Northeastern next step for Notre Dame hoops success

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

All the talk, the focus and the hard work last week centered on taking Tobacco Road by storm and returning to Northern Indiana with hats and shirts.

Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship hats and shirts. And a trophy, which was mistakenly left behind on the Greensboro Coliseum court once the celebration moved upstairs to the locker room.

The euphoria of Notre Dame winning its first-ever conference tournament championship Saturday will last for weeks, for months, probably for years. But less than 20 hours after the program experienced the highest of its highs, it was time to turn the page and get back to basketball business.

As ACC tournament champions, Notre Dame (29-5) was one of 32 teams to receive an automatic bid to the 2015 NCAA tournament. Getting into the field of 68 held little drama as the Irish gathered early Sunday evening to watch the selection show. What was left to learn was where and when Notre Dame would begin pursuit of additional postseason success.

It took less than seven minutes to hear that the NCAA tournament selection committee handed Notre Dame a No. 3 seed (no surprise) in the Midwest Region (no surprise) where it will open tournament play Thursday against No. 14 Northeastern (23-11) at the Consol Energy Center in downtown Pittsburgh.

The game will be televised by CBS and tip at 12:15 p.m.

Winners of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament to earn an automatic bid, the Huskies have won four straight and six of their last seven. The teams have met only once, an Irish win in 1997.

The winner of Notre Dame and Northeastern advances Saturday to face the winner of No. 6 Butler against No. 11 Texas.

The top four seeds in the Midwest Region are Kentucky, Kansas, Notre Dame and Maryland.

It’s the highest seed for the Irish since they were a No. 2 in the Southwest Region in 2010-11.

“I don’t think we as a team cared about what seed we were,” said Irish captain Pat Connaughton.

All the talk and all the focus and all the hard work this week will center on making sure all involved in the Irish program don't drift and understand there is more to be accomplished. More work to be done. The next step is doing some damage in the NCAA tournament. At the least, it’s about getting to the tournament’s second weekend, something the program has not done since a magical ride to the Sweet 16 in 2003.

After going the previous 11 years without an NCAA tournament bid, Notre Dame earned its 10th tournament trip during the 15-year tenure of coach Mike Brey. Sunday was the first since the 2012-13 season. The Irish have never entered the one post-season tournament that truly matters on a high like this one.

“It’s the most confident I’ve been with a team going into the NCAA tournament,” Brey said. “That gives you a whole ‘nother level of believing.”

Notre Dame has won its last five games and eight of its last nine. It already has set a modern-day record for most wins in a season. It’s ranked No. 11 in the nation. It’s a confident group.

“We feel like we can beat anybody,” said senior guard Jerian Grant, who left Greensboro with league tournament most valuable player honors. “No matter who we’re matched up against, we’re going to be ready to play.”

Go ahead and count the Irish out of the NCAA tournament based on their past history. They dare you. They heard all the talk last week about No. 1 seed Virginia, and No. 2 seed Duke and No. 4 seed Louisville and No. 5 seed North Carolina. Even how No. 7 seed North Carolina State might make a run to a league tournament title.

In the end, it was the No. 3 seed Notre Dame that stood alone.

“No one counted on us, no one thought we were going to be able to do it,” Connaughton said. “I didn’t hear one analyst pick us even when we got to the championship game.

“It’s something that motivates this team. We’re under the radar for whatever reason and we’re going to use that to our advantage and come out and wing it.”

Notre Dame is coming off a stretch of three victories in three days at the ACC tournament that few will ever forget.

After cutting down nets and celebrating Saturday’s 90-82 victory over North Carolina, the Notre Dame traveling party finally departed Greensboro around 1:45 Sunday morning. The charter flight landed at South Bend International Airport around 3:15. The bus carrying the team arrived on campus close to 4.

Brey finally found a few moments for sleep around 5 before Selection Sunday dawned.

“We need some rest,” said Brey, whose team did nothing basketball-wise Sunday and will do very little Monday. “There’s no question they enjoyed and celebrated one of the most special, if not the most special moments in our program history.”

According to the official NCAA seed list, Notre Dame was the fourth and final team to receive a No. 3 seed. Success in Greensboro allowed Notre Dame to jump Maryland, which had been ranked three spots higher (8 to 11) in the last Associated Press poll, for a No. 3 seed. Had Notre Dame not beaten North Carolina, it could have been a No. 4 seed.

Some even wondered whether Notre Dame’s run in Greensboro, which included a tournament semifinal win over second-ranked Duke, would be worthy of a No. 2 seed. After all, how many teams could beat Duke and also North Carolina in basically its own backyards on successive nights?

But the selection committee weighs more than just a conference tournament weekend of work when seeding teams. It weighs the entire season’s portfolio. That includes what teams do – and how they schedule – in non-conference.

That’s where a No. 2 seed was a bit out of reach for Notre Dame. The Irish finished 12-1 in non-conference. The loss was by one point to Providence, another NCAA tournament team. But the overall body of work in the non-league – not a single true road game away from ACC play – worked against any Irish favor.

Notre Dame’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and Strength of Schedule (SOS) numbers are 15 and 95. Out of 351 Division I teams, it had a non-conference strength of schedule (SOS) of 327. What does that mean? It means the Irish rarely challenged themselves in November and December. In many ways, that’s just how Brey wanted it.

“I don’t ever schedule for (NCAA tournament) seeding,” Brey told the Tribune in February, when rumblings that a weak non-conference schedule would cost his team a seed spot or even two come March.

Coming off last season’s 15-17 struggles, Brey scheduled with one goal in mind – to get a veteran, yet fragile team some much-needed confidence so it could and would compete in the ACC. Notre Dame finished 6-12 in the ACC last season; it tied the school record with 14 league wins, including a school-record seven away from home, this season.

The non-league schedule served its purpose.

Notre Dame is back where it believes it always belongs. Now it’s time to go to work.


“We,” Grant said, “still have a long way to go.”

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