The day after Christmas, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey evaluated the conference schedule that his team was going to face over the next nine and a half weeks and his conclusions shocked even those closest to him.
Brey's wife Tish was the first to get the report.
"I'm going to practice on the 26th, I turned to Tish and I go, ‘9-9,'" recalled Brey. "She said, ‘What are you talking about?' I said, ‘9-9.'
"She said, ‘9-9, you won 14 league games last year.' I said, ‘9-9, take a look at that thing."
When Brey got to the basketball offices at Notre Dame his staff was even more surprised than his wife.
"You have young guys on the staff and they say, ‘9-9? We won 14 league games last year,'" Brey remembered. "‘9-9, fellas. Where do I sign?' on December 26. I don't want to sell us short, but I've been through the cycle of this league nine years now."
Brey was right. Well, actually he was wrong, the Irish finished 8-10 in the league and 17-13 overall.
Notre Dame entered conference play with a 9-2 record and a No. 7 ranking in the Associated Press Poll and a spot at No. 10 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll. Already on their résumé was an impressive run to the championship game of the Maui Invitational where they lost to North Carolina, who was considered by many to be unbeatable at the time.
But despite all of the polls, maybe Brey saw what many did not see or did not want to see.
"You're 11th and ninth in the preseason polls and you rocket up there and given what we were going to play and who we were really this year, ‘Were you really seventh in the country?' I mean, ‘Were you really?'" Brey asked. "I don't ever want to take away from our guys, I don't quite know about that."
Notre Dame's other loss before Big East play beside Carolina came on a neutral floor against Ohio State where the Buckeyes turned their focus away from Luke Harangody and toward Kyle McAlarney. Harangody had 25 points and 16 rebounds in his first game back from pneumonia, but McAlarney, Notre Dame's No. 2 option, was held to just six.
As disappointing as the loss to Ohio State was, reality may have sunk in for Brey during the Irish's unimpressive 74-67 win over Boston University in Notre Dame's very next game.
The Irish trailed the America East foe at the half as the Terriers followed the game plan laid out by the Buckeyes and held McAlarney to just three first-half points. The Irish came back to win the game, but the book was out on the Irish.
"Certainly there was a little bit of a book on us this year to take away some things," Brey said. "Once one team has success, you see it being repeated again. Certainly there's enough teams in this league that have athletic ability to really take away not only McAlarney but our perimeter."
Even after Notre Dame rode into league play with blowout wins over Delaware State and Savannah State, Brey still sensed unrealistic expectations and he relayed them to his wife and assistants.
After a win over DePaul kicked things off in conference, a loss at St. John's was the first real evidence that there was something up, but the Irish followed up with home wins over Seton Hall and Georgetown. At 3-1 in the conference, the loss to the Red Storm seemed behind the Irish, but then they missed out a huge opportunity in Louisville and things spiraled out of control.
The Irish had a chance to win the Louisville game on the last possession of regulation, but they could not capitalize and managed to score just two points in the overtime period as the Cardinals won 87-73. That loss was the beginning of a seven-game slide that would have Notre Dame waiting more than a month to get a win.
To their credit, the Irish did not quit, even after hitting bottom with a 26-point blowout loss at UCLA. Notre Dame returned from Los Angeles and snapped the losing streak against the team that started it, blowing out Louisville 90-57.
Brey and his team did not want to talk about the postseason other than the goal of ‘making it interesting.' Brey went back to his December prediction when asked how many wins would ‘make it interesting.' After earning a 10-point win over South Florida, the Irish stood at 5-8 in the conference with six games left and the goal of getting to .500 was very much attainable.
That target remained in play all of the way to the final week of the regular season until the Irish were tagged with their 10th league loss against Villanova. Notre Dame was able to finish with a victory over St. John's on Senior Day to wrap up the season, but the Irish could not finish any better than 10th in the league.
Looking back, there were a number of games that could have changed the season with a different outcome. The loss to Ohio State set the table for things down the road, the loss at St. John's was the most damaging while the Louisville loss started the losing streak.
Notre Dame could have won either game against Connecticut, but it did not. The home loss to UConn snapped the Irish's 45-game home winning streak and missed an opportunity in Storrs that would have almost certainly moved Notre Dame from the bubble to the tournament.
Maybe Brey was right all along and considering how the season ended, it looks like he was, but maybe the approach of downplaying the hype backfired. Either way, it is not really important now as the Irish are looking at needing to win five games in five days in the nation's toughest conference as the only way to guarantee them a spot where they want to be.