Luke DeCock

DeCock: For Irish, ACC title glow still lingers

Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson (11) dances for teammates after the Fighting Irish defeated North Carolina 90-82 to win their first Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament championship.
Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson (11) dances for teammates after the Fighting Irish defeated North Carolina 90-82 to win their first Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament championship. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Mike Brey never got around to strapping the ACC trophy to the hood of his Buick and driving from Asheville to Wilmington, the homage to Lefty Driesell he promised on the floor of the Greensboro Coliseum amid streamers and confetti after Notre Dame won the ACC title.

The Notre Dame coach never had time. From the moment he left Greensboro, trophy on board, the Fighting Irish took him on a far crazier ride through the rest of March, coming within one narrow loss to Kentucky from joining Duke in the Final Four.

After that, Brey’s trophy tour of Tobacco Road was a mere afterthought – although he still thinks it was a great idea.

“You know, I just thought it was such a great line, and it came to me as I was walking to the stage, being such an old Maryland basketball fan,” Brey said. “I got more emails from Maryland fans on that. They loved it. But I didn’t do that. We got the trophy in its right place.”

It feels like the trophy is about all that’s left from Notre Dame’s dream season, with senior stars Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton both gone, but the Irish retain the workmanlike core of that team, from point guard Demetrius Jackson to versatile forward Zach Auguste to solid role players like V.J. Beachem, Steve Vasturia and Bonzie Colson.

What may be more difficult is recapturing the mojo the Irish had last season, even with so many of the same players back. That’s not something that can be dismissed overnight, nor can it be easily replicated. As its legend grew last spring, Notre Dame basketball got a pretty good sense of what it’s like for Notre Dame football all of the time.

“I would say that’s probably a good comparison,” Brey said. “There’s no question about it. We still have people to this day who talk about the Kentucky game – where they were, how they watched it. They were kind of following us through.

“And we had interesting stories, Pat Connaughton the baseball guy, he’s just going to get 12 rebounds tonight, because, you know, he can get 12 rebounds. Jerian Grant coming back, those other guys. But I think the fearlessness and the vibe that they played with, we’ve tried to instill that in our program.”

So far, the Irish are 4-1 after a surprising loss to Monmouth, but have since beaten Iowa and played Alabama late Sunday night. They’ll fall from their current No. 13 spot in the AP poll, but probably not all that far, before facing Illinois on Wednesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Locally, Wake Forest plays at Rutgers on Monday, with N.C. State hosting Michigan on Tuesday in the first half of a Triangle doubleheader, with No. 9 North Carolina renewing old hostilities with No. 2 Maryland in the late game. No. 6 Duke wraps up the in-state games against No. 13 Indiana on Wednesday.

The ACC-Big Ten Challenge always feels like the unofficial official kickoff of basketball season, with the meat of the conference schedule lurking not all that far away. For Notre Dame, the defending ACC champions, the expectations have never been higher.

“I find myself going, we lost two good seniors, but we have a good nucleus back,” Brey said. “I’m almost talking myself forward. I don’t want to talk about them anymore. I think our current guys, they got past it quick and they’re kind of energized: ‘We’re supposed to be really good in this league. Let’s see if we can go farther. Let’s see if we can do this again. Let’s do this again in March.’ ”

The competition is stiff: North Carolina, Duke and Virginia are powerful and talented. Louisville has picked up steam quickly thanks to a pair of graduate transfers. Miami and Florida State are lurking. Pittsburgh and Syracuse and N.C. State won’t be easy to beat. But Notre Dame has a trophy to defend, even if it never did take that tour of Tobacco Road.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

ACC-Big Ten Challenge

Monday

Wake Forest at Rutgers, 7 p.m., ESPNU

Clemson at Minnesota, 9 p.m.., ESPN2

Tuesday

Michigan at N.C. State, 7 p.m., ESPNU

Northwestern at Virginia Tech, 7 p.m., ESPNU

Virginia at Ohio State, 7:30 p.m., ESPN

Miami at Nebraska, 9 p.m., ESPNU

Purdue at Pittsburgh, 9 p.m., ESPN2

Maryland at North Carolina, 9:30 p.m., ESPN

Wednesday

Penn State at Boston College, 7:15 p.m., ESPNU

Louisville at Michigan State, 7:15 p.m., ESPN

Wisconsin at Syracuse, 7:15 p.m., ESPN2

Indiana at Duke, 9:15 p.m., ESPN

Notre Dame at Illinois, 9:15 p.m., ESPN2

Florida State at Iowa, 9:15 p.m., ESPNU

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