NCAA analysis: This Notre Dame team set to step from shadows

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK — Shadows cast from last season’s success have long hovered near the Notre Dame men’s basketball program.

Win big or drop a close one, play well or struggle for long stretches, make it look simple at times or unbelievably difficult others, these Irish operated under the highest of expectations and bars set by last year’s team that came within one win of their first Final Four since 1978.

Jerian Grant would have made that play. ... Pat Connaughton would have grabbed that rebound. ... Last year’s team would have won that game.

This year’s group understood that those 32-6 reminders always were lurking. Around the corner. In the locker room. Across the campus quad. On that Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship banner that hangs back at Purcell Pavilion.

“Everybody talks about the past, but we want to break that,'' said senior power forward Zach Auguste said. "We want to make a name for ourselves and say that this group can do it too. We don’t want to be recognized just from last year’s team.”

It’s occasionally been a tricky balancing act. This team made sure not to let the weight of that success suffocate them while wanting to, needing to, separate themselves from that squad. It was important to make their own memories, make sure Irish fans and college basketball followers remembered THIS group, remembered THIS season for reasons they could dictate.

“We knew from the start that this wasn’t going to be last year’s team,” said junior captain Steve Vasturia. “We’ve gotten to this point now and have a chance to do some great things. We’re focused on this moment.”

That moment for No. 6 seed Notre Dame (22-11) brings a chance to separate seasons and then some Sunday around 2:50 p.m. (approximately) when it faces No. 14 Stephen F. Austin (28-5) for the chance to advance to the East Region semifinals this week in Philadelphia.

A spot in a second consecutive Sweet 16 would freshen the history books nearly four decades in the making.

Should Notre Dame take better care of the basketball, eventually find its offensive rhythm that has continued to sputter, use the comeback over Michigan as a springboard, find a way to handle the SFA defensive chaos and do what every team strives to do this time of year — survive and advance — it would mark the first time since the two most memorable of seasons in 1978 (Final Four) and 1979 (Elite Eight) that Notre Dame advances to the Round of 16 two straight seasons.

Who would have ever seen THAT coming when the Irish lost three of five to end the regular season?

Win Sunday and this core will long be remembered for taking the program to a place it hasn’t been in nearly four decades. That’s pretty heavy stuff. Program-defining stuff.

“I didn’t even know that,” sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson said. “I really don’t know what was going on in that era. That gives us a little motivation to do, have an historical impact on the game, on the university.”

Last year’s team was special for myriad reasons. The win at North Carolina for the first time in school history. The 14 league wins in its second ACC season. The conference tournament championship and the magical March.

“Last year was still last year,” Colson said. “We understand the feeling and what it takes, but we’re a different team.”

A team that Irish coach Mike Brey counseled back in early February, also had a chance to be special. For the gut-check comeback against North Carolina, the road win at Clemson two days later, the first-ever win at Duke.

And now?

“It would be huge,” said junior guard Demetrius Jackson. “I’m really proud of how far we’ve come this year, how we’ve come together and now just going for it. Now it’s going out and doing it.”

A win Sunday in Barclays Center also would go a long way toward soothing the NCAA Tournament heartache that even after all these years, refuses to fade away. Double-digit seeds have long been this program’s postseason kryptonite.

For as much as the Irish accomplished last March in outlasting Northeastern and Butler, of whacking Wichita State and of coming painfully close against Kentucky, too many should-have-been wins still linger.

Painfully.

The loss to No. 10 Iowa State in Dayton, Ohio in 2013. To No. 10 Xavier in Greensboro, N.C., 2012. To No. 10 Florida State in Chicago 2011. To No. 11 Old Dominion in New Orleans in 2010. To No. 11 Winthrop in Spokane, Wash., in 2007. And for those with really long memories, to No. 14 Arkansas-Little Rock in 1986.

Win Sunday and be one of the final 16 standing and those 30 years of tournament failures and frustration wash away.

Win Sunday and this team ultimately becomes the special group Brey wondered about months ago.

Win Sunday and this team becomes memorable for reasons tucked inside this season.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame's core can take a big step from last season's shadow of success by beating Stephen F. Austin in Sunday's second round of the NCAA Tournament.AP Photo/FRANK FRANKLIN II

NCAA Tournament

Second round

WHO: No. 6 seed Notre Dame (22-11) vs. No. 14 Stephen F. Austin (28-5).

WHERE: Barclays Center (17,732), Brooklyn, N.Y.

WHEN: Sunday at 2:50 p.m. (approximately).

TV: CBS.

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@tnoieNDI.

WORTH NOTING: Senior swingman Thomas Walkup scored 33 points, including 19-of-20 from the free throw line, and Stephen F. Austin registered 16 steals and forced 22 turnovers in a 70-56 victory Friday over No. 3 West Virginia. The game featured four ties, two lead changes, 52 fouls and 66 free throws. The Lumberjacks held the Mountaineers to 30.8 percent shooting from the floor, 18.8 percent from 3. … It was the second NCAA Tournament win in school history for SFA, which beat Virginia Commonwealth in 2014. … The Lumberjacks have won 21 straight games since a 10-point loss to Alabama Birmingham on Dec. 29. … SFA led the Southland in scoring offense (80.7), scoring defense (63.2), scoring margin (+17.6), field goal percentage (48.4), 3-point field goal percentage (32.3), rebounding margin (+3.4), assists (18.9), turnover margin (+6.2) and assist/turnover ratio (1.5). … The 6-foot-4 Walkup was a first team all-league and all-defensive selection. … The Lumberjacks’ roster features nine upperclassmen, including nine seniors, and five junior-college transfers. … The teams have never met. … The winner advances to the East Region semifinals to play the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 2 Xavier on Thursday at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

WORTH QUOTING: “This is probably the most talented team I've ever played on. We have tremendous abilities and are very explosive at times. And on the other side of the ball, we sit down and guard the heck out of people. It's a dangerous combination. I think that people realize we’re the real deal.”

-Stephen F. Austin senior swingman Thomas Walkup.