Single-minded in purpose

For Notre Dame fans, the last calendar year of basketball has led up to tonight. Normally focused on the overall process of a college basketball season, Notre Dame's head coach and players might finally agree.

At the outset of the Mike Brey era, NCAA Tournament success was roughly commensurate with the program's regular season success.

Three years, and winning totals of 20, 22, and 24 were augmented by four tournament victories, the requisite three losses (if you don't win it all, you get a loss for each appearance) and the school's first Sweet 16 berth in 16 seasons.

Since and including 2013? 10 seasons, the last seven consecutive in excess of 20 victories, six NCAA Tournaments, and the requisite six losses, a whopping five of which occurred vs. lower seeded teams and Vegas underdogs.

Most troubling, just two victories, neither of which occurred vs. a program from a power conference.

The incongruent nature of Notre Dame's regular season success under Brey and its consistent flameout in mid-March cannot be erased. A new era, however, can begin in 2013, Brey's 13th at the helm.

"Our program needs to win a first-round game," said Brey when asked about potential second-round foe and #2 seed Ohio State. "Last year this group did not win a first-round game, we want to do that and then we will reconvene and try and figure it out."

"One thing you don't want to do right now is over-coach or over-practice," he added. "You want guys fresh and you want to be injury-free and frame of mind is good. The one thing about last year in the first round (a 67-63 loss to Xavier), we were playing darn well, but we couldn't finish that thing.

"And I know our backcourt would like another shot at that, they know they played young last year in the first round. They're a lot older now and experienced and I expect them to play like the mature, older guards that they are right now."

Those mature guards are still pained by their second half turnovers -- mental and physical -- in last season's loss.

"I don't think I'm going to watch anymore of that game," said junior captain Eric Atkins of a contest he turned to often for motivation in the off-season. "You know, that game has definitely been always in the back of my head as a determination to get back to this point and get a win. I've been excited to get back to the NCAA Tournament all year and I'm just excited that this opportunity is here now.

"Last year the fact that we didn't get out the first round, it up's the ante a little bit for this first-round game against Iowa State for us. I think we're all approaching it as pretty much a first-round championship game, it is. I think that's the only thing we're focused on, and that's what we're going to get ready for."

"Guys just don't want to see the season end that way," said his backcourt mate Jerian Grant. It was Grant's lane violation that negated a successful Atkins free throw that would have drawn the Irish to within a point of Xavier (with a subsequent free throw attempt to follow) with 2.8 remaining.

40-minute Focus

To a man, the Irish expect last year's disappointment better prepared them to advance this spring.

"When you look at it last year there were guys going through it for the first time, or maybe not for the first time but for the first time as key guys on the team," said sophomore swingman Pat Connaughton. "So this time I think we're ready, we know what to expect.  You look at the game last year, we were winning most of it, at the end we kinda let it go, and that's something we will be ready for this year. 

"We will be ready to close. We know the toughness the teams play with because it is win or go home and when people's backs are against the wall you have another gear that you have and that's something we have to bring to the table as well."

Notre Dame has held a sizable advantage in both of its recent first-round losses: up 10 with 12:22 to play vs. Xavier last March; up eight over #12 seed Old Dominion early in the second stanza two seasons prior.

If the Irish earn an 8-10 point edge tonight vs. Iowa State, the Cyclones have the firepower to erase it on three trips.

"They're unique," said Brey of the ISU approach. "With five shooters on the floor at times and spreading you out and not much of a low post presence, it's really an adjustment for us.  We played some similar teams in our league, but not anything like this.

"I thought, as much time as we had, we needed to prepare for our big guys, not playing a whole lot of post defense, but having to rotate up and maybe switch out on a shooter."

The Cyclones led the nation in three-point shots made and attempted, ranking 16th overall in offensive efficiency and fourth in points per game. The Irish finished 24th in offensive efficiency and will take on an Iowa State squad mired at 155th. Notre Dame, though far better in the season's final month, finished just 127th.

Translation: points will be scored.

For just the third time since a 2003 run to the Sweet 16, look for the Irish to score most of them in an opening round win.

Notre Dame 79 Iowa State 72 Top Stories