13 of the 14 losses came by eight points or less. Five defeats were in overtime, including the last one, a 87-84 loss to Michigan to end the Notre Dame year in the NIT. Lessons were learned last season in agonizing fashion. In just under a month, on November 10th at home against IPFW, the Irish can erase the bad memories of heartbreak.
"You have to use last year as a reference for a teaching tool," head coach Mike Brey said on Wednesday's Media Day about last season. "Not to overanalyze it but we have to be tougher at times, get a loose ball or a key rebound, there's no question that's an issue we tried to address in our off-season conditioning. Those are things we've talked about. You can't make believe it didn't happen. But there are some positive stuff to it and even when we came out of the 1-8 hole and made something out of the rest of the Big East season and the postseason, that we were hardened by it and grew up through it."
Last year was also Notre Dame's first in the newly revamped Big East Conference, which added a few powerhouse teams from Conference USA to make to the league ultra competitive. To show its depth, eight teams made the NCAA Tournament and two squads received number one seeds. Multiple times last year, Brey mentioned that the Irish's goal was just to get invited to New York City for the Big East Tournament. The bottom four teams in the league do not make the trip to the Big Apple. They achieved this goal but were bounced in the first round by Georgetown. For this season, the bar might be a little higher for this group.
"There's no reason we can't dream big dreams," Brey said. "If I was standing up here before you guys not heading to the NIT and we had some 10-17 teams on the board, now come on. I don't think anyone has been closer than us to getting that bid. I used two examples. I said, ‘Fellas, this time last year, Florida was not talked about and George Mason was George Mason.' That's what's great about college basketball. It's crazy and we've been right there.
"Here's a stat that might blow you away: 19 of the 22 All-Big East players from last year are gone. That tells you things change. There are a lot of really good players who have left. Eleven of the first 33 draft picks were from the Big East and that didn't include Quinn, (Gerry) McNamara, (Kevin) Pittsnogle, (Mike) Gansey or (Carl) Krauser. Those guys weren't even drafted and we still had 11 of 33. The complexion has changed and that is part of the equation. It's a little more open than last year."
The schedule has Notre Dame playing 12 non-conference contests and 16 league games. The toughest non-conference opponents appear to be Butler on November 13th in the NIT Season Tip-off Tournament in Indianapolis, a December 3rd trip to play Maryland and a December 7th home date with Alabama. There are three repeat teams on the Big East schedule: DePaul, Villanova and South Florida. The Irish play a total of eights times on ESPN or ESPN 2, twice on ESPNU and once on ABC, a February 24th home game with Marquette.
The schedule isn't the toughest issue facing Notre Dame. It's replacing Chris Quinn, who was the unquestioned leader of the team last season and averaged 17 points per game at the point guard position. Another stat: Quinn rarely sat on the bench, totaling 40 minutes per contest when the season was over (add in all the overtime game minutes). Filling his shoes will be sophomore Kyle McAlarney. The Staten Island native averaged six PPG and most of his damage came from behind the three-point line.
"He'll have his own identity," Brey said of McAlarney. "He'll do some things differently. We're still going to learn how to best use him and let him evolve. When a guy gets a chance and actually gets the ball, it's amazing how solid and good he can be. When you're playing off of Quinn and stealing time, I thought he did a pretty darn good job of fitting in and not stepping on any toes. Now it's his team and his ball. He attacks it with great confidence. Kyle has never been a guy with a lack of confidence. That's probably why he had the most impact of the now-sophomores from last year."
The leaders of the team will be the veterans. Senior guards Colin Falls and Russell Carter are the top-two returning scorers from last season. Falls is a deadly three-point shooter that goes on extreme hot and cold spells during the year while Carter brings athleticism and a fiery attitude to a team in desperate need of one. Together, they'll have to fill the leadership gap left by Quinn, Torin Francis and Rick Cornett.
"The one thing we've had here, because we've had older guys in key roles, is continuity with older guys delivering the message from the coaching staff," Brey said. "Falls is going to be very confident doing that because he's been in it the longest. I think Carter becomes more confident doing that. I don't want him doing it and taking away from his game. Some people are cut out a little bit more. I think we found out through this off-season that (Rob) Kurz is really cut out for it. He's our hardest worker and our guys really look to him. He made himself a legitimate Big East forward last year. He's really respected by our guys."
The team also welcomes in four new players to the Notre Dame basketball family. Guards Tory Jackson, Joe Hardin and Jonathan Peoples and forward Luke Harangody have all been here since the summer under the new NCAA rules. This has allowed them to get comfortable with the older veterans and the campus in general. They also bring another quality asset to the basketball court.
"Our four young guys as a whole are probably the toughest four guys we've had probably since I've been here as a recruiting class," Brey said. "They came in pretty tough guys, mentally and physically. The great thing about the summer stuff is that they're in our strength and conditioning program, which is really important. They're getting six credits. As important, they're in the chemistry. They're in the locker room."