Irish refuse to dwell on NCAA tournament hoops history

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH – Nobody associated with Notre Dame needed to make the long journey Wednesday around the seemingly never-ending corridor from the locker room to the media materials area at CONSOL Energy Center to research the facts.

They all know the lack of meat on the postseason numbers.

At 29-5, ranked No. 8 and the No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Regional, Notre Dame has enjoyed a regular season for the ages. The Irish have yet to lose consecutive games. They have won their last five and only recently moved past a dizzying few days that included the first tournament championship in school history.

But now is when it really all matters. As fun of a ride as the last few months have been, the next week or two or even three means a whole lot more to the Irish. To everyone.

Heading into Thursday’s second-round game (12:15 p.m., CBS) against No. 13 Northeastern (23-11), No. 3 seed Notre Dame looks to win its opening tournament game for the first time since 2011. The Irish have been sent home without any tournament success in three of their previous four trips.

“We can’t look back on the past,” said senior captain Pat Connaughton, who is winless in his two NCAA experiences. “We don’t want to dwell on it. It’s just like last season. We didn’t want to dwell on it, but we still wanted to take the necessary steps to make sure it’s forgotten.

“It’s something that you can look back on to keep you motivated. That’s something that we’ll do. We have a chance to write our own future.”

Fellow senior Jerian Grant also has never won an NCAA tournament game. He was sitting out to preserve a year of eligibility in 2011 when Notre Dame beat Akron in the second round.

“To change that on the resume,” Grant said, “would mean a lot.”

The Irish believe this year will be different. Different team. Different focus. Different resolve. It just has to be for a group that was determined to do something big to bounce back from last season’s 15-17 season, then won the league tournament championship. Cutting down the nets in Greensboro, N.C. last weekend should allow the Irish to play more confidently and not worry about flipping their postseason failures.

“That’s kind of how you talk about it,” coach Mike Brey said.

Lack of success has not been something that Brey has dwelled on for more than a few minutes at any time in the calendar. His focus has long been on just getting INTO the field of 68, which he refuses to ever take for granted.

Yet Brey knows that it’s time for a change. He knows everyone wants more. And nobody wants more than the 15-year head coach.

“We handled our league play at another level and that gives us a great chance to do more,” said Brey, 6-9 in the NCAA tournament at Notre Dame. “The job is 365 days a year and I’m motivated to want to make that run.

“I’m excited about the possibilities with this group.”

Reunion doings

Some six minutes into Sunday’s NCAA tournament selection show, he could only smile in anticipation of what he figured was coming next.

Once Notre Dame was sent to Pittsburgh as the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region, first-year Northeastern assistant coach Chris Markwood knew the Huskies would be handed the No. 14 seed.

It just had to be, thought Markwood, who spent two seasons at Notre Dame (2000-01) before transferring to Maine.

“I started laughing,” Markwood said Wednesday. “Once you saw the talk about them getting a three seed, we kind of knew we’d be the 13-15 range. It’s a cool thing to see.”

This week is the second time during Markwood’s assistant coaching career that his path has crossed with the school he signed with coming out of South Portland (Maine) High School. In 2011-12, Markwood was an assistant at Vermont, which opened NCAA play in the same city – Greensboro – as Notre Dame, which lost its second-round game to Xavier.

The teams shared the same hotel that weekend. Now they meet again.

“This year, the way they’re playing,” Markwood said, “I don’t know if I wanted to see them anywhere near us.”

Soon after his playing career ended, Markwood spent 13 months in private business as a mortgage broker. He then had to scratch the coaching itch. Markwood is finishing his ninth year as a college assistant. He also spent five years at Maine following graduation.

“I just love basketball,” he said. “This is what I love to do, love to be around. I really enjoy the opportunity to mentor young men doing the same thing I was able to do.

“Basketball is a great way to teach life lessons.”

Markwood admitted that like many around the country, it took him a few minutes to understand how big of a deal it was for Notre Dame to win the ACC tournament last weekend. And to guys in the business on the outside looking in like him, it is a big deal.

“It’s huge,” said Markwood, whose job duties include drafting the scouting report on the Irish for Thursday’s opener. “Coach Brey built their brand in the Big East, but the ACC is the ACC. When you beat Duke and North Carolina on back-to-back nights that really says something about where your basketball program is.

“For someone who had been around it, it’s really cool to see them have that success.”

Free throw focus

The first of two bye weeks for Notre Dame following the Feb. 10 win at Clemson gave the Irish a chance to focus on one aspect of their game that had to be better — free throw shooting.

“Our percentages, I was just really unhappy with them,” Brey said. “I just felt, we should be better there. It was a lack of concentration.”

Brey blamed himself for not getting the Irish more free throw reps throughout their daily practices. The six days off then allowed the Irish to practice more in the Pit – their basement practice facility – and bypass having only two baskets available in the main arena. The Irish would go five-on-five, then shoot 10 free throws in a row, then five one-and-ones, then one foul shot. Then they’d scrimmage some more, then shoot more free throws.

“We’ve just spent more time with it,” Brey said. “It’s been an overall focus and they’ve reacted to it pretty well.”

Prior to the Feb. 17 game against Wake Forest, Notre Dame was shooting 70.5 percent from the foul line, 68.8 percent in ACC games. Notre Dame enters NCAA play shooting 74 percent from the line. It finished ACC play connecting on 73.5 percent.

The Irish have been downright smoking from the line since that first bye week. In the eight games that followed, Notre Dame made 82.7 percent (163-for-197). That included six games of at least 25 attempts (five of those wins) and five games (four wins) of at least 20 points from the foul line.

During its three-game run through the ACC tournament, Notre Dame went 19-of-27 against Miami, 22-of-25 against Duke and 28-of-32 against North Carolina.

Sophomore guard Steve Vasturia leads the Irish in foul shooting at 84.9.

“When you look at how good our team is offensively, we expect to be shooting a high clip from the foul line,” Vasturia said. “It came down to locking in. We can score 15-20 points a game there and that’s huge.

“It’s a huge weapon for us.”

Tourney tidbits

• Notre Dame’s 40-minute open workout on the floor of the CONSOL Energy Center was its second practice of Wednesday. The Irish earlier worked out at the Palumbo Center, the home arena of nearby Duquesne University.

• The unique building – designed specifically for hockey and the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, it was built steep on the sides and ends – may be some adjustment in terms of depth perception for all eight teams. Many of Notre Dame’s shots during its open workout clipped the near side of the front or side of the rim before falling short.

• Following its victory in the ACC tournament championship, Notre Dame enters NCAA tournament play on a win streak (five in a row) for the first time since 1988 and its days of conference independence. Notre Dame won its last final three regular-season games that year before a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Southern Methodist in Chapel Hill, N.C.

• Incoming Irish recruits Elijah Burns (Blairstown, N.J.) and Matt Ryan (New Rochelle, N.Y.) have been chosen to participate in the 2015 Jordan Brand Classic regional all-star game April 17 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Burns and Ryan, who will enroll at Notre Dame in June, will compete on opposite teams in the City vs. Suburbs game, held before the annual national all-star game.

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Notre Dame's Austin Burgett, left, Matt Gregory, center, and Zach Auguste, left, warm up during Wednesday's practice at the NCAA college basketball tournament in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/KEITH SRAKOCIC)