Notre Dame athletic director believes men's hoops team can be elite

Q & A

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

Five years had passed since Notre Dame vice president/director of athletics Jack Swarbrick last found himself with a little less on his professional plate during a certain Sunday evening in March.

Not since 2009 — during his first full year on the job at his alma mater — had Swarbrick not had a personal interest in Selection Sunday, when the 68 bids to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament are extended by the selection committee. Following a 15-17 season, one that included a 6-12 finish during its first season in a new conference home, Notre Dame saw its season end far too early. For some, it couldn’t end soon enough.

It was a frustrating winter for myriad reasons, but one that didn’t sway Swarbrick’s sentiment that Notre Dame can and should and will be considered among the nation’s elite. Bouncing back from its first losing season since 1998-99 will be a tough task for Notre Dame, something that does not trouble Swarbrick.

During a 28-minute phone interview Monday with the Tribune, Swarbrick discussed the past, the present and the future of the Irish men’s basketball program.

South Bend Tribune: When the ultimate regular-season payoff arrived for men’s college basketball programs and Notre Dame was not part of the NCAA Tournament, what was Selection Sunday like for you?

Jack Swarbrick: It was more like a regular Sunday, because I don’t pay any attention. I was completely engrossed in a hockey game in Boston and a lacrosse game in South Bend. I was monitoring both as they were played, and I couldn’t have told you until late (Sunday) what the bracket looked like.

SBT: Where did this season go sideways for a program that had so much optimism/expectations for its first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference?

Swarbrick: I think there were two points. The first, I think, was the obvious one, which was the Ohio State game (Notre Dame led by eight points with under a minute remaining but lost 64-61 in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 21). We knew we were going to lose Jerian (Grant, to academic expulsion for the spring semester) and that would have been a really nice game to use as a platform for going into the meat of the season without a guy who was so important to us.

But I really think the single most important game of the year, and the one that we never really recovered from, was North Carolina State (a 77-70 loss Jan. 7). We beat Duke. We had a chance to get off to a great start in the ACC and build momentum that you could really ride. A game we should have had a good shot at and we didn’t get it done. For different reasons, those two games were the ones where you could just see that it wasn’t coming together exactly right for you.

SBT: Having staggered through a losing season, does it strengthen or shake your belief in head coach Mike Brey?

Swarbrick: It reaffirms it. Mike is as good as any coach I’ve ever been around at taking the hand that’s been dealt him and figuring out how to maximize it. Our margin for error is always going to be small, and this year, when we took a couple of hits throughout the year, that probably narrowed our margin more than we could stand. But I love the way that it never impacted our competitiveness. Those games down the stretch that were tough outcomes — Pittsburgh and North Carolina — to be in it at the end of those games and have a chance to win it having played our butts off at that point in the season, that’s really rewarding. I think in terms of getting the kids to play at a level they need to play and being able to modify his approach to deal with the circumstances, Mike just does an exceptional job.

SBT: What did you learn about basketball life in the ACC?

Swarbrick: It’s interesting. All of our coaches say almost the exact same thing, which is, it’s more of a challenge than we thought. You can watch tape of everybody, but when everybody you play is effectively new for you and every venue is new, it makes for a much more challenging season, probably in a way I never fully anticipated or expected. When you’re in a conference and you play those teams every year and you really understand how their coaches think and the way they approach a game, it’s easier to prepare. There was certainly a learning curve here, and it might have been steeper than I thought.

SBT: Notre Dame carved such a solid identity during its latter years in the Big East. How long will it take to figure out exactly what this program is, or maybe more importantly, who this program is in the ACC?

Swarbrick: That’s a great question. I hope we begin to see it next year. But you’re so right. That identity was so well-set in the Big East. Look at those Louisville games. What was it, five out of seven were at least one overtime with two programs that knew each other so well and had to play each other with so many great games. That’s part of having an identity in a conference. I don’t think you could say what our identity was in the conference at the conclusion of this year. I hope it starts to take shape next year.

