre Dame right now. Bonzie Colson, the preseason ACC player of the year, sat to his right, his left leg in a walking boot. Matt Farrell, another all-ACC candidate, was in street clothes in the next seat down. D.J. Harvey is hurt as well. That's 43 points of scoring that's contributing as much as Brey right now.
So while it isn't shocking that Notre Dame has lost six in a row after starting 3-0 in the ACC, it is surprising how close the Irish has been in five of those games, until Monday's 88-66 loss at Duke – and even that was a two-possession game with 12 minutes to go before Duke ripped off an 18-0 run to put things away. All of the previous five losses had been by single digits, with two – against North Carolina and Louisville – coming down to the final possession.
“I love our group, man,” Brey said. “We're trying to figure this thing out. Maybe we'll have a few bodies back for N.C. State when we come back down this way on Saturday. We could use a couple more bodies back. But now you've got the back nine of the league. We were 3-6 on the front nine. We're going to have to do a little bit on the back nine. We'll see what we can.”
Brey has been pulling strings and puffing smoke and strategically positioning mirrors to keep this team competitive for almost a month now, and even he knew the dam would burst eventually. Monday, with Duke coming off Saturday's crucial ACC loss to Virginia, there was nothing Notre Dame could do once the Blue Devils got rolling. When John Mooney fouled out with nine minutes to go, the Irish was left with six players – and hope. Neither was sufficient.
T.J. Gibbs and Rex Pflueger can play for anyone, anytime. Martinas Geben is averaging a double-double. The rest of it is the Amazing Brey's Traveling Magic Act, getting quality minutes out of guys he probably never envisioned playing much. That's always been part of his success with better teams. This season, without Colson and Farrell, he's had no choice but to try to turn water into wine. Even at Notre Dame, that's not easy. Monday, the magician ran out of tricks.
“We know that we're going through a tough time right now, but we'll definitely get back there,” Gibbs said.
Thus began Notre Dame's tour of the Triangle, visiting all three teams in an 11-day span. The Irish are back Saturday to play N.C. State and then, after a home game against Florida State, travel to Chapel Hill to play North Carolina on Feb. 12. Since joining the ACC, Notre Dame is 8-6 within North Carolina's borders, including the 2015 ACC tournament title in Greensboro. Perhaps more notable is Brey's record against Mike Krzyzewski, his former boss at Duke, which fell to 5-5 with Monday's loss.
There wasn't much Brey could do about that Monday once Duke got rolling. But Farrell and Harvey could be back for the Wolfpack on Saturday; Colson's return is likely to be closer to the ACC tournament. That does raise the spectre of a fully loaded Notre Dame team starting Tuesday in Brooklyn and knocking off a high seed or two as it tears its way through the bracket. But for Brey, that's still a long way away.
“I've loved it, because the remaining group is just so good and giving us everything they've had and just emptying the tank every night,” Brey said. “We have great leadership and they've hung together. It's been cool to be around this group because they've been hanging in there with us and we're all trying to figure it out together.”
Brey paused, then laughed as he finished the thought: “But I wouldn't mind having a few guys back.”
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock