Two former Notre Dame men’s basketball teammates who became fast friends during their time together on campus and remain close today met up in London over the weekend.
When they did, Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin skipped exchanging any immediate pleasantries about their personal lives or current playing careers in Germany and the United Kingdom and raced right to a topic on both of their minds.
“‘How about the Irish?’ came before any hellos,” Abromaitis told the Tribune in a text message Sunday.
While No. 8 Notre Dame was busy winning three games in three days and making history in capturing the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship, plenty of former Irish were watching near and far with interest. As time wound down on Saturday’s win over North Carolina, which ensured the school’s first-ever conference tournament championship and automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, many former players whose college careers have been over for years were overcome with an enormous sense of satisfaction.
There remains a strong connection of pride to the program, strengthened by the run of the current Notre Dame team, which takes a five-game win streak and 29-5 record into second-round NCAA tournament play Thursday against Northeastern in Pittsburgh.
“It’s really an honor for us past guys to share in what they’re accomplishing and to be able to say we’re a part of the program,” Abromaitis said. “It’s incredible.”
Former point guard Tory Jackson returns to Notre Dame every summer to work coach Mike Brey’s basketball camp. For him, the ACC tournament run almost became too much to watch.
“I dang near cried,” Jackson told the Tribune in a Twitter direct message following the championship victory. “When you’re so connected with a program and they fail, you feel like you’ve failed. But to see them put in work and bounce back this year, I honestly walked outside Saturday screaming to try not to cry.
“I was so happy for the staff. They are family to me.”
The Notre Dame basketball family extends throughout Europe, where several former Irish, in addition to Abromaitis and Martin, are playing professionally.
In Greece, three-time team captain Eric Atkins stayed up to watch the North Carolina game, which ended at 4 a.m. his time. He shot texts of congratulations to his former teammates, including guard Jerian Grant, who was his closest friend on the team.
“He was excited for us,” Grant said. “That meant a lot to all of us.”
In France, former guard Kyle McAlarney also made sure to stay up and watch the entire Carolina game, which ended around 5 a.m. France time Sunday morning.
The previous time Notre Dame and North Carolina met for a tournament championship, McAlarney connected on a school-record 10 3-pointers, each longer distance than the next, in a 102-87 loss at the 2008 EA Sports Maui Invitational championship.
Like Jackson, McAlarney felt a surge of pride, and even some envy in seeing the Irish win it.
“I’m jealous because it’s a dream to win a championship with your guys, your school,” McAlarney wrote to the Tribune. “This is the next best thing, though.”
Living in Lexington, Ky., former swingman David Graves has heard a whole lot this season about top-ranked Kentucky’s run to an undefeated season. But he’s had plenty to say about his program, especially after Notre Dame beat two ACC blue bloods — Duke and North Carolina — on consecutive nights to win the ACC tourney title.
“Man, what a beautiful thing,” Graves told the Tribune in a text message Sunday morning. “Love watching this team….so incredibly proud and extremely happy for Coach Brey and the staff.
“I’d say everyone in the program’s history smiled awfully big (Saturday) night.”
While the current Irish made history Saturday night, the Irish past was well-represented in Greensboro Coliseum. Former swingman Torrian Jones now works for the university and worked the game as color analyst on the Notre Dame radio network. Two players from Brey’s first team in 2000-01 – Martin Ingelsby and Harold Swanagan – are members of the current coaching staff. Two additional players from that first team that won a Big East West Division championship and made it back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years – guard Matt Carroll and power forward Troy Murphy – were seated in the first row of seats in the stands behind the Irish bench.
Carroll was in a similar spot last month when Notre Dame was demolished, 90-60, by Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. He spent much of that day sitting quietly in his gold “Play Like a Champion” shirt. On Saturday, he stood and clapped and cheered for most of the second half.
“Awesome!!!” he said of the experience.
For Murphy, a two-time All-American and first-round NBA draft pick, it was only the second Irish game he’d attended since leaving school early in 2001, where he was an NBA lottery pick.
He finally saw his first win in person Saturday.
Now retired after 12 years in the NBA and living in New York where he is finishing up his undergraduate degree at Columbia, Murphy has followed this year’s team closer than any other since his college days.
“I watch them all the time,” Murphy said Friday before the ACC semifinal in Greensboro, where he was among 14 players honored as ACC legends. “When I was there, it was a kind of a transitional time for Coach Brey with all the coaches (three head coaches in three years) that we had had.
“The fact that he’s been there as long he has and now you have guys who are so close to the program even though they may have played eight years apart, that’s something that is really important.”
Even before Notre Dame cut down nets Saturday, Brey insisted that winning an ACC tournament championship would rank pretty high on the program’s list. Maybe the highest. In the immediate aftermath, Brey understood that the win was big, but didn’t know how big until the text and phone messages started flowing in from Atkins and Ryan Humphrey, from Austin Carr and Collis Jones, from John Paxson and Monty Williams.
“Wherever they are today, they’ve got their ND stuff on,” Brey said.
And more. Two teammates on McAlarney’s squad in Orleans are David Noel and Sean May, who both played collegiately at North Carolina. McAlarney couldn’t wait to get to practice Sunday to see them.
“My pocket will be thicker,” he joked.
Selection Sunday didn’t suddenly end for former Irish power forward Jordan Cornette minutes into the CBS telecast when the Notre Dame-Northeastern matchup in the Midwest Region was revealed.
The night was just beginning for Cornette, still the all-time leader in blocked shots (201) in school history who is finishing up his second season as a college basketball analyst for CampusInsiders.com.
Anyone struggling to fill out their brackets before tournament play commences can visit CampusInsiders.com, where Cornette offers a 60-second scouting report on each of the 68 teams.
What might Northeastern do to cause Notre Dame problems? Cornette knows. What makes Kentucky nearly unbeatable? Cornette can say. What team might be a sleeper to surprise in the annual 5-12 matchup? Cornette has it.
“With just the sheer volume of it all, it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” said Cornette, who delivered scouts on 40 teams last March.
Cornette also will be in the CampusInsiders.com studios during the tournament’s week with former Irish coach Digger Phelps. As the second round transitions to the third round, Cornette and Phelps will spin forward with previews of the weekend matchups. He’ll also watch with a whole lot of personal interest should Notre Dame and Butler meet in Saturday’s third round.
“I’ve gotten so many texts about that game if it happens,” he said. “It will be the Cornette house divided.”
His older brother, Joel, played at Butler.
Cornette insisted last month that this Notre Dame team would go further than 2003 when it advanced to the Sweet 16 during his sophomore year. Cornette still believes that will happen, especially after fighting back the tears while watching Notre Dame capture the ACC tournament.
“It’s one of the most special runs Notre Dame has ever had,” he said.