SBT: Who is Notre Dame’s men’s basketball peer in the ACC?

Swarbrick: I don’t know if you can approach it that way, just as I’m not sure who our peer was in the Big East. There we were with all those 20-win seasons and historically competing at the top of the conference and getting to the (league tournament) semifinals in the Garden (each of the last four years in the conference). It’s more about the identity that you establish for yourself in the conference than how you relate to other programs.

SBT: The ACC sent only six teams to the NCAA Tournament this season. Next year, the league adds perennial power Louisville, which looks to go to a third straight Final Four. How much more difficult does that make getting back to the NCAA Tournament?

Swarbrick: It’s going to be tough, but the (old) Big East was getting eight and nine teams in. That’s what makes you better. The great thing about the selection process for postseason play in the NCAA, they do a great job of rewarding strength of schedule. So being in a conference that challenges you every game, that not only makes you a better team, but gives you a better story to tell at the end of the year to the selection committee.

SBT: What will be different about this team next season?

Swarbrick: I love what we have coming back on the perimeter. I think (freshmen) Demetrius (Jackson) and Steve (Vasturia) both are going to continue to grow. Demetrius’ last game was his best game and Steve was really important for us all year. To marry them with Pat (Connaughton) and Jerian, those are four guys spread over the guard positions and the small forward position that I’ll match with anyone in the conference. So what we have to focus on is getting as much as we can out of our power forward and center spots next year. Too often this year we weren’t competitive rebounding-wise and with our interior defense. We’re going to have the perimeter game to play with anybody. The question is, are we going to rebound and play interior defense well enough to take the next step in the conference?

SBT: What is the baseline expectation level of the men’s basketball program?

Swarbrick: It’s to get to the NCAA Tournament and put ourselves in position to win a national championship. That’s our expectation, and for the past four years in a row, we got ourselves into the tournament, so that’s a starting point. We start every season with that as the clear objective.

SBT: It’s been 36 seasons since the school’s only Final Four appearance (1978), 11 seasons since the last Sweet 16 (2003) and no national championships, so how is success measured for the men’s basketball program?

Swarbrick: Of the (351) Division I college basketball programs, if I’m not mistaken, only 17 of them were in the NCAA Tournament each of the previous four years (Notre Dame was one). As I say, you’ve got to start with that, and we have been achieving that on a regular basis, so I feel very good about the state of the program and the platform that we have. We’ve got to continue to get to the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis and we’ve got to have a year along the way where we advance in it and we can have the sort of run that I know we can have.

SBT: What offers optimism that Notre Dame can be a championship-caliber program?

Swarbrick: Because we’ve been able to play with everybody in the country. We’ve been able to beat No. 1 Syracuse (in 2012). We’ve been able to have those games with Louisville. We were the last team to beat Louisville last year. They didn’t lose again before they won the national championship. We’ve proven that we can play with anyone, so that’s what gives me great encouragement. I never feel like, when this team takes the floor, ‘My, gosh, we’re not going to win this.’ I feel just the opposite. I have great confidence in them. That’s a place you want to have a program. You have to build from that and get better, but I feel very good about that as a platform starting.

SBT: What additional resources are necessary or what current ones need to be adjusted to maximize the potential of this program?

Swarbrick: Oh, I don’t know that it’s about resources. There are things you can always do to help the program and make it better, like get the practice facility done, and that’s important. I think we have what we need to continue to put ourselves in the position we were in the past four years. In one of those years (2011), we were going into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed. I’ll take that anytime. When we get there, we’ve got to have the dominoes fall our way to make a run, and I think we can do that.

SBT: Notre Dame set a modern-day school record for wins in going 27-7 to earn a No. 2 seed in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Why hasn’t the program been able to build off that success?

Swarbrick: If there was an easy answer to that, we would identify it and fix it. Sometimes it’s a bad draw, but I don’t mean in terms of being an unfair draw. Iowa State was a really bad matchup for us (in the second round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament). You get by that one and we probably match-up better in that second game (against Ohio State). Some of it is that, some of it is just how people are playing at the time, somebody being superior physically. I don’t think it’s ever just one thing, but I have every confidence that we’ll have those years where those dominoes fall in the right way, not the wrong way.

