Only nine college basketball programs have gone to the NCAA tournament more often than Notre Dame. But the Irish have been fighting a six-decade trend of early exits and devastating losses, which they hope to reverse this week when they travel to Pittsburgh as a No. 3 seed versus No. 14 seed Northeastern in the Midwest Regional.
The Irish certainly began making a move in the right direction this past week when they defeated Miami, Duke and North Carolina to claim the 62nd annual ACC tournament in their second year in the league.
The Irish appear well-equipped to get past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. A victory over the Huskies Thursday would send them to the Round of 32 against the winner of No. 6 seed Butler vs. No. 11 seed Texas.
And yet history shows that the Irish have had high hopes in the past, only to have their season come crashing down in tragic fashion. As recently as four seasons ago, No. 2-seeded Notre Dame lost in its second game to No. 10 seed Florida State in Chicago, finishing with a 27-7 record.
Back in 1974, Digger Phelps took his No. 3-ranked, 26-2 squad into Tuscaloosa, Ala., to play Michigan. The Irish lost to the Wolverines, 77-68, despite being led by standouts John Shumate, Adrian Dantley and Gary Brokaw.
Seven years later, 23-5 Notre Dame led most of the game and had BYU on the ropes in Atlanta. But Danny Ainge’s length-of-the-court drive and game-winning bucket gave the Cougars the 51-50 victory, ending the successful run of standouts Kelly Tripucka, Tracy Jackson and Orlando Woolridge.
Over the next 19 years, the Irish would win just four NCAA tournament games.
Notre Dame made it first NCAA tournament appearance in 1953 when the University lifted its self-imposed post-season ban. The Irish are 31-37 in 33 NCAA tournament trips, including six “consolation” games (2-4), which were eliminated three years after Notre Dame made its only Final Four appearance in 1978.
Phelps took eight straight Irish teams (1974-81) to the NCAA tournament, a school record. But he struggled to maintain that success over the final years of his 20-year run at Notre Dame. The Irish failed to make the Big Dance three straight years in the ‘80s and made first-game exits in four of his last eight trips to the NCAA tournament, including losses to Arkansas-Little Rock and SMU.
Current Irish head coach Mike Brey has experienced some of the anguish Phelps did in post-season play. He, too, has lost four times in the first game of the NCAA tournament, including four of his last six trips vs. Winthrop (2007), Old Dominion (2010), Xavier (2012) and Iowa State (2013).
Notre Dame’s early years in the NCAA tournament were its best and most consistent. In their first four NCAA tournament appearances, the Irish were 8-4, including an upset victory over No. 1-ranked Indiana in 1954. (That 22-3 Notre Dame squad was captained by future Irish athletics director Dick Rosenthal.)
In fact, the Irish were a true thorn in the side of the powerhouse Hoosiers, who were bumped out of the NCAA tournament by Notre Dame three times within a six-year span.
The Irish have won as many as two games in the NCAA tournament just seven times – 1953, 1954, 1958, 1978, 1979, 1987 and 2003. Phelps’ 1977-78 team defeated Houston, Utah and DePaul to advance to the Final Four in St. Louis to take on Bill Foster’s Duke squad, who would be succeeded three years later by 33-year-old Mike Krzyzewski. Duke ended Notre Dame’s run with a 90-86 victory over the Irish. That was the last time the Irish won as many as three games in an NCAA tournament.
Phelps’ 1978-79 squad advanced to the Elite Eight in Indianapolis, only to run into Magic Johnson-led Michigan State en route to the national title. Phelps’ third-deepest march into the NCAA tournament came in 1987, which opened with wins over Middle Tennessee State and TCU before losing by six points to Dean Smith’s North Carolina team in East Rutherford, N.J.
Notre Dame will be making its 34th NCAA tournament appearance this week, including its 10th under Brey. Phelps has the most NCAA tournament appearances (14), followed by John Jordan (6) and John Dee (4).
Those are the only four coaches to take Notre Dame to the NCAA tournament. Their records are: Brey (6-9), Phelps (15-16), Dee (2-6) and Jordan (8-6).