Failure to Launch

The most successful – and likely the best – Notre Dame basketball team of the last three decades took an unexpected face plant in the NCAA Tournament last weekend. For a program in desperate need of exposure and validation, tonight's Sweet 16 tip-off will serve as a stark reminder of that fact.

What was your favorite nationally-relevant basketball game this season?

If it didn't involve your favorite team, such as Notre Dame's win at No. 2 Pittsburgh, my guess is you struggled to find an answer.

Perhaps No. 1 Ohio State's first loss of the season in Game No. 25 at Wisconsin came to mind? Though few outside of Madison, Columbus, or whatever campus thereafter ascended ever-so-briefly to the top spot in the polls took time out of their busy Saturdays to tune in.

How about the grandest rivalry of all, North Carolina vs. Duke?

Well, A.) which one? And, B.) was the loser affected in the least? The answer, of course, is C.) You don't know and no longer care.

The college basketball regular season has depreciated in value over the last 10 to 15 years. It's nowhere near the level – of play or relevance – it enjoyed 20 to 30 years prior.

Unfortunately for Notre Dame's program, basketball's regular season is all it has. The Irish battled to 25 wins in 30 games and a No. 2 finish in the nation's top conference (Note: teams that finished No. 9 and No. 11 in that conference are still alive, for those piling on the NCAA's-weak Big East).

They were rewarded with two Coach of the Year trophies – in-conference and nationally; a Big East Player of the Year Award as well. Additionally, the team produced a first-team all-league selection from its ranks, plus a third-team honoree (also recognized as the league's top student-athlete) to round out a conference's awards show dominated by the outsiders from South Bend.

That was early March, and the Notre Dame basketball program was relevant again: a top 5 team, one mentioned as a potential No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament – such lofty national status laughably out of reach for the program since the early days of the Reagan Administration.

And then, as it does every season in mid-March, The Tournament That Matters commenced, leaving the Irish on the outside looking in of the Tournament's more intimate weekend gathering that begins this evening.

Virginia Commonwealth

Five days after Notre Dame's season ended in frustratingly familiar fashion – with a rout, one from which no honor could be salvaged – the bulk of its waffling, repeatedly reeling fan base ceased to care.

The same is likely true of Pittsburgh's fans and their feelings toward the school's regular season wrecking crew, after an obscene 15-3 march by the Panthers through the Big East concluded with two losses in their final three games – a quick boot from the conference tourney thanks to wunderkind Kemba Walker (Note: good thing they voted for the league's best player prior to the conference tourney) and an ignominious exit in Round 2 vs. Sweet 16 regular, the Butler Bulldogs.

Speaking of the Bulldogs, head coach Brad Steven's crew has won 7 of its last 8 NCAA Tournament matchups dating back to last March.

Notre Dame has won seven NCAA Tournament tilts, too…dating back to March 1989.

How would Butler fare in the ultra-competitive Big East on a yearly basis, when nearly every game (save for a respite or two with DePaul, and this year, South Florida ) is a bruising, losing proposition? I have no idea, but I'm positive they don't care, either.

Neither do their fans, nor any basketball fan, casual or rabid, from schools such as Xavier or Duke or Wisconsin or Villanova, or this year, Virginia Commonwealth, each of whom are either regularly (or in upset fashion) still ready-to-roll when the Tournament That Matters pares to 16 teams in the sport's four-day weekend showcase.

Had Notre Dame defeated Florida State on Sunday – and this is admittedly a big "if" considering the carnage witnessed, but as talented and determined as the Seminoles were that evening in Chicago, remember three things:

  1. Notre Dame was favored by 5 points, the sixth-highest point spread of the 16-game second round,
  2. Florida State had previously lost 10 games, including seven with top player Chris Singleton in the lineup.
  3. They're Florida State, not John Wooden's UCLA Bruins! The Seminoles were eminently beatable at the hands of a team that showed the toughness, determination, concentration, and execution as did Brey's Irish over the course of the 2011 campaign.

