NEW YORK – Raise that banner!
After concluding a painful regular season with a dreadful 74-62 loss to West Virginia, Mike Brey and the Notre Dame basketball team are now focused on bringing a banner to the Joyce Center .
An NIT banner.
We kid you not. It came up multiple times outside the Notre Dame locker-room in the bowels of Madison Square Garden. A season that began with Final Four hopes has now morphed into a run for some blue and gold cloth that would be the equivalent of cubic zirconia.
"I had tears in my eyes when I came to the sideline," said senior Kyle McAlarney (17 points, five assists). "Coach stopped me, and told me we were going for an NIT title. We still have a chance to put a banner in the Joyce Center."
If the Irish do win the NIT – and let's face it, they would be long shots considering they haven't won three straight since Savannah State was the opposition – they should realize that it will not go down as one of the finest moments in the history of this program. This West Virginia game will likely be a more defining contest.
It wasn't competitive from the start, as Bob Huggins' aggressively coached unit attacked a soft 2-3 zone with a made three-point shot by Darryl Bryant on the first possession and never looked back. The 22-10 Mountaineers – who were chosen five spots behind ND in the Big East preseason poll, incidentally – nailed 11-of-20 threes for the game.
Even uglier, Notre Dame was beaten off the boards by an embarrassing 52-32 margin. They lost the rebounding battle by 18 in Morgantown last month.
West Virginia led 7-0, 17-2, 26-6, and 34-14 in the first stanza. The 36-18 tally at the break represented the fewest points for a half Notre Dame has scored in its checkered Big East history and the fewest for any half this season.
Devin Ebanks (18 rebounds) looks like former Syracuse star Hakim Warrick and played like him. Darryl Bryant (17 points) looks like Pittsburgh standout Carl Krauser and competed like him. And Notre Dame – now 5-14 all-time in Big East Tournament play – looked as out of place as always on the big stage.
The Irish went the entire Big East season without winning three games in a row. This from a team that started three seniors and two juniors, was picked fourth in the conference preseason by the coaches, and spent time in the AP Top 10.
Brey never bought any of that, saying to his staff in December that he felt the Irish should more realistically be shooting for a .500 record against Big East competition.
"Some of the preseason stuff had some real interesting predictions for us," Brey said. "I really thought we were a 9-9 team giving who we were going to have to play, playing the A schedule. We got to 8-10, and could never quite get the next quality win."
But why were such humble expectations placed on a team that went 14-4 in the Big East last year and qualified for the NCAA Tournament? Was Rob Kurz that good?
"I really don't know what went wrong, it hurts right now," said senior Ryan Ayers, who had 11 points in his last Big East game. "We all like each other, we play hard and we do the right things. What went wrong? That's to figure out later. I'm happy that we are still playing."
No other answers on the disappointing season were forthcoming. At the interview table, junior point guard Tory Jackson (six points, two assists in 35 minutes) said he "was not disappointed at all" in the season. Luke Harangody (27 points after a slow first half) said he was proud the team "stayed together as a group" after the seven-game losing streak in January and February.
So while Notre Dame meekly leaves area code (212), West Virginia gets to showcase Da'Sean Butler (20 points) and Alex Ruoff (22) against No. 2 seed Pittsburgh in a quarterfinal game Thursday night. Those are teams that will be playing for real banners starting next week.
"We'll be honored to play in the postseason," Brey said. "We're on the longest postseason run with our program that we've ever had, with 10 in a row. Certainly you like them to be all NCAA's, but we're five and five."
(Alan Tieuli is the Editor-In-Chief of IrishEyes Magazine and can be reached at Tieuli@aatandsonspr.com)