Notre Dame men's basketball: Irish say good-bye to Garden hoops

South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK -- Uncertain of a return to the city that has been like a second home, they said good-bye Saturday night to an old friend.

Regular-season games in Madison Square Garden served as a warm-up act of sorts for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team the previous 18 college basketball seasons. Win or lose, play well or struggle, the Irish knew that come early March, they would be back in their same hotel in midtown Manhattan, back in their big-city routine and back playing in the place dubbed the “World’s Most Famous Arena.”

Notre Dame’s move this season to the Atlantic Coast Conference changed all that. When the Irish team bus rolled west down 33rd Street following Saturday’s game against No. 3 Ohio State in the BlackRock Gotham Classic showcase game, the Irish were not expecting to return anytime soon.

When conference tournament time arrives in March, Notre Dame will head south for Greensboro, N.C.

“It’s the one thing I’m going to miss about not being in the Big East,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “We’ve got a lot of memories in New York.”

With six days between games last week, Brey spent time recruiting the New York area. He found himself in a cab going past the Garden and taking a mental trip down memory lane, like of Notre Dame being the only team the last four years to advance to the Big East tournament semifinals.

“You kind of get goose bumps,” he said. “It’s just good memories of the place.”

Memories that Brey wants the Irish to keep making. Notre Dame is not scheduled to play the Garden next season. If New York is not an option, a game at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center is a possibility. Either way, Brey aims to keep New York on his team’s regular destination list.

“Selfishly, I want to coach in the Garden as much as I can before I retire,” he said. “I just love that building.”

Heading into Saturday’s game against the Buckeyes, the Irish were 58-48 lifetime in the Garden. The last time Notre Dame played only once in the Garden was in 2006 in a Big East tournament loss to Georgetown. The last time the Irish played only one regular-season game in the Garden was in 1995 in a loss to Fordham. The last time the Irish went an entire season without one game in the Garden was 1993-94.

After Notre Dame left behind the fog and drizzle of Michiana on Friday, the Irish landed in New York to clear skies, and temperatures near 60. Even late into the night, the area around the Garden — Seventh Avenue, Macy’s — still was buzzing with people, with holiday shoppers, with life.

“There’s an energy in the city,” Brey said.

And in the building. Step inside the arena and anybody who knows basketball cannot help but think of Willis Reed limping out of the tunnel for the 1970 NBA finals, or Michael Jordan’s 55-point performance in 1995 days after coming out of retirement. During the Big East tournament, it was common to see former President Bill Clinton in the back corridors talking not politics, but hoops.

The lighting in the place makes players feel like they’re on a stage. The biggest stage.

“It’s very much an arena for performances, and not just sports,” said Irish power forward Garrick Sherman. “You definitely go through the history of the place during shoot-around, but when the game starts, you’re just focused on playing.

“It’s crazy this is my last time playing in the Garden.”

Maybe not. Home losses to Indiana State and North Dakota State leave Notre Dame much work to do to get back to the NCAA tournament a fifth consecutive season. If the Irish fall short this spring, they would likely play in the post-season National Invitation Tournament.

That tournament holds its Final Four in Madison Square Garden.

“We don’t want to see the Garden again,” Sherman said. “For once.”

Fear the beard

Vowing not to shave until who knows when, Sherman has seen his red beard take on a life of its own. ESPN color commentator Dan Dakich, who called Saturday’s game, dubbed it the “worst beard in America” during the Dec. 14 game against Indiana.

“My mom was tweeting about him and she was all fired up,” Sherman joked. “Everyone has their opinion about it, but I’m just rolling with it.”

Rolling with it without a razor in sight. It’s been over a year since Sherman was completely clean-shaven, and it’s been since October when the beard, which Dakich said goes six different ways, was last trimmed.

As scraggly as it looks, it’s also going to stay, especially when anyone inquires about when or if Sherman’s going to cut it.

“They’re just making it worse every time someone complains about my beard,” he said. “When my sister or my mom would complain about my beard, I’d tell them that’s another month I’m adding on before I shave again.

“Now it’s kind of a game. I’m just going to keep going.”

Katenda’s progress

Dressing in uniform the last three games has been a small step in the right direction for Irish sophomore power forward Eric Katenda.

Heading into Saturday’s contest, Katenda had yet to appear in an Irish game — and only started dressing in uniform starting with the Dec. 11 game against North Dakota State.

“He’s available,” Brey said.

Since signing with Notre Dame in the spring of 2011, Katenda has been hit by one injury setback after another. It started that summer when a freak injury on the basketball court cost him vision in his left eye. The latest arrived in October when he underwent microfracture knee surgery.

“I feel for him,” Brey said. “He’s not had the best of luck on the injury front, but the kid continues to come back and battle and rehab. His attitude has been great.”

Katenda experienced additional knee pain last week but was able to rest it during final exams. He last played in an actual game in the spring of 2011 when he was a senior at Sunrise (Kan.) Christian Academy.

Holiday happenings

Following Saturday’s game, the Irish get another extended break — seven days — from game action before closing out non-league play on Dec. 29 at home against Canisius. It will be the fifth time this season that Notre Dame has at least a four-day gap between games. The Irish then have another five days off before opening ACC play at home Jan. 4 against Duke.

This week’s hiatus allows players to get home for the first time since fall break. Players that call the East Coast home — like Maryland natives Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant — remained in New York following the Ohio State game before traveling home. The Irish charter was scheduled to return to South Bend early Sunday morning.

Players are expected back on campus Thursday evening.

More MSG

Madison Square Garden is as busy as the city in which it sits, and seldom sleeps.

Saturday’s BlackRock Gotham Classic doubleheader (Delaware-Bryant was the second game) was the fourth and fifth college games in the arena that week. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati met in the first game of Tuesdays’ Jimmy V Classic before the Florida-Memphis game. On Thursday, Duke played UCLA in a game attended by Bruce Springsteen, a Brey favorite.

The New York Rangers and New York Islanders played hockey at the Garden on Friday before the Knicks hosted the Grizzlies in an NBA matinee on Saturday.

Such a saturated schedule — the Garden holds some 320 events a year with everything from the circus to dog shows — left the Irish no time to get into the building prior to Saturday’s game. They had their gameday shoot-around at John Jay College, a place they normally practice at when in the city.

A three-year renovation on the Garden was recently completed at a cost of $1.1 billion. Notre Dame renovated its arena, now known as Purcell Pavilion, for around $32 million.


Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins (0) shoots the ball against Cincinnati forward Yancy Gates (34) during the quarter final round of the 2011 Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Courtesy of Mark L. Baer/US PRESSWIRE