Notre Dame men's basketball team looks for new life

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

GREENSBORO, N.C. — It was a season littered with more losses than wins, saturated with more setbacks than successes and one focused more on the future as the present neared an end.

Fifteen years have passed since the Notre Dame men’s basketball program last found itself in a situation as it does this week — limping into the conference tournament with a losing overall record, a losing league record and playing the first game on the first day in an arena that will be far from full.

Toward the end of a 1998-99 season that would see coach John MacLeod “resign,” the Irish knew that, short of a Cinderella-like run to a conference tournament championship, the ultimate regular season pay-off for every program — a trip to the NCAA tournament — was not possible.

Again needing to win the league tournament to have any NCAA Tournament hope after coming nowhere close to expectations, No. 13 seed Notre Dame (15-16, 6-12) has plenty to play for Wednesday at 1 p.m. (ESPN2) against No. 12 Wake Forest (16-15, 6-12) in the first round of the 61st annual Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament at Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum.

“If you have any pride in yourself, your mindset is to keep playing,” said former Irish center Phil Hickey, one of four senior captains on the 1998-99 squad that finished 14-16, 8-10 Big East. “I can’t imagine going into any game thinking, ‘Heck, it’s been a long season, let’s pack it up.’

“I think the seniors definitely want to get something done there.”

Though 1998-99 was difficult, the league tournament offered the Irish a chance at new life, even if there was little of it evident as game time approached. Scheduled to face Seton Hall at noon that first day of the Big East Tournament, Notre Dame arrived in Madison Square Garden only hours after a Metallica concert had rocked the arena. The smell of stale beer, and other strange odors, still lingered as the opening tip was tossed in front of plenty of empty seats.

Such likely will be the scene Wednesday when ACC newcomer Notre Dame and Wake Forest, which hasn’t won a league tournament game since 2007, meet in the first of three games on the tournament’s first day.

“It’s tough being in the first game,” said Hickey, who played professionally in Finland and now calls the country home as vice president of marketing for Rovio Entertainment. “There’s no interest; there’s no atmosphere. There’s a few die-hards in the stands.

“It is tough to get a rhythm and a feel going, to feel the excitement. You have to bring it yourself.”

David Graves was a freshman small forward on that 98-99 squad. He wanted to keep playing and extend the careers of Hickey and the fellow seniors. But he also carried a big-picture view into his first conference tournament game. It’s something that likely drives the current Irish freshmen, all of whom have learned some hard lessons while playing larger roles than anyone ever imagined their first seasons. Like Graves.

Graves was part of a rookie class that included future All-American and NBA Draft lottery pick Troy Murphy and close friend Harold Swanagan, now a member of the current staff as coordinator of basketball operations. Along with current assistant Martin Ingelsby, then just a sophomore point guard, the future of Irish basketball offered optimism.

“From our perspective, we knew the future was bright and we wanted to win the game, but we were playing for something else,” said Graves, who averaged 12.3 points and 3.9 rebounds in 30 games his first season. “We were heading in an upward trend. Our mentality was, let’s get this pointed in the right direction.”

Fifteen consecutive postseasons followed.

“The program’s had a good run,” said Graves, now in private business in his hometown of Lexington, Ky.

Like many around the current Irish, Graves has had a heck of a time figuring out this team. Exactly who are they? Are they the team that delivered such a dominant second-half effort in beating then-No. 7 Duke in the conference opener? Are they more like the one that staggered to a 1-8 road record in league play? Somewhere in between? But where?

This week will provide an answer.

“There have been times when they look pretty average and look like they’re trying to find their way,” Graves said. “And then you watch them play the first 16 minutes of the second half against North Carolina and they’re a darn good team.

“But these kids are resilient. They’ll get out there, compete and battle and try to win the dang game.”

Two wins this week may allow Notre Dame to feel a bit better about extending its season. The Irish need to finish .500 or better to have a realistic shot at the 32-team postseason National Invitation Tournament field. Teams with records below .500 do not qualify for the 32-team CollegeInsider.com tournament but are considered for the 16-team College Basketball Invitational.

Traveling a lesser-known postseason road is not ideal after seven straight 20-win seasons and four consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, but at this point, there’s little choice. There’s a chance the Irish may be left at home after finishing two places out of last in the ACC regular-season standings.

