Harsh Reality

With or without its best player Jerian Grant, Mike Brey's 2013-14 Irish basketball squad was likely to be on the outside looking in.

With Grant in the fold, Notre Dame lost to both Indiana State and North Dakota State -- in South Bend. With Grant, the Irish beat Indiana, took Iowa to the wire, and beat Ohio State for 39 minutes. But with Grant, Notre Dame was still just 8-4. Capable of both scoring and giving up points aplenty.

The NCAA Tournament's proverbial bubble was the team's most realistic placement. Instead, sans Grant, suspended in late December for academic deficiencies, they're on the outside looking in -- of NIT consideration.

Notre Dame needs two wins in the forthcoming ACC Tournament (March 12-16) before its first loss to finish .500 and therefore qualify for consideration.

Two wins, the first vs. the likes of Boston College, Georgia Tech, Miami, or Wake Forest, then a second against teams such as Clemson, Pittsburgh, or North Carolina State.

Among those two groups, there's not a team the Irish can't, didn't, or almost didn't defeat. There's likewise not a team incapable of beating or taking the Irish to the final gun.

Notre Dame could lose to any team next week, at any time. The goal is two wins and thus, NIT qualifications. A pipe dream for those with blue and gold colored glasses would be three wins before defeat -- a nice ending to a rough season for a team that refuses to give in.

Any wins thereafter would be miraculous and trust me, if you're just tuning in -- and from the looks of the Purcell Pavilion this season, you might be -- this team, while scrappy and at times gutty, is incapable of extended success and miracles.

But two wins and the NIT selection committee will likely look favorably on the Irish among it's 32 teams. That's technically teams ranked #69 through #100 overall after the 68-team NCAA field is chosen, but let's be honest, Notre Dame even with an *RPI north of #100, would likely be chosen to play in a televised basketball game.

(*Notre Dame's current RPI is #116 with a non-conference rating of #101. Winning two games in the ACC Tournament would thus improve the former, potentially crucial number.)

What went wrong?

Ranked No. 21 by the Associated Press (No. 22 in the Coach's Poll) in the pre-season, Brey's Irish absorbed a serious of blows -- both on and off the court -- with the end result 16 losses in 31 games played.

The pre-season decision to redshirt sophomore scoring threat Cam Biedscheid wasn't basketball related. Biedscheid wasn't competing in the classroom, which would have put his ability to remain in the fray in the spring semester in jeopardy. Forced concentration on academics was Brey's only recourse for the promising swing man.

It didn't work, and Biedscheid jumped ship, enrolling at Missouri in January.

Not yet capable of playing well with others on the offensive end, Biedscheid nonetheless could have added a scoring punch to what proved an inconsistent Irish offense. Defensively? Let's just say the abhorrent Irish defense -- ranked No. 184 nationally by the well-respected analytics of Kenpom.com after its final regular season contest -- could have fallen as easily as risen.

The loss of Grant proved too much to overcome

Far more important classroom conundrums were those of Grant's, whose academic issues turned what would have been a perimeter-driven, potentially difficult offense to guard into a predictable inside-out attack that lacked the crisp ball movement and knock-down shooting skills of its Brey era predecessors.

Defensively, Grant would have guarded the opponent's best guard. He'd have been Notre Dame's best offensive player and creator, and likely the difference in more than one of the team's myriad close defeats.

But Notre Dame didn't finish one, or two, or even five wins away from the NCAA bubble. They're 15-16, and though Grant is good, he's not Doug McDermott.

On the court, Notre Dame's big man trio of Garrick Sherman, Zach Auguste, and Tom Knight had intermittent success amid injuries. Sherman was a low-post scoring machine, one rarely stopped by a single defender, but he was routinely turned over by the presence of a second.

As first exposed by a polished, powerful Virginia squad in mid-January, double-teaming Sherman after a post catch often resulted in an Irish offense that couldn't function.

Defensively, the three post players represented either the worst or *second worst interior group of the Brey era. (*If the 2014 defense is a sieve, the 2009 squad was a sinkhole.)

None from the trio of bigs could singularly or collectively replace graduated rock Jack Cooley's presence or intensity, either on the low block, protecting the paint, or on the glass.

Notre Dame's defensive interior was bludgeoned throughout 2014

Exacerbating the lack of interior toughness is the reality that if you could combine the trio's collective game night efforts, they might not broach Cooley's on a Tuesday afternoon practice, much less when the ball was tipped live.

It was likewise a blow that five-star prospect Demetrius Jackson played like a freshman -- and a tentative one at that. His future is bright, but Notre Dame 2014 needed much more from its No. 2 individual talent when No. 1 was suspended in December.

The door was open for Jackson to follow in the footsteps of 2007 freshman Tory Jackson who likewise stepped into a larger role as the result of player suspension (point guard Kyle McAlarney). Those Irish were better for it, and Jackson was a key cog. The new Jackson though fell far short of anyone's expectations: fans', Brey's, and his own.

(Summer 2014 and a team playing tour in Europe will prove crucial for both Jackson and Grant, the one-season backcourt of the Irish future.)

