NIT qualifiers must finish with .500 records or better, and with a monumental task on tap Monday night in the Irish regular season finale at North Carolina, a home victory, on Senior Day, against long-time rival Pittsburgh remains paramount.
The Panthers (21-7, 9-6) have struggled of late, dropping five of their last eight including three straight to then No. 1 Syracuse, the aforementioned Tar Heels (now winners of 10 consecutive), and a talented but underachieving Florida State squad.
Pittsburgh's last four league wins have come courtesy of foes with sub .500 league marks and they'l have a chance for another today vs. the 6-10 Irish.
The Panthers are staked as three-point favorites on Senior Day in South Bend. Pittsburgh hasn't beaten Notre Dame on its home court since March 2005 -- an 85-77 Senior Day win that burst the NCAA Tournament bubble for a 17-10 (9-7 in league play) Irish squad one season removed from the Sweet 16.
Should the Irish lose today and not achieve a remarkable upset in Chapel Hill thereafter, a potential NIT bid would rest on the outcome of a first round ACC Tournament game. A win today guarantees nothing as the NIT, like the NCAA, utilizes a selection committee to choose its 32-team tournament. Notre Dame though would be an attractive squad with an RPI that would approach 100 and wins over Indiana, Duke, Clemson, and Pittsburgh.
If the Irish aren't selected, the lesser-known College Basketball Invitational (CBI) would be a possible landing spot. Interest for the event would be minimal among Irish fans (and maybe Irish players and staff members). In short, they'd have more to lose than to gain. Acceptance of a CBI invitation would benefit the program little.
But the NIT -- admittedly more than 30 years removed from its heyday as an appealing consolation prize to the Big Dance -- would suffice as an appropriate landing spot for a team that struggled from the season's outset.
Short of a miracle run through the ACC Tournament, the NIT is the program's obvious short-term goal.
"We've had some unbelievable battles with this program," said Brey of a Panthers team his Irish have defeated in five straight, including a 2011 date in the Steel City in which Pittsburgh ranked second nationally. "I told our guys we have a chance to play an NCAA tournament team, and it would be a heckuva win for us."
One that would extend their season and provide a modicum of momentum entering March.