“No one wants to be the first team in, what, 15 years not to make a postseason tournament,” said senior captain Tom Knight. “Every year I’ve been here, I’ve been in postseason. We’re working for postseason.

“As much as not getting to the NCAA Tournament is a disappointment, not making anything is a bigger disappointment.”

Notre Dame lost 79-69 to Seton Hall in 1999 and eventually returned to campus just as the tournament was getting going. Back then, dorms weren’t wired for cable television, which was fine. Graves had no desire to head for a campus common area and watch anyone else play. It didn’t feel right. Nothing felt right for about a week.

Once the final buzzer sounds on a conference tournament loss and there’s no guarantee of another game the next day or another practice the next week, it can be surreal.

“When it’s over, it’s sudden; that’s it,” Graves said. “The world continues to go on and the next tournament game is going and you’re not involved. When you’re done, it’s over.

“All you’ve got at that point are memories.”

The Irish have a chance to make some in a season worth forgetting. It hasn’t gone as anyone planned, but this week offers Notre Dame an opportunity to hit the reset button and start something everyone can remember. The Irish keep insisting they can put it together for 40 minutes, and then do it again and again. It’s time to start.

Lose Wednesday and it might be the last time Notre Dame plays an actual game until sometime and somewhere in August during the preseason tour of Italy. The end is near for Knight and fellow senior captains Eric Atkins and Garrick Sherman. When it arrives is anyone’s guess, but it is coming. Quickly.

“You’re never ready for it to end,” Graves said. “I’m 34 now and I’m still not ready for it to end. But it’s part of it and, at the end of the day, you play your butt off and do the best you can, let the chips fall where they may and you absolutely do not want it to end.

“That gives you extra motivation.”

TNoie@SBTinfo.com

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Twitter: TNoie@NDInsiderFormer 

Former Notre Dame center Phil Hickey (right) can relate to what the current Irish seniors are up against this week. SBT File Photo

WHAT: ACC Tournament, first round

WHO: No. 13 seed Notre Dame (15-16, 6-12) vs. No. 12 Wake Forest (16-15, 6-12)

WHERE: Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum (23,300)

WHEN: 1 p.m. Wednesday

TV: ESPN2

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM)

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com/tnoieNDInsider.

WORTH NOTING: Notre Dame and Wake Forest met once in the regular season, a 65-58 Irish loss on Jan. 26 in Winston-Salem, N.C. Garrick Sherman scored 20 points with six rebounds for the Irish. Pat Connaughton added 10 points and eight re-bounds. The Irish shot 46.9 percent from the field and 11.1 percent from 3 in the second half. Devin Thomas scored a game-high 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting in a contest that featured five ties and seven lead changes. Notre Dame committed five turnovers, which tied its season low. … Picked in preseason to finish fifth in its first ACC season, Notre Dame lost its last two games and four of the last five to fall to 13th in the 15-team league. … The Irish won consecutive league games once. … No-tre Dame was 1-1 on neutral courts with a win over Indiana (Indianapolis) and a loss to Ohio State (New York). … The Irish have been idle since a 63-61 loss March 3 at North Carolina. … Notre Dame last played in Greensboro Coliseum on March 16, 2012, a 67-63 loss to Xavier in an NCAA Tournament South Region second-round game. … Notre Dame won its last five Big East Tournament openers and hasn’t lost a league tournament opener since 2008 (Marquette). … Notre Dame was one of four ACC teams (Boston College, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech) to finish with a losing overall record. … Wake Forest leads the all-time series, 2-0. … Picked in preseason to finish 13th in the ACC, the Demon Deacons lost seven straight after beating the Irish. … Wake Forest split its last four with wins over Clemson and Duke and losses to Boston College and Miami. … The De-mon Deacons have lost six straight ACC Tournament openers since a triple-overtime victory over Georgia Tech in 2007. … Wednesday’s winner advances to Thursday’s second round to face No. 5 seed Pittsburgh (23-8, 11-7), at 2 p.m.

WORTH QUOTING: “They’ve played hard. They have had so many close games. It’s a fine line between winning and losing. They don’t have anything to hang their heads about, that’s for sure. Hopefully they still have enough inside them to get it go-ing.” — Former Notre Dame center Phil Hickey on this year’s Irish