The Irish also lose far too much. Also undeniable.
The final shovel of dirt was thrown on the 2005-06 Big East season this afternoon, as a sold-out gathering of 19,594 at Madison Square Garden watched Notre Dame – in a fashion all too familiar – fall to Georgetown, 67-63, in the first round of the Big East Tournament.
For those of you who find some level of optimism in close losses, that makes 11 Big East defeats this year by a collective 39 points. Please note, however, that the players on this team are sick of hearing that statistic. They take no solace in it.
To them, this season is a disappointment. In all regards.
"There's a scoreboard in basketball," Chris Quinn said yesterday afternoon, quietly and virtually alone in the Irish locker-room. "We didn't win enough games. That means we were not good enough. It's that simple."<
"It's hard not to walk out of here discouraged," said sophomore forward Rob Kurz, who did have a solid 11-point, 11-rebound contest.
Notre Dame will get a berth in the consolation tournament, the NIT, and will use that setting to try and re-tool for 2006-07. This season – at 15-13 overall – is best forgotten. The Irish's 6-10 regular season record in the Big East is their second worst in 11 seasons in this circuit and they now have an abysmal 3-11 all-time record in the conference's post-season tournament.
The Irish all too well know the expression "New York Minute." It barely seems like their charter flight from South Bend touches down in Queens before it is being re-boarded for a trip home. Year after year.
"I haven't had a lot of time to think about my four years here," said Quinn, as classy in defeat as ever. "But it seems like yesterday we were beating Illinois to get to the Sweet 16. Now this. The way this season has gone is definitely frustrating. Ultimately, we got beat by better teams."
True enough. Georgetown is a more precise offensive team than the Irish. The Hoyas had a surgical 19 assists for their 24 field goals yesterday. John Thompson III also has a squad that is quicker, longer and tougher than the Irish. You want a stat to make you gag? Second chance points: Georgetown 20, Notre Dame 4.
"We just couldn't get it done on the boards when we had to," said senior Torin Francis, who's Big East career ended with an ineffective, seven-point, four-rebound effort.
"Second shots cost us," said head coach Mike Brey. "At key times, that really hurt us. And speed to the ball; we wouldn't win the 40-yard dash lining up with those guys."
Still, Notre Dame – as it always does – had a good game plan and executed it well just long enough to lose. A 2-3 zone – with Kurz starting in place of Kyle McAlarney – flummoxed Georgetown early and the Irish bolted out to an 11-0 start. The Hoyas settled down, but a Quinn (eight points) runner preserved a 30-27 halftime advantage for the recently-tailored black and green. Perhaps this was a good sign, many thought. After all, Notre Dame was 3-0 in Big East Tournament games where it led at the half.
"Maybe the karma is different this year, though," sighed Brey later. In the final 20 minutes, Brey watched 6-9 senior Brandon Bowman (25 points, seven rebounds, four assists) exploit the Irish's interior and speed deficiencies.
It ultimately came down to this. Down 64-63 with 43 seconds left, Georgetown had possession and called timeout. Brey huddled with his team, trying to come up with one heroic stop to somehow lengthen the season, somehow bring some glory to a tarnished campaign.
The Irish defense, actually, was pretty darn good. "Torin rode (Bowman) into the cheerleaders," Brey said. "We can't do much better there."
But Bowman, despite Francis' efforts, hit a left-handed, running bank shot with approximately 22 seconds left. That made it 66-63 and normally a three-point deficit is not the death knell for Notre Dame. Especially on a day when the Irish were shooting 11-for-23 from the three-point line (led by Colin Falls' 21 points).
The Irish's possession was not clean, however, and a deflected pass led to Russell Carter being fouled in a non-shooting situation. Talk about bad karma, Carter had made 20-of-his-last 25 free throws (including four straight in this game), but his first shot in the one-and-one never had a chance. Georgetown rebounded, Jeff Green (13 points, nine rebounds) was fouled, and he made one of two free throws.
"What a surprise," a veteran Big East journalist said courtside as the final buzzer sounded, "Notre Dame loses a close game."
Flash back to January 19, 2005. The Irish had just beaten West Virginia in Morgantown to improve its record to 12-3 overall, 4-1 in the Big East. Heady times. Since that date, Notre Dame is an unsightly 20-22 overall and (ugh!) 11-17 in the Big East.
Bright spots? Kurz' effort was so solid that Brey said post-game "he has officially arrived as a Big East forward." Carter, the junior swingman, had two huge three-points in the second-half and was arguably the Irish's best player the final three weeks of the season. Falls (six-of-11 three's in this one) is the best pure shooter returning to the Big East wars. Kyle McAlarney (seven minutes) was deemed expendable yesterday but he had a Big East All-Rookie caliber freshman year, even if he was not voted onto that squad.
"I do think the program is going in the right direction," said Quinn. "There's reason to think we'll be in good shape next year. (The returning players) learned a lot about adversity this year. That will help them."
The Irish fly back to Northern Indiana realizing they have missed the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year and it has won fewer Big East games than any other team since John MacLeod's first year. They went a remarkable 0-8 this year in conference games where the margin was three or less going into the final two possessions of regulation.
"We didn't win enough," Quinn said slowly as he slung his duffel bag over his shoulder and shuffled out of the Big East Tournament for the last time.