Bar raised: Sweet 16 or bust

Notre Dame has won as many as two games in the NCAA tournament (excluding consolation games) just eight times, including three under Digger Phelps and two under Mike Brey.

When Notre Dame made a run to the Elite Eight last year, and then nearly knocked off No. 1-ranked and undefeated Kentucky for a berth to the Final Four, the bar – which had been set low and rarely surpassed for three-and-a-half decades – was raised a couple of notches.

The immediate, tangible and expected goal: get to the second weekend.

Welcome to the new norm, or at least the expectation for a program that has made a habit of finishing among the upper echelon of its two conference affiliations – the Big East and the ACC -- both of which were/are among the nation’s elite.

The Irish have won as many as two games in the NCAA tournament (excluding consolation games) just eight times – 1953, 1954, 1958, 1978, 1979, 1987, 2003 and 2015 – including twice under current head coach Mike Brey and three times under Digger Phelps.

Notre Dame will be making its 35th NCAA tournament appearance – 14 under Phelps, 11 under Brey, six under John Jordan and four under John Dee.

Those are the only four coaches to take Notre Dame to the NCAA tournament. Their records are: Brey (9-10), Phelps (15-16), Dee (2-6) and Jordan (8-6).

But now, with an ACC tournament championship under its belt and the school’s sixth bid in seven years, a trip to the Big Dance – and even a victory in the opening game – isn’t enough.

Those are the expectations for the Brey-coached squad that has built its profile in the Big East and ACC regular seasons and tournaments. The Irish have won 11 conference tournament games in the last eight years, including at least one victory in seven of those eight years.

The next goal on the agenda is to be one of those opponents that first-weekend NCAA tournament teams do not want to face. The proverbial “tough out.”

With the loss of Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton – first- and second-round draft choices who spearheaded Notre Dame’s run to the Elite Eight – expectations for a repeat of last year’s accomplishments have been tempered.

Notre Dame’s struggle over the last month, including a 21-point loss at Florida State, followed by an 18-point loss at home to Miami and a 31-point bludgeoning from ACC champ North Carolina Saturday night clearly indicate the Irish are not playing their best basketball, which came during an early-February stretch against the Tar Heels at home, at Clemson and Louisville at home.

But the new norm demands advancement past the one of eight regional sites from which the Irish will be placed: Providence, R.I.; Brooklyn; Raleigh, N.C.; St. Louis; Des Moines, Iowa; Oklahoma City; Denver and Spokane, Wash.

If the Irish can get past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, they would be shipped to one of four sites: Anaheim, Calif., Chicago, Philadelphia or Louisville.

Reality is a bit more than just “they should get to the Sweet 16” demand. Most bracketologists – led by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi – have the Irish as a No. 7 seed. That means a first-round game against a No. 10 seed, followed by an expected matchup with a No. 2 seed.

Could the Irish be pushed up as high as a No. 6? Perhaps. The victory over Duke may have been enough to give Notre Dame a bump.

“What are we a 6-seed? A 7-seed? A 6 ½?” said Brey shortly after Notre Dame’s one-sided loss to the Tar Heels Friday night. “Doesn’t (the win over Duke) get you to a six? We have five top 30 RPI wins and three away from our building. We have a very good resume.”

A 6-seed means a first-round game against a No. 11, followed by a matchup with a No. 3.

If the Irish are a 6-seed, among the potential No. 11-seed opponents suggested by Lunardi are Texas, Cincinnati, the winner of play-in game San Diego State- South Carolina or Temple-Monmouth. (Note: the Irish played and lost to Monmouth in late November, so the committee likely would not schedule a rematch in the first round.)

A win over a No. 11 – a bit trickier because of the level of opponent/conference affiliation with the teams in the play-in games – would lead to a second-round game against a No. 3 seed.

Among 3 seeds suggested by Lunardi are Miami, Kentucky, Utah and West Virginia. (Note: the committee wouldn’t pair Notre Dame up with ACC brethren Miami in round two.)

More realistic is a 7-seed, which could mean a clash with Connecticut (which plays Memphis today for the American championship), St. Bonaventure or Gonzaga. (Note: Lunardi’s fourth suggestion is the ACC’s Pittsburgh.)

With Villanova’s loss to Seton Hall and Michigan State’s advancement to the Big Ten’s championship game against Purdue, the Wildcats have fallen to a projected No. 2 seed while the Spartans have moved up to a 1-seed.

Potential 2-seed opponents if a No. 7-seeded Irish win in round one are the aforementioned Villanova, Oklahoma, Xavier and Oregon.

We’ll see Sunday night where the Irish end up. Irish Illustrated’s prediction: a No. 7 see versus a No. 10 in Brooklyn with a first-round win leading to No. 2 seed Villanova in round two.

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