‘We still have a long way to go’

If there was a slight in Notre Dame catching a No. 3 seed after winning the ACC and being put in Kentucky’s region, the Irish didn’t show it. Notre Dame tips at 12:15 p.m. on Thursday against Northeastern.

Pat Connaughton walked into the basketball auditorium inside the Joyce Center on Sunday with last night’s unofficial trophy draped around his neck. Asked if he’d removed that Greensboro Coliseum net since Notre Dame made history by knocking off North Carolina, Connaughton said he’d even showered with it.

But the net comes off Monday for good.

Notre Dame was handed a No. 3 seed in the Midwest Regional after arriving back in South Bend, drawing Northeastern in the opening game of the entire Round of 64. The Irish tip at 12:15 p.m. (eastern) Thursday from Pittsburgh against the Colonial Athletic Association tournament winners.

That means the Irish (29-5) and Huskies (23-11) both earned automatic bids.

The comparisons stop there, even if head coach Mike Brey sold the match-up as an ACC caliber game. Parallels with previous Brey squads don’t hold up either, with this Irish team saturated with confidence following last weekend’s historic run through Miami, Duke and North Carolina.

“We’ve talked about cutting some new nets down,” said Jerian Grant, ACC Tournament MVP. “There’s something special with this team and we still have a long way to go.”

If Notre Dame wanted to feel slighted, it could.

According to the seeding committee, the Irish were the final No. 3 seed and just one line ahead of North Carolina, slated as the top No. 4. That’s despite beating No. 1 seed Duke twice to go with winning at No. 4 North Carolina and at No. 4 Louisville.

Notre Dame does get the boost of staying local, playing in Pittsburgh on Thursday and Saturday – the Irish would get the winner of No. 6 Butler-No. 11 Texas in the Round of 32 – and would advance to the Sweet 16 in Cleveland.

However, getting there would likely mean back-to-back games against No. 2 Kansas and No. 1 Kentucky. The top overall seed Wildcats enter the tournament at 34-0, looking to become the first unbeaten NCAA Tournament champion since 1976.

“A successful run is … sky’s the limit,” Connaughton said. “This is a different team. From the very beginning we wanted to establish ourselves as a different team. Almost like a reinvented program. We wanted to be different. We wanted to do things this program has never done.”

Notre Dame rested Sunday and will rest again Monday before diving into two days of preparation for Northeastern. Notre Dame will depart for Pittsburgh on Tuesday, likely bussing to the NCAA Tournament site after a local practice.

Winning a major conference title was new territory for Brey, which makes this week new too. For a program that’s won just two NCAA Tournament games in the past dozen years, that could be a very good thing.

“It’s the most confident I’ve been with a team going to the NCAA Tournament,” Brey said.

Brey brushed off questions about the mounting pressure of past tournament disappointments, which includes losing to double-digit seeds the past four trips. The program’s last NCAA win came four years ago against No. 15 Akron.
“The biggest thing is not to over-analyze,” Brey said. “I’m at a point in my career, I don’t dwell on it. Maybe I would be if I was younger. The thing we’re doing different this year is we’re going into this thing after winning a championship. That’s maybe the biggest thing. We handled our league tournament at another level. That gives us a great chance to do more.”

“I’m motivated to keep wanting to make that run. I’m excited about the possibilities with this group.”

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