Games missed by due to injury, illness, and academics by starters Jackson, Sherman, Knight, Auguste, and Austin Burgett further stretched a squad that lost two of its pre-season top 10 players even further.

Continuity was nearly impossible to achieve. Consistency never was.

Reminiscent and thus, forgettable

There aren't many seasons among his 14 in which Brey didn't find an adequate answer to mask his team's deficiencies. This will be the fifth NIT (or worse) squad of his tenure, but 2014 joins the aforementioned 2009 squad -- ludicrously ranked No. 10 in the pre-season -- atop the short list of outright disappointments.

Jackson's expected improvement is crucial for 2015

They'll need to refresh and refocus (Notre Dame has from March 4 through March 11 without a contest), a few timely, traffic rebounds and defensive stops, and clutch shooting from both beyond the arc and from the charity stripe, to win in Greensboro and make the NIT -- a consolation prize that's doubtless of little interest to Irish fans, but a tournament with historical value to be sure.

If not, the CBI -- the College Basketball Invitational -- awaits. In case you didn't know that the CBI is indeed "a thing" it's notable that the tournament champion of 2011 was none other than Jamie Dixon's Pittsburgh Panthers.

It's also notable that the deflated Irish would be unlikely to offer anything resembling a commendable effort in a tournament of third-rate also-rans.

Chasing the dream of an ACC Tournament run and rallying the troops to play Pittsburgh on Senior Night or at North Carolina on ESPN's Big Monday is one thing. Staring down St. Bonaventure or Quinnipiac in a half-empty (believe me, it wouldn't be half-full) CBI Tournament site is another.

Silver lining: Steve Vasturia

While Notre Dame's bigs played small, freshman Steve Vasturia came up big, and the latter will be relevant for 2015 and beyond.

In Vasturia, Notre Dame has a 6'5" off guard that can serve as a reliable third ball-handler. More important, he has a feel for the game on both ends (Brey noted Vasturia is already their best perimeter defender), and possesses the inherent clutch gene known to precious few. He's a winning basketball player that makes enough little to plays to help win big games.

Vasturia entered the program with the reputation of a knock down shooter, but his shot trajectory has remained flat throughout 2014. He's nonetheless been formidable from beyond the arc in games close and late, and there's little doubt the St. Joseph's Prep (Philadelphia) product will evolve into a potent collegiate shooter.

(A prediction: Vasturia ended the season a middling 24 for 36 from the free throw line. He'll top 80 percent next year and flirt with 85-87 percent in the two seasons thereafter.)

Vasturia was the team's best newcomer in 2014

Fortunately for Brey and Irish fans, he's capable of much more than hitting spot-up jump shots.

With the return of Grant, the expected (vast?) improvement of Jackson, and the presence of senior Pat Connaughton, the 2015 Irish offense will be perimeter driven. You can add to that mix Vasturia's name, presence, and floor game.

Atkins and "The Man" gave it their all

In direct relation to Grant's departure was the increased responsibilities shouldered by senior Eric Atkins. The three-time team captain was asked to score more, create more, and defend a better opposing guard for longer, all-the-while leading an ever-changing collection of unproven players in a new, highly competitive conference.

Atkins will most likely be named Team MVP for his season efforts. He's doubtless the coach's most valuable person and competitor over the last two years, and its notable the on court Irish product would have been rudderless without him (even with Grant in tow).

Atkins most memorable moments came as a sophomore (a program record nine-game Big East winning streak included) and as freshman when he aided the Ben Hansbrough-led Irish as the sixth-man for a team that reached a No. 5 national ranking in late February.

Atkins' final game efforts nearly resulted in a seismic upset in Chapel Hill

His best since though will unfortunately be overlooked due to the season-ending swoon suffered against Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament last March coupled with this year's lost cause.

Atkins provided what he was capable of as 2014 embarked on its inevitable downward spiral: he kept the team competitive and afloat.

"Pat was a man" Fellow 2014 co-captain -- both technically and in his nightly performance -- Pat Connaughton was likewise asked to do everything and responded in kind.

The junior produced at a level that made him the team's best rebounder, outside shooter, post defender, free throw shooter, athlete, and toughest player.

On a great college basketball team, Connaughton would be an invaluable sixth-man. On a legitimately good team, Connaughton would serve as the all-important "glue guy."

On a team such as the 2014 Irish, he was asked to be the star, and at times, he proved capable. But like Atkins, the role Connaughton was thrust into was too much to ask of the competitor Brey often refers to as "A Man." Not for a lack of effort, but because over 31 regular season games, too many superior players, teams, and athletes make their way onto Notre Dame's schedule.

Connaughton continued to improve to the bitter end

Right or wrong, Brey wouldn't trade his leading pair for any in the nation. They were the constants, at least in terms of effort and concentration. The bulk of Notre Dame's supporting cast though never matched their leaders' level of aggression -- or performance.

The harsh reality of the 2014 season remains that Notre Dame was often competitive and inspired as a fully functioning unit in spurts, but rarely over a 40-minute span, and in precious few back-to-back outings.

And the harsh reality of big time college basketball remains forever unchanged: that will never be good enough.

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