SBT: When you hear from fans, what are their main issues with men’s hoops?

Swarbrick: It’s (the lack of) NCAA Tournament success, and I think that’s right. I certainly understand it. Everybody in the program understands it. But I’d much rather be dealing with the issue of being rarely out of the tournament and figuring out how to make a run in it than where so many programs are and trying to figure out how to get in the tournament on a regular basis. I understand that fans want to see that run. We all do. You can only make that run when you start from the platform of regular, annual success, and we’ve done that.

SBT: Any concern that the men’s basketball program has grown stagnant? That the product has gone stale? That the progress toward the goal of challenging for a national championship has stalled?

Swarbrick: I heard a lot of people say that about our men’s soccer program (which won the national championship last season). You know — in the NCAA Tournament every year, couldn’t quite get the run made. The people who followed that sport closely expressed their frustration, but I never felt it myself. I knew how good the program was and the quality of the kids and the coaching staff, and I knew it would happen. I had every confidence in them and this was the year it happened. I feel the same way about our men’s basketball program.

SBT: Home attendance figures have increased over the last three seasons (from 7,999 in 2011-12 to 8,242 in 2012-13 to 8,366 this season). But empty seats, especially in the student section, were aplenty this season. Why?

Swarbrick: It’s a national phenomenon. When I talk to my peers, we all are seeing it. We’re all challenged by it. I don’t think it’s program-specific at all. Some of the programs that people would identify as absolutely top of the line are facing this same challenge. There’s no one thing. Technology is certainly playing a role in it, the demands on the times of the student. It’s also a fact that we’re aggressively marketing multiple sports in a way that didn’t used to be the case. We’re trying to sell-out on a weekend Purcell Pavilion twice (men’s and women’s basketball) and Compton Family Ice Arena (hockey) twice. In our market, that’s a challenge. Certainly, I get it. I understand it, but it’s not limited any way to just Notre Dame. We just have to remain focused and creative about how we maintain the excitement level and keep people coming back.

SBT: Granted ultimate say over the NCAA for a day, what would be three wishes to help Notre Dame in relation to the rest of college basketball?

Swarbrick: The first would be that all of us figure out how to create a more positive environment in youth basketball in America. For the people who approach the game like we do, it’s a tough environment to work in. The discussions going on about changing the one-and-done rule are a start. Can we get the level of basketball below us to be a little more positive and a little more value-based? That would be a better environment for us to operate in.

The second wish is that we do make that run that I know we will make and we can have that first extended tournament success. A lot of our teams in recent years, I hate that Ben Hansbrough and Tory Jackson and name your guy didn’t get that run. For all of them, I’d like to see that run.

And the third is really not a wish but that we can continue to run our program the way do — with great kids who graduate and represent the university. That nothing ever prevents us from maintaining the core values of this program. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what defines it more than anything else, more than any annual won-loss record is that these young men represent the university well. And right now, our program, in that respect, is a national championship program.

SBT: Five years from now, where is the Notre Dame men’s basketball program?

Swarbrick: I hope we are a perennial contender for the ACC title and a regular threat to make that run in the NCAA Tournament.

SBT: To close, here’s a little word association. Atlantic Coast Conference…

Swarbrick: Perfect fit.

SBT: NCAA Tournament…

Swarbrick: The focus for our future.

SBT: Purcell Pavilion…

Swarbrick: Great venue.

SBT: Practice facility…

Swarbrick: Top priority.

SBT: Mike Brey…

Swarbrick: Teacher.

SBT: Notre Dame men’s basketball…

Swarbrick: A bell-weather program for the university.

Tom Noie: 574-235-6153

Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Notre Dame men's basketball coach Mike Brey, left, still has the full support of athletic director Jack Swarbrick. (SBT File Photo)