While we are operating with the benefit of hindsight, it was hard not to be excited watching the Irish dominate their early season opponents. The team looked different than previous Brey teams. Although they could still bomb it from deep, every game seemed to feature at least one highlight reel dunk. More impressively, it wasn't just one player throwing down each game. Zach Auguste, Pat Connaughton, Jerian Grant, and Demetrius Jackson all had their share of jams. Even bench guys like Austin Torres, Martinas Gebben, and Austin Burgett got in on the action. Additionally, while the Irish were playing inferior, low major opponents, they beat all of them handily and in style. I personally remember attending the game against Navy, and being pleasantly surprised by how good the Irish looked against a team that lost by only five to Michigan State two nights earlier. After blowing out their low major opponents, there seemed to be consensus that this version of ND was different, but we didn't really know how good they actually were.
Due to an interesting quirk of the schedule, the Irish played an early ACC game at home against Florida State before facing Purdue in the Crossroads Classic the following week. Up to this point in the season, the Irish had played just three quality opponents: UMass, Providence, and Michigan State. The Irish were 2-1 in these games, but were still largely untested. The Seminoles and Boilermakers both presented interesting matchup problems for ND. Both teams featured a lot of size that were expected to give Notre Dame issues. Instead, the Irish won the two games by a combined 51 points. Auguste had a career high 26 points in the game against FSU, and all five starters scored in double figures in the Purdue game. Additionally, the Purdue game featured the first memorable Irish run. Early in the second half, Notre Dame led by just four. Two TV timeouts later, the Irish led by more than 20. Demetrius Jackson provided a nice exclamation point when he posterized one of Purdue's 7 footers. Before these two games, we thought the Irish were a good team. Afterwards, we knew they were.
The Irish started the "real" ACC schedule at home against Georgia Tech. What was expected to be an easy win was anything but. The Irish struggled from three, and couldn't keep the Yellow Jackets off the offensive glass. While there weren’t a lot of positives to take away from this contest, it’s a game that the Irish had lost in previous years. They trailed by as many as eight points in the second half, but came back to take the lead. Sadly, the Irish just couldn't put away the Jackets down the stretch. Finally, in the game’s second overtime, ND went ahead for good. The next game against GT in Atlanta featured more drama. The Irish were rocked by the suspension of Zach Auguste before the game. There was speculation that Notre Dame would be without Auguste for the entire season, but his one-game suspension gave Bonzie Colson the chance to break into the lineup. Like in the first game against the Jackets, the Irish struggled offensively, but their defense was fantastic down the stretch. Trailing by eight at the half, ND managed to take a 55-52 lead at the under-eight timeout. From this point on Notre Dame held Georgia Tech to just seven points the rest of the way, three of which came on a three-pointer at the buzzer when the game was already decided. While GT was far from an offensive juggernaut, the stretch run was one of the best by the Irish defense up to that point of the season. While they would generally win games with their offense, being able to rely on their D separated this Irish team from previous editions.