History suggests that it won’t matter; logic says this is the year for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team to break through.
For the 10th time in 15 seasons, Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish squad will make an appearance in the NCAA tournament. He took his first three Notre Dame squads -- beginning with the 2000-01 season -- to the Big Dance, winning four games, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2002-03 with victories over UW-Milwaukee and Illinois before losing to Arizona.
Since then, it has been way more famine than feast, despite three seasons of at least 25 victories, including 27 in 2010-11 when the Irish landed a No. 2 seed and a friendly Chicago venue for the opening weekend.
In the last 11 seasons, Notre Dame has made six NCAA tournament appearances, winning just twice – against George Mason in 2008 and Akron in 2011. Tony Bennett’s Washington State squad smoked the Irish in Denver after the victory over George Mason, and Florida State thumped Notre Dame by 14 after a struggle against Akron in Chicago.
Along the way, the NCAA tournament losses haven’t exactly come to the nation’s perennial powers. The other four losses in addition to Washington State and Florida State came at the hands of Winthrop (2007), Old Dominion (2009), Xavier (2012) and Iowa State (2013), the latter of which was a quality team under head coach Fred Hoiberg.
Add it all up and since Brey’s Sweet 16 trip in 2003, the Irish have been a non-factor in the NCAA tournament.
This year has the makings of a different scenario. Instead of talking about what a tricky match-up Notre Dame has against its opponent, it should be the other way around. No, the Irish don’t pound the backboards as well as a team would like. But the defense is vastly improved, and offensively, the Irish are about as multi-faceted as any team in the country.
With Notre Dame scoring in droves – including an ACC leading six games of at least 80 points in conference play – Notre Dame has an excellent chance to not only land a top three seed, but to also be placed in a regionally-friendly environment.
Louisville, where the Irish will play the Cardinals next week, and Pittsburgh, where Notre Dame was a few weeks back, would be familiar landing spots. Columbus, Ohio is a third Midwestern location.
Wherever the Irish are placed, it’s important that they land a top three seed, at least in terms of opponents after the first weekend of the tournament. As a No. 3 seed, the Irish would play a No. 14 seed in the first game and the winner of a No. 6 vs. No. 11 seed in the second game.
As a No. 4 seed, the Irish would be playing a No. 5 seed in the second game.
If the Irish are to be placed in the Midwest Regional – which they likely would be with a No. 2 or 3 finish in the ACC – they would have to face Kentucky to emerge from that portion of the bracket.
Now that’s unlikely for any team, particularly Notre Dame, which hasn’t advanced to second-weekend action in more than a decade. But if the Irish were able to win their first two games of the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 or 5 seed in the Midwest Regional, they would have to play a No. 1 seed, and in the Midwest, that would be an undefeated Kentucky squad in the third game.
If, however, the Irish are as high as a No. 3 seed, they’d likely be paired with a No. 2 seed in the third game, which isn’t a huge difference, but perhaps enough of one to advance to the Elite Eight.
According to Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology on ESPN – which, by the way, is an educated guess as to match-ups and locations, and a bit more informed in terms of seeding – Notre Dame currently is a No. 3 seed in the Midwest paired against current Big West leader UC Davis (21-4, 11-1) in Columbus with the winner taking on the winner of Providence vs. Stanford-Boise State.
Again, the speculation of opponents basically is a stab in the dark. The NCAA selection committee could have a completely different perspective on who plays where and against whom.
Yet suffice it to say that for Notre Dame to maximize this opportunity – remember, Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton will be gone in 2015-16, and the Irish won’t be nearly as dangerous as they are now – catching Kentucky or another No. 1 seed in the fourth game instead of the third certainly improves Notre Dame’s chances of making their deepest run in the NCAA tournament since the Digger Phelps era.
Of course, skeptics will say this is getting way ahead of the curve since the Irish almost always pack away the basketballs after the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. But if this is to be a true outlier season for the Irish, landing a top 3 seed certainly could aid the cause.