Had the Irish defeated the Seminoles, only Virginia Commonwealth – hot as a firecracker last week, but one of the four final teams deemed worthy of the Field of 68 on Selection Sunday – would stand between Notre Dame and the Elite Eight. Consider that proposition last November, or in early March, or at any point in your basketball viewing lifetime.

Final Impression

Modern college basketball stands polar opposite human nature: the first impression is irrelevant – it's the concluding statement that holds firm in the eyes of the masses.

Notre Dame's last four NCAA exits have been by 10, 20, 1, and 14 points. In none of those four contests did they field a team mildly resembling the respective groups that had previously won 24, 25, 23, and 27 contests that season.

Why? You could rightly blame errant three-point shooting by the arc happy Irish. Of course, Florida State knocked the Irish off their lofty second-seed perch by hitting 7 of their first 10 three-point shots en route to a commanding first half lead.

(Of relevance): Ohio State, Arizona, Richmond, Notre Dame, Duke, Wisconsin, VCU, and BYU all averaged between 7.7 and 8.1 three-point shots per game this season. Only one of those teams won't play this weekend. (That's half the Sweet 16 that "relied" on three-point shots.)

You could instead recall former Irish teams and blame a previous lack of commitment to defense. But did you see Notre Dame play this year? They were at worst a solid defensive team for the better part of 30-plus games. And the same held true at the end of last season when the Irish were bounced from tournament action after allowing a mere 51 points en route to their requisite quick flight home.

Do they play tight? Do they play poorly when recognized for recent success? More pointed: does a lack of depth suddenly matter when one of seven viable contributors succumbs to a back injury early in a second round contest? (If you recall, a bruising freshman forward named Luke Harangody was injured early in the aforementioned loss to Winthrop as well.)

Does the highly decorated and universally respected (at least outside of Notre Dame Message Boards) head coach change his style? No…but does that style not work in a tournament setting? It's easy to answer "no" in hindsight, but take a look back at the number of so-called experts, actual experts (coaches), fans, fanatics, fools, and former players that noted Notre Dame was perfectly equipped to make a deep NCAA run this spring.

Could I list 25 more possibilities, all with some degree of validity, without a definitive answer?

You bet.

But at some point, a program built on consistency in what is consistently the nation's most challenging conference must break through and play into The Tournament That Matter's second weekend, again.

Mike Brey's Irish have been there once. The program itself was there once in the 22 seasons preceding him. And prior to that, a second round loss was a disappointment rather than a rallying cry for the "I told you so" sect that dominates what is now a flawed sport with an unrecognizable regular season.

That regular season isn't even an appetizer anymore, but rather a necessary evil and arduous journey to qualify for Weekend No. 1 in The Tournament That Matters. And for teams that reach the level of regular season success that Notre Dame achieved this season, that first weekend matters little.

It's the new world order of college basketball. It's unfortunate. It's imbalanced. It's also undeniable.

Few care that Notre Dame fielded a smart, competitive, tough, fluid, versatile, fun-to-watch, Top 10 basketball team in 2011. Why? Because they failed to do so in something barely relevant called the Round of 32 last weekend.

Now Irish fans will sit and watch 16 teams compete over the next two days. Three of those teams fell victim to the Irish over something we refer to as "the regular season," though that matters little now. What matters is that players named Kemba and Jimmer and Kawhi and yes, Zeller, will compete for the nation's affections rather than merely those of their own campus.

It's likely that a third of the event's 16 chosen ones will be overmatched tonight or tomorrow; blown out of the water when a superior team has time to prepare. Irrelevant, as each has already achieved something just four Notre Dame teams have managed over the last 50 years – they won consecutive contests in The Tournament That Matters.

Now most Irish fans will sit and wait through another calendar year to validate – or once again, decry – another basketball season joined in progress.

The Tournament That Matters is great entertainment, my favorite time of year, and an money-making machine. But the bulk of college basketball's season is a broken shell of its former self. Disagree? Consider how much you've recently celebrated a football team that won just 61 percent of its games last fall due largely to the fact that it improved throughout its journey.

The journey is supposed to be the thing.

In modern college basketball, it's anything but. Top Stories