In case you missed it

A look back at Notre Dame basketball's best regular season in three decades.

Exactly 53 weeks ago today, Mike Brey's Fighting Irish were mired at 6-8 in the Big East, in the midst of a three-game losing streak (two vs. conference weaklings Seton Hall and St. John's) and staring at the program's second consecutive NIT bid – basketball purgatory, defined.

In the 372 days since, Notre Dame has won 19 conference games and lost 5 – a record bettered by no other team in the nation's best league.

"It started last year, the four of them (minus Scott Martin), learned to win together," Brey said. "They were really 'poor' at 6-8. We were scrambling. Those four guys came together...they won to get us in the NCAA Tournament and not be a #10-seed, we were a #6-seed. That's off the charts, to go from NIT-ville to a #6-seed.

"We were beat by a very good team in New Orleans," Brey continued (in a bit of an overstatement) "That probably stoked some fires after riding such momentum to get in."

None of the five league losses in the last calendar year were suffered at the hands of a team outside the respected, and NCAA Tourney-relevant RPI Top 50; two of the five defeats were at the hands of Top 10 foes. All, of course, were on the road, as the Irish have finished three of the last five seasons undefeated in South Bend including a 16-0 mark, 9-0 Big East, in the 2010-11 season.

Intermixed were victories vs. teams ranked #16, #13, #16, #9, #9, #2, #15, and most recently, the #19, and suddenly defenseless Villanova Wildcats, whom the Irish eviscerated last night on the Joyce Center floor.

The last time the Notre Dame program defeated seven Top 20 teams in fewer than 50 games? The 1979-80, 1980-81 seasons when Diggers Phelps' crew handled teams ranked #6, #14, #1, #6, #2, #7, and #1 over a 48-game span.

A win Saturday at UConn would give this team eight such wins in fewer than 40 contests.

Back to the best

Phelps and Brey's respective programs shared another commonality during their these comparative halcyon days: 0 NCAA Tournament wins, with Phelps' 9th-ranked Irish bowing out in their opening game in overtime vs. #16 Missouri in 1980, and Brey's unranked Irish losing to Old Dominion by a frustrating bucket last March.

(To be fair to Phelps' loaded 1980 squad, Missouri had four future pros among its top six players. Conversely, Old Dominion had four or five guys that will dominate Men's Rec Leagues for years to come.)

Phelps' aforementioned 1980-81 squad returned, like Brey's current crop, relatively intact from the previous year, and like Brey's current Irish, were ranked #7 heading into the final regular season poll. Phelps' squad – one of the most talented in program history with five future first-round draft picks – was upset by #16 Brigham Young on Danny Ainge's infamous Sweet 16 march through the Irish defense. (As game announcer, the late Al McGuire noted of Ainge's winning foray: "He burned seven Notre Dame players: Paxson and Sluby, twice.")

Since, that fateful evening in Atlanta's extinct Omni, lasting basketball success at the program – tournament success – has been sporadic. A Sweet 16 appearance this March would likely appease the remaining, doubting masses that surround the Irish basketball program. It would be the program's third since Ainge derailed Notre Dame's championship dreams in '81 as the Irish have since returned to the NCAA's second weekend with Phelps and point guard David Rivers in 1987, and with Brey's Matt Carroll-led squad of 2003.

But first, the Irish have two attainable goals prior to the madness of March:

  1. A half-game deficit separates Notre Dame from conference-leader Pittsburgh. Should the Panthers lose at South Florida on Wednesday (I promise you: this game will be close with eight minutes remaining), or on Senior Day vs. Villanova Saturday, and if the Irish win at UConn two hours prior, the Irish would capture the regular season Big East crown for the first time in program history.

    (Notre Dame won a Western Division title in 2001 when the league was divided into two ill-conceived divisions.)

  2. The Irish have already secured a double bye heading into next week's trying Big East Tournament. Relevance? Notre Dame's first game will be against a team that played one day prior…and possibly on consecutive days prior, should an upset occur. The rested Irish will begin in the Tournament Quarterfinals next Thursday (bracket nowhere near determined, so I won't try) with the Championship Game set for Saturday night.

    (Notre Dame has advanced to the Big East semi-finals twice in its last four appearances, but has never appeared on the title-game stage)

(Note: We'll revisit the program's NCAA Tournament prospects and recent foibles two weeks from today.)

One would suffice

A win Saturday in Storrs would likely lock up a #2 NCAA Tournament seed (the Selection Committee weighs a team's conference tournament performance far less than do fans and media). A loss would only hurt the Irish when compared to other potential #2 seeds as Brey's bunch would finish with one quality road win (#2 Pittsburgh) and a 3-1 mark in neutral site games (two crucial November wins during a championship march in the Old Spice Classic vs. #11 Wisconsin and tournament-bound Georgia have since held water).

Arguments could be made for another team as a #2-seed over Notre Dame should it finish a respectable, but unspectacular 4-5 in Big East road games. In other words, the Irish could drop to a #3 NCAA seed if they lose at UConn and then immediately in the conference quarterfinals, but that's likely the farthest they'd fall.

Notre Dame hasn't entered the NCAA Tournament with a #3 seed (or higher) since 1986, when Phelps, Rivers, and future NBA draft picks Ken Barlow and Donald Royal were shocked by #14 seed Arkansas Little-Rock in the tournament's first round.

Turning the corner

You've probably noticed a trend – for every solid or standout regular season effort, the Notre Dame program generally finds a way to fade in March.

It's happened to Brey-led squads (5-6 in NCAA games with the Irish) and it happened to Digger's 20 teams (a 15-16 mark including a few needless consolation games).

But for the first time since the 1981 senior trio of Kelly Tripucka, Orlando Woolridge, and Tracy Jackson were bounced by BYU and Ainge, a Notre Dame basketball team ranks definitively among the nation's best.

At worst, they're a "tough out." The Irish are a team still smarting from last year's exit roughly two hours after the Tournament began. You'll see violence from this senior quintet before they'd go quietly into their last goodnight in March.

At their best? Two tourney wins wouldn't suffice, and it's been three decades since a fan of the program could honestly enter March with legitimate Sweet 16, Elite 8, and – dare to dream – Final Four expectations.

For the sake of argument, there are probably four or six or eight teams (take your pick) legitimately better than these seasoned, senior-laden Irish. And Brey's bunch could lose to any number of teams among the nation's parity-ridden Top 50.

Then again, no college basketball team has more wins vs. that collection of the RPI Top 50 this season (ND is 10-5 vs. the Top 50 after Monday's win). They're the definition of a battle-tested, experienced, confident group.

In summation, that's 16 home wins, an at-worst second-place finish in the nation's best league, 10 resume-building victories, and a mere five losses vs. five NCAA-tourney bound foes...oh, and just four home sell-outs. Four home sell-outs for the best men's basketball team in South Bend in 30 years.

For some, college basketball starts in March. For fans that know the journey is the thing, you're probably grateful you didn't miss this one.


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