Notre Dame takes new path into NCAA Tournament

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Success can be a slippery slope for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

But it sure beats the heck out of the alternative.

Until this season, coach Mike Brey’s Selection Sunday speech had focused on soothing his players’ psyche from conference tournament disappointment, while at the same time talking about redemption in the NCAA Tournament.

This Selection Sunday was unchartered waters for Brey. Hadn’t he seen everything in his 15 years at the Irish helm? Big wins. Stunning losses. Players rising to the occasion. Others with a dismal performance.

But Saturday night’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship was a first.

For the next 365 days, Brey owns Tobacco Road.

What did winning the ACC Tournament tangibly accomplish? Notre Dame entered the event with a double-bye and a projected No. 3 seed. The Irish left as a No. 3 seed with a trophy; in fact, a trophy they nearly forgot in Greensboro.

“I told (the ACC administrator who mentioned the oversight), ‘Sorry, we’re new to this,’” Brey said about leaving the trophy on the floor after his team had gone to the locker room.

The players are one day more fatigued than they would have been had they not upset Duke Friday night. They have one more game on legs that have a warranty for only so many miles.

But when push comes to shove — and it likely will when the Irish meet Northeastern Thursday in Pittsburgh — it’s easier for Brey to bring his guys down to earth after an exhilarating win, than pump them up after a disappointing loss.

Good thing for Notre Dame that the NCAA Tournament is only loosely about the tangibles. By this time, all 68 teams still alive can dribble, shoot and rebound.

It’s the intangibles that can carry a team when the going gets tough.

“(Winning a conference tournament) gives you a whole ‘nuther level of believing,” Brey said Sunday night.

“Big picture, (winning the ACC Tournament) is an unbelievable endorsement for our program,” Brey said. “We were independent ‘til ’95. We didn’t join a league soon enough. Then we joined a league (the Big East). Then, we switched leagues.

“We have (had) kind of an erratic basketball history as far as: Where do our fans follow us? Who are our rivals? What’s our identity? We established a pretty darn good identity in the Big East. We were very respected. We were very consistent. We never won a championship.

“Doing that in this league… As I told (ACC commissioner) John Swofford, ‘I guess we’re in this league now.’”

That’s the big-picture ramifications of the tournament run. How it impacts what happens Thursday at 12:15 p.m., against Northeastern (isn’t that one of the cupcakes the Irish used to schedule on a Wednesday afternoon over Christmas break?) is a much more pressing issue.

“It’s great for this group’s confidence as they move into the NCAA Tournament,” Brey said. “That’s our first automatic bid in history. This group will re-calibrate and be hungry quickly.”

Brey will give his players another day to be giddy; to continue to wear the Greensboro Coliseum net around their necks like seniors Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton did Sunday, before work begins Tuesday.

“What makes this team special is that we’re never satisfied,” said Connaughton. “We won the best conference tournament in America. That says a lot of things. It gives us confidence knowing that, whoever we face (in the NCAA Tournament), we’ve already beaten some of the best teams in the country.”

“The confidence level is sky-high,” said Grant. “You’re not even worried about who you’re matching up with. Once you see your name (selected), you’re just ready to go out there and play well.”

Connaughton talked about this team re-inventing the program. Saturday was a significant step in a positive direction.

The next three weeks will define the process. Confidence can create a solid foundation.

It can provide firm traction to navigate another run.