Months after the best regular season at the men's basketball program in 30 years, media – national pundits included, but especially local scribes – took one look at Mike Brey's depleted roster and allowed the team's repeated slogan to go in one ear and out the other.
It was misconstrued as an admission, and maybe even a built-in excuse heading into what was slated to be a down season:
"We just want to get better every day."
The phrase should be the root of team sports, but it seemed trite at the major college level, and considering the end goal of every team is to hear its name called on Selection Sunday in mid-March, few believed Brey, or co-captain Scott Martin, or future co-captain Eric Atkins, that the team would follow a one-day-at-a-time mantra from start to finish.
"We just want to get better every day."
After consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and bids in four of the last five seasons, Notre Dame entered 2012 with little hope of reaching the only tournament that matters at season's end. Not with this roster and not after losing its best player – one of the league's best, to boot – before Thanksgiving leftovers had been digested.
In the modern era of Division I basketball, the goal of most basketball fans is: NCAA Tournament or Bust. Just get in The Big Dance so the informed, uninformed, and ill-informed masses can discuss your program for one, two, or in rare cases, three weeks.
Somehow, after looking all-the-world like boys vs. men during a trying non-conference stretch, Brey's youngsters grew up. They sit tied for third in the Big East, 6-3 at the season's midway point and still have a proven trump card remaining…five home games in their final nine heading toward tournament play.
Well-PositionedMissouri beat them by 40, or maybe it was 30 or even 20, but if you watched the November 21 contest between the flying Tigers and plodding Irish, it might as well have been a 50-point blowout leveled on Brey's Bunch. It was no contest. Nor was their first true road game weeks later in Spokane, another 20-point defeat, and this time at the hands of Gonzaga who repaid the Irish for a loss suffered in South Bend last season.
Notre Dame encountered six teams with a pulse before the Big East season began on December 27. They lost to five of them with the only win a six-point home victory over Detroit, one that might end up irrelevant as the supposedly dangerous Titans have struggled to a 6-5 mark in the Horizon league.
The Irish had predictably won eight and lost five before their requisite Big East beatings had commenced. But when the opening bell rang vs. #22 Pittsburgh on the 27th, Brey's short-handed, undermanned group began their arduous journey toward the aforementioned stated goal:
They started getting better every day.
Four wins have since been banked (to borrow a phrase from the head coach) vs. ranked foes: two occurred in enemy territory, another in a nationally televised battle vs. the nation's No. 1 undefeated Syracuse Orange.
For the first time since 2002, Notre Dame began its league schedule with three wins in its first five road games. They've inexplicably won six games including three straight: vs. #1 Syracuse, at Seton Hall, at #24 Connecticut, a stretch that serves as the most impressive of the season to date.
The Irish return home for what will be a trying game vs. Marquette Saturday night. The Golden Eagles defensive intensity might be the only antidote for Notre Dame's painfully effective Burn Offense.
But Brey's bunch hasn't won 31 of its last 32 in South Bend by accident. They're a dominant home team–one of the five or six best in the sport–and five games remain on the Joyce Center Floor. A whopping 42 of the last 48 Big East foes to take the court in South Bend have gone home in defeat (Marquette is 1-2 in that stretch including an 80-75 defeat in the Purcell Pavilion last January).
Of Notre Dame's four remaining road tilts, only two appear especially difficult: a trip to Morgantown vs. West Virginia as the Mountaineers have beaten Brey's Irish in 4 of 6 during the Bob Huggins era including all four games played outside South Bend. And a late February battle at current #10 Georgetown, though the Irish have handled the Hoyas in three straight.
With six wins in nine league games and nine more to play, Notre Dame's "Magic Number" to borrow a baseball term, is four: four more wins will put the Irish in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Any four, with the Big East Tournament having no bearing on their end-season resume.
Any more would be gravy; conversely, any less could prove problematic.
The latter is unlikely for a team that continues to get better every day.