PHILADELPHIA – It starts down in Florida, working its way up through the Carolinas into Virginia, slicing through Maryland, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, and extending through New England.
For Notre Dame basketball, Interstate-95 represents more than just a major thoroughfare along the east coast. It is the blood flow by which the program lives, breaths, survives and thrives.
“I-95 is a great Notre Dame corridor,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, whose basketball niche as a player and coach meandered through Maryland/Washington, D.C., North Carolina, and Delaware before settling at Notre Dame 16 years ago.
When Brey is looking for talent to fill his roster – and to make a run to the Elite 8, which his team has now done two years in a row – he heads east, back to his roots.
“The lifeblood for our roster has come from that corridor,” Brey said.
From the glory days of Austin Carr and Adrian Dantley (Washington, D.C.), through Kelly Tripucka and David Rivers (New Jersey), up to Matt Carroll and Troy Murphy (Pennsylvania and New Jersey), through Jerian Grant (Maryland) and Pat Connaughton (Massachusetts), to current team members Steve Vasturia (Philadelphia), Bonzie Colson (Massachusetts) and Matt Farrell (New Jersey)…
When Notre Dame needs stars, captains and leaders, the Irish turn to the I-95 corridor.
“We talk about that ‘I-95 edge,’” Brey said. “Kids along I-95 have that edge. It’s been an attractive trait that we’ve looked for in recruiting.”
What is the I-95 edge? It’s the toughness developed on the playgrounds where the physically and mentally weak fall by the wayside.
It may manifest itself via physical toughness and a gritty demeanor; it may bubble below the surface with a quiet confidence as opposed to a demonstrative nature.
“Basketball in these inner-cities -- the toughness about the kids that play on I-95 -- is something that we’ve really tried to identify in recruiting,” said Martin Ingelsby (Berwyn, Pa.), current Irish assistant and one of Brey’s first two captains – along with Murphy – in 2000-01.
“You have an innate, inner toughness to you based on the competition you faced growing up. There’s a difference in the quality of the basketball and the toughness and the passion that they have in some of these leagues.
“It brought out the better basketball player in me playing against that competition.”
Ingelsby is an example of an I-95 corridor kid with a “quiet toughness,” ala two-time captain Rob Kurz (Lower Gwynedd, Pa.), three-time captain Eric Atkins (Columbia, Md.), and soon-to-be two-time captain Steve Vasturia (Medford, N.J.).
Others wear it on their sleeves, such as Kyle McAlarney (Staten Island, N.Y.; 2006-09), Tyrone Nash (Queens, N.Y.), Connaughton (Arlington, Mass), Colson (New Bedford, Mass.), and Farrell (Bridgewater, N.J.).
“McAlarney had it,” said Irish assistant Anthony Solomon from Newport News, Va. “There’s an edge, but there’s a poise about it, like Troy Murphy. Matt Carroll was different, but he always felt like, ‘I’ve seen it before. I’ve been there before.’
“Some show it outwardly; Rob Kurz was more internal. But when you see it, you know he has it. When he had success, I was not surprised because when he played on the AAU circuit, he knew how to handle himself. He was productive, regardless who he played against.”
Torrian Jones (Morrisville, Pa.), a captain on the 2003-04 Irish squad, is an academic counselor at Notre Dame while sharing the radio airwaves with Jack Nolan, the voice of Irish basketball.
When he hears the phrase “I-95 edge,” his face lights up.
“You’re brought up on the playgrounds,” Jones said. “You develop a comfort in a heightened situation that you just don’t get other places.
“That’s not to say they don’t play tough basketball in the Midwest, but it’s assumed in the northeast. It’s a prerequisite to even get on the court out there. If you’re not tough, you’re not playing in pickup games on the streets.”
It’s no coincidence that a vast majority of Notre Dame’s stars – as well as captains – have come from the I-95 corridor.
Some of Notre Dame’s Midwest toughness shined through down the stretch of its 61-56 victory over Wisconsin Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center when a pair of Indiana products – Demetrius Jackson and V.J. Beachem – helped lead the charge to the regional finals against North Carolina Sunday night.
Few were more physically tough than Notre Dame’s No. 2 all-time scorer, Luke Harangody, from Schererville, Ind.
But when it comes to swagger, the vast majority of the time at Notre Dame, it comes from the hotbed of Irish recruiting for the better part of the last 50 years.
“I consider myself physically and mentally tough,” said the low-key Vasturia. “That’s something I’ve been trying to do my whole life. I think I show it in different ways.”
If you want to see true northeast swagger, look at Farrell, who has emerged as a key figure in Notre Dame’s trip to the Elite 8.
“Just playing with an edge, not playing dirty, but playing with that edge,” Farrell summarized.
And on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the highest, how much of an “I-95 edge” does Farrell have?
“I would like to say 10,” Farrell smiled. “Hopefully, I’m around a 7 or an 8, and when I’ve got to get it up to a 10, I can.”