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O’Malley’s Tournament Musings

Today’s Monday Musings immerse Irish fans in unfamiliar territory: back-to-back seasons of basketball relevance and Week 2 of the NCAA Tourney.

1 – Never Before: Notre Dame’s win over Stephen F. Austin Sunday offered a program first: five wins in a six-game tournament span. It’s also the first time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that the Irish reached consecutive Sweet 16s.

Digger Phelps’ Irish won five games over a two-season span in 1978-79 when they advanced to the ’78 Final Four with three wins (losing to Sunday’s game announcer Jim Spanarkel and Duke) and thereafter winning two en route to the ’79 Elite 8 (falling to Magic Johnson). But that run included consecutive losses in the ’78 Final Four, back when the extraneous “consolation” game was part of the proceedings, thus making it five wins over seven games, not six.

Which reminds me: It’s remarkable that consolation games were once part of this tournament – and that they likewise existed in regional play as well (a regional consolation game would be attended by about 16 people these days).

I can’t imagine a less intriguing game for fans, not to mention coaches and players, than a Final Four consolation matchup.

2 – Please Not Again: From a sobering 6-9 to 11-10 with a bullet – that’s Mike Brey’s journey as a tournament coach over the last two seasons. His squad’s gritty play has silenced any reasonable doubters of the Irish head man – or at least any doubter that understands the sport, or you know, “sports.”

Long regarded as a coach that does the most with the relative least in the regular season, Brey’s recent tourney success is due to myriad factors, not the least of which is the mental toughness of his core players. But it must be reiterated: increased athleticism at crucial positions (point guard, big man, second big) has played a large part, as has the recruitment of taller, longer shooters.

When a 6’8” athlete such as V.J. Beachem is your best shooter it’s inherently better for your squad than if it’s, for the sake of relevant comparison, the much smaller Kyle McAlarney – perhaps the best pure shooter in program history.

The Sweet 16 is a reasonable program goal going forward – how out 2 out of every 4 seasons? – but so too is eradicating the frustrating one-and-done no-shows of the recent past in order to maintain program momentum.

3 – A Tip to Toby: 40 years and one week after Notre Dame forward Toby Knight knocked Cincinnati out of the 1976 NCAA Tournament with a tip-in at the buzzer, current Irish freshman guard Rex Pflueger turned the trick against Stephen F. Austin in Sunday’s 76-75 thriller – both “rebound goals” (to borrow from the late, great Jack Lloyd) sent Irish squads to the Sweet 16.

Have a look:

4 – In Good Company: Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Gonzaga and Notre Dame…the nation’s reigning back-to-back Sweet 16 squads.

(Duke and Wisconsin and ND advanced to the 2015 Elite 8.)

The former group of seven serves as a quality measuring stick for a program’s success. Considering the scope of modern college basketball and Notre Dame’s spot in it, rejoining the latter trio after Friday night would rank as the greatest accomplishment in Irish basketball history.

5 – In Better Company: In case you missed it, senior Zach Auguste has made good on 40 of his 54 field goal attempts in the last two NCAA Tournaments (six games, 74 percent). Throw in a throwaway 3-for-5 effort in a blowout loss to Iowa State in the 2013 tourney as a true freshman and Auguste’s career field goal percentage mark is 72.8 percent.

Now officially 43 of 59 from the floor, Auguste needs 11 more field goal attempts to qualify for the career NCAA Tournament record currently held by UCLA’s Bill Walton (shocker!) who connected at a 68.6 percent clip over a 12-game span en route to two championships.

Of note: When your name is mentioned with BILL WALTON in the NCAA Tournament, you’re doing something right.

6 – All Irish: Rex Pflueger is the hero (and he’ll be called upon for his accustomed role as defensive stopper this Friday) but V.J. Beachem is chief among the reasons Notre Dame was playing basketball on Sunday…

Auguste’s only miss from the field Sunday was the potential game-winner with three seconds remaining…Demetrius Jackson is back, and that means the Irish have a chance to beat Wisconsin Friday night, but my guess is they’ll need one good half from the artist formerly known as Steve Vasturia, too… You heard it here first: If de facto eighth-man Matt Ryan hits three more three-point shots (during competitive game action) this weekend, the Irish will go to the Final Four. And it wouldn’t hurt if Indiana won Friday night, too…

Kudos to Matt Farrell for his clutch late-game, late-clock jumper (onions!) that followed a quality first half of action Sunday afternoon, but Bonzie Colson must return as a bigger piece to the puzzle going forward, because going small vs. Wisconsin’s trio of Hayes, Happ, and Brown would result in a slow, painful death. Farrell can stay in the mix, but Notre Dame needs its “Junkyard Dog” to win against the Badgers…

Two-point underdogs to Wichita State in last year’s Sweet 16, the current Irish are favored by 1 against Wisconsin. They were favored by 1.5 vs. SFA yesterday and much to my chagrin, did not cover…

7 – Around the Tourney: In the history of, well, HISTORY, my goodness Northern Iowa, how did you ever let that happen last night?

2016 Stephen F. Austin is a better basketball team than the University of Michigan, and it’s not that close…Six ACC teams in the 2016 Sweet 16 = Jamie Dixon has some explaining to do…It should be noted from Point #5 above that Duke and Wisconsin are on a whole different level in terms of recent tournament success than the rest of the Sweet 16 squads listed…My sterling 26-6 first round bracket turned into a pedestrian 36-12 in a hurry…

8 – Notable Anniversary: Bronson Koenig’s buzzer beater against Xavier that sent Wisconsin to the Final Four last night immediately called to mind a ball’s out effort by Pat Connaughton – coincidentally one year ago today – that sent a second round game vs. Butler into overtime and, thereafter, propelled last year’s Irish to the Sweet 16. (The proximity of the respective shots is remarkable.)

9 – Prister on Point: From Tim Prister’s Full Court Press Monday morning: Brey has been a lightning rod among Notre Dame followers because a.) the basketball program doesn’t generate the buzz the football program does, b.) the ignorance of how difficult it is to recruit/win consistently in today’s major college basketball environment is ample, and c.) Brey’s frequent passive voice suggests a lack of toughness and a low standard for success.

Both A and C are accurate, salient points. But…

B. B! B!! For the love of all things Pure and Holy, B!!!

Note: We’ll be back with a special edition of the Musings – Spring Football-heavy with a smattering of tournament thoughts – this weekend.

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