STORRS, Conn. – You have to be blind to history and easy to please if you believe that Notre Dame has earned the right to remain in NCAA Tournament discussions now.
Count the playing members of the Irish among that group. Notre Dame, 16-12 overall after today's gut-wrenching 72-65 loss at No. 2 Connecticut, feels it is still in a good position.
"We're as confident as ever," senior Kyle McAlarney said, as a surprisingly upbeat Irish traveling party departed Gampel Pavilion into the New England sunshine. "We are absolutely, without question, one of the best teams (eligible for one of the NCAA's 34 at-large berths)."
McAlarney said it with conviction, and surely this isn't just well-rehearsed PR speak. But a spot in the Dance isn't earned by improvement and near-misses.
Notre Dame is now 7-9 in the Big East and is virtually certain to finish 10th in the conference standings. Losing this game also represented the Irish's last chance this regular season to have a conference winning streak of three games or more.
Here's a pair of sobering statistics. All seven Big East teams that qualified for the NCAA's in 2008 had at least one three-game conference winning streak. Only one of Mike Brey's eight previous Notre Dame teams failed to win three straight in league play – the 2004-05 unit that failed to qualify for the NCAA's. And that team went 9-7 in league play.
This Notre Dame unit – the same one that was picked in the pre-season coaches' poll to finish fourth out of 16 teams – can only finish .500 (9-9), at best. Unless there are a rash of upsets in the next eight days, nine Big East teams will finish with at least 10 conference victories. Who among them is less deserving for a berth than the Irish?
Surely the NCAA Tournament committee will take note of the fact that Notre Dame has been remarkably healthy during the Big East season (not one player missed a game with an injury) and returned over 80-percent of its points and rebounds from a 14-4 2007-08 unit.
It's been a season of underachievement -- so much so that this loss to UConn received positive reviews from the players.
"I'm not disappointed at all by what happened today," said point guard Tory Jackson, who did play splendidly with 17 points and five assists in 39 minutes. "Maybe Monday (at home versus Villanova) will be our night."
Maybe come spring Notre Dame will look back at this game with a little more regret. It was a game that could have changed everything.
Connecticut (28-2, Big East-best 15-2) was locked in a 57-all tie with less than eight minutes to play. Underdog Notre Dame simply needed to hit a couple of open looks or make a couple of defensive stops to win the contest.
The type of things upperclassmen do in a nationally-televised game when the season is on the line.
"It was hard for us to get two stops in a row," admitted head coach Brey. "And we had some really clean looks. You got to make those to steal that game today."
Notre Dame was eight-for-27 on three-point attempts, a statistic that became doubly damaging since the going was understandably difficult inside. Seven-foot-three Hasheem Thabeet had 16 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks and held Luke Harangody to a pedestrian 14 points and five rebounds.
Jeff Adrien also abused the Irish frontcourters (shorthanded after Zach Hillesland left with a sternum injury in the game's third minute). Playing in his last home game on Senior Day, Adrien was best in show with 25 points, nine boards, and a monstrous take on Ryan Ayers with 1:15 remaining that put UConn up three (66-63).
The Irish closed to 66-65 on a typically unique Harangody runner, and caught a bad break when Thabeet was fouled with 41.1 seconds remaining. He hit the floor hard and was apparently dazed enough where he was allowed to leave the game. Guard Craig Austrie – a 76-percent free throw shooter – replaced him and drained both free throws.
"Maybe we should have the NBA rule where you choose your own shooter," smiled Brey, who took the misfortune in good humor. "I can't complain. We have benefited from that too."
It would have been nullified if McAlarney had drained the three that UConn afforded him on the subsequent trip. But it fell short, and the long rebound was cradled on the floor by freshman Kemba Walker, who alertly called timeout to avoid a held ball. That was the end for the Irish, who missed their final four shots from the field while UConn converted four-of-six free throws to expand the final margin.
A bright light? Tyrone Nash plenty 20 minutes in relief of Hillesland and had nine rebounds (but four missed free throws). His energy will be needed in the quick turnaround against Villanova, regardless of whether Hillesland can go or not.
"We need to get Ty more minutes," conceded Brey.
The coach still feels a 9-9 Notre Dame team "will be in the discussion" on Selection Sunday. But it likely won't be a long dialogue. Notre Dame was 1-3 in its most challenging non-conference games, lost seven straight games in January and February by a combined 13.8 points, and hasn't gone on a successful run all Big East season.
All the rest is just happy talk.
(Alan Tieuli is the Editor-In-Chief of IrishEyes Magazine and can be reached at Tieuli@aatandsonspr.com)