After their second consecutive sluggish performance against an inferior opponent, the Irish commence ACC play Saturday afternoon against Pittsburgh.
The trip to Pittsburgh represents Notre Dame’s first true road test of the season in a place where the Irish have struggled over the years.
The Irish lost the last time they played at the Panthers in January 2015. That loss, which could largely be attributed a letdown following a dramatic win over Duke earlier in the week, was one of the few losses the Irish suffered in a close game during the 2014-15 campaign. Sidenote, was actually at that game. First time I’d been to the Peterson Events Center – solid place to see a game, but I noticed that they have a prominent banner of their Women’s NIT appearances, which was should be an NCAA infraction.
In last year’s matchup, Pittsburgh defeated the Irish in South Bend in the dreaded student-less ACC opener. In that game, the Panthers put up one of the most impressive shooting displays ever from an opponent in Purcell Pavilion.
This season’s edition of Pittsburgh is without Jamie Dixon for the first time since 2003. Former Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings has taken over the helm in the Steel City to mixed reviews and ask any Vandy fan and they will tell you that they were ecstatic that Pitt took him of their hands.
As is tradition, the Panthers scheduled a cupcake nonconference slate. Pitt suffered losses to crosstown rival Duquesne as well as a thorough beating at the hands of SMU. The Panthers also had close calls against Marshall and Eastern Michigan en route to a 10-2 record.
Pitt’s best wins to date are against Penn State, a Big Ten bottom dweller, at a neutral site (the Pitt-Penn State game was actually the second game of the doubleheader that ND and Villanova kicked off) and Maryland – a middle of the road Big Ten team.
Unlike Notre Dame, Syracuse, and Louisville, Pitt has not experienced the same type of success in their transition to the ACC.
While in the Big East, Pitt became a power under Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon. Dixon took the Panthers to new heights and developed a strong recruiting pipeline in the inner cities of the northeast.
Since moving to the ACC, that recruiting pipeline had dried up and has contributed to them taking a step back as a program. The Panthers have taken such a large step back that Dixon felt that TCU, a team that has only been to the tournament twice since 1971, was a greener pasture.
Pitt is going through an identity crisis similar to the one Boston College went through when they moved to the ACC. The foundation of both programs was built on tough inner city kids that dreamt of playing in the Big East.
The culture of the ACC, a conference with southern roots made up mostly of large state universities, is completely different than that of the former Big East which was made up mostly of small, urban Catholic schools.
The same culture shock that has affected the BC basketball program, and for that matter the entire athletic department, inflicted irreparable damage that affects BC to this day.
If Pitt is not careful, they could be in for a similar fate.
Now, enough of a “State of the Program” for Pitt and on to Saturday’s matchup.
The Irish lead the all-time series 31-30 and the Panthers provide the eighth most frequent opponent in ND basketball history. Mike Brey is 12-12 in his career against Pitt.
Notre Dame has the better squad on paper, but the Panthers are always tough at home. The first true road game will provide a tough test for this team that has not shown the mental toughness of the previous two ND teams.
The past four contests has seen the Irish show tremendous potential against Purdue and Villanova, but those two games also saw ND falter in two second half collapses.
The Colgate and St. Peter’s game did not exactly instill a lot of confidence among Irish supporters, but that can be chalked up to the natural lethargy that comes with games against inferior competition around Christmas.
Saturday’s game will be all about toughness – mental and physical toughness. If the Irish exemplify the toughness they demonstrated during the previous two seasons, they have enough to win. If, however, they are unable to withstand runs and a road atmosphere like Villanova and Purdue, ND will be in for a long afternoon.
Following the Pitt game Saturday, the Irish host Louisville at home Jan. 4 and Clemson Jan. 7 before three consecutive road games against Miami, Virginia Tech, and Florida State.
Getting off to a good start in ACC play is critical especially with the rugged gauntlet that lay ahead.