Men's basketball: Tough opener for Irish
ND gets 7 seed, will have hands full with Xavier
The steady improvement of senior Scott Martin is one of several elements that have contributed to Notre Dame's surprising run to the NCAA Tournament.
(ISR photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)
6:59 am, March 11, 2012
SOUTH BEND — It was a memorable moment for so many reasons in this college basketball season for Notre Dame.
But it wasn't until four nights after beating previously undefeated and top-ranked Syracuse at home that those inside the program believed the Irish could take the 2011-12 season to a place they visited just after 6 p.m. Sunday — the NCAA tournament.
When Notre Dame piggy-backed that Syracuse win four nights later with a win over Seton Hall in downtown Newark, N.J., and then won another Big East road game three days later against Connecticut, the NCAA tournament went from being something it could only dream about in November and December to something it chased with a vengeance in January and February.
“It gave us some hope,” said senior tri-captain Scott Martin. “We started to believe.”
“That was really a big step for this team,” said coach Mike Brey. “I really felt, ‘We're going to get in this thing. We've got a great shot.' Then you start worrying about screwing it up.”
Instead, the Irish won a school-record nine consecutive conference games to lock up a bid.
“I knew,” said sophomore tri-captain Eric Atkins, “we could get this far.”
Back in the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive season and the fifth time in the last six years, Notre Dame (22-11) opens second-round play Friday (approximately 9:40 p.m., WSBT-TV) in Greensboro, N.C., against Xavier (21-12). The Irish are a No. 7 seed, the Musketeers the No. 10 in the South Region.
“I don't know if I've been prouder of a team in my time here at Notre Dame to earn a 7 seed in this tournament after where we were in November and December,” Brey said. “What this group went through, this seemed so far from reality at times early in our season and even early in our Big East season that it's extremely gratifying.
“Anytime we're in this thing, I count my blessings 'cause I know the '90s weren't kind to our program as far as getting in this thing.”
After going to the 1990 NCAA tournament, Notre Dame didn't see its name again on Selection Sunday until 2001 — Brey's first season. The first-round opponent that year? Xavier at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo. The No. 6 seed Irish beat the No. 11 Musketeers 83-71. That was the last time the teams have played in a series Notre Dame leads 15-3, including four consecutive wins.
The winner of the Notre Dame-Xavier game advances Sunday to a third-round game between the winner of No. 2 Duke (27-6) and No. 15 Lehigh (26-7). Should all the seeds hold true to start, it would set up a rematch for the second time — both in NCAA tournament play in the Carolinas — between Brey and the man who gave him his first college coaching job as an assistant, Mike Krzyzewski.
Any thought of a possible Tobacco Road reunion is nowhere near Brey's agenda this week.
“We're not good enough to be thinking about a (third-) round game and Duke and my connection there,” Brey said. “We can't think past a (second-) round game.”
Notre Dame will have its hands full with Xavier, a popular preseason Final Four pick before it staggered through a stretch where it lost five of six games after the infamous end-of-game brawl in December with crosstown rival Cincinnati.
Brey figured to dive into Xavier film Monday, but he didn't need to watch a second of coach Chris Mack's club to know what awaits.
“Basically, it's a Big East matchup,” he said. “Xavier is truly that. They beat Georgia; we didn't. They beat Cincinnati; we didn't.
“We play a really good team.”
Both were among the 37 that earned at-large bids. Xavier finished 10-6 in the Atlantic-10 before losing Sunday to St. Bonaventure in the championship game.
Notre Dame leaves Wednesday for Greensboro. It's the second time in three years that Notre Dame is in the South Region for the NCAA tournament. The Irish lost to Old Dominion in the 2010 first round. It's the first time Notre Dame plays an NCAA tournament game in North Carolina since 1988 when it lost to Southern Methodist in Chapel Hill.
It's the lowest the Irish have been seeded for the NCAA tournament since opening the 2002 tournament as a No. 8 seed. Notre Dame last was a No. 7 seed in the 1985 NCAA tournament. Other teams that were awarded No. 7 seeds Sunday were Florida, Gonzaga, which beat Notre Dame by 20 points on Nov. 30 and Saint Mary's.
“If you would have told me (after the loss to Gonzaga) that I was going to be sitting here and we were going to get a 7 seed, I would have probably kissed you,” Martin said. “We're just happy to be in it and we're excited to go down there and play.”
In 12 seasons under Brey, the Irish have advanced to the NCAA tournament eight times. Notre Dame has twice made three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament — Brey's first three seasons and each of the last three.
The Irish last advanced to the tournament's Sweet 16 in 2003. Like playing in the Big East Championship finale, something Notre Dame has not done in its 17 seasons in the league, getting clear of the first weekend in the NCAA tournament remains high atop the Irish wish list.
Dream run back to the NCAAs or not this season, Notre Dame wants to do more.
“This group earned this thing; they're just not happy to be there,” Brey said. “There's going to be a lot invested in this thing.”