NCAA Analysis: Another test of Notre Dame toughness awaits

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PHILADELPHIA — Practice was going to be anything but pleasant one day earlier this month, a predicament the Notre Dame men’s basketball team put itself in with a poor run of Atlantic Coast Conference performances.

Bottoming out while being kicked around on its home floor by Miami (Fla.) in an 18-point loss, Notre Dame had dropped three of four games at a time of year when good teams, tournament teams should be sailing into postseason, not struggling to stay near the top of the conference standings.

Something about the Irish was missing. An edge. An intensity. A togetherness. A toughness.

It was time to find it. To heal. To help. Go back to work and just work.

And they worked.

The energy level jumped to must-win mode. Loose balls saw two, three, four players dive to the floor trying to make a play. Every potential rebound became a possibility for bloody noses thanks to errant, aggressive, determined elbows. There was even more trash talk than usual as the intensity antennae raised a few notches.

It was exactly what the Irish needed. Wanted. Had to have to keep moving forward. To toughen up.

“It was a wake-up call,” senior power forward Zach Auguste said of the Miami loss and the practice that followed. “It was like, Geez, if we don’t come out to deliver, this could happen day-in and day-out.

“We had to focus and lock in.”

Coming clear of that practice and those few days of wondering just how good it could be, No. 6 Notre Dame (23-11) has run off victories in four of its last five games heading into Friday’s East Region semifinal (7:27 p.m., TBS) against No. 7 seed Wisconsin (22-12) at Wells Fargo Center.

The Irish are back in the Sweet 16 and two wins away from their first Final Four since 1978. Just like last year’s team. But there’s an aspect about this year’s group that separates the one that sailed through last season and became postseason darlings.

Last year’s group may have been better from a record standpoint — 32-6 overall, 14-4 and the ACC Tournament champions. This year’s group is just outright tougher, something Mike Brey talked about earlier in the week and again Thursday. The heat’s been on this group to prove that last year was no fluke. They’ve handled that hotness.

No Sweet 16 team, Brey believes, is more mentally tougher than his group for where it was last season, and where it now stands this season.

His players agree.

“We’ve had to fight and claw,” said junior swingman V.J. Beachem. “It’s a sign of toughness for us to get right back to where we are.”

Brey didn’t get through the first preseason meeting without mentioning that regardless of all the equity his program built up the previous spring in getting to its first Elite Eight since 1979, regardless of all the good vibes and karma that coursed through the Purcell Pavilion hallways in the offseason, the ensuing six-plus months were going to be hard.

Really hard.

No longer could Notre Dame sneak up on an unsuspecting ACC. Everyone would see the Irish coming. There was no choice but to deliver. Anything less, and this group would be dismissed as a one-year wonder. Thanks for the memories, see you again in a few (long) years. Time to talk spring football.

It got no easier early when Notre Dame lost two of three at the AdvoCare Invitational over Thanksgiving weekend. Got no easier after Notre Dame let a 16-point lead get away in a December loss to Indiana. Got no easier after the Irish stumbled through early league play at a shaky-legged 1-2.

“We got hit in the face right away,” said sophomore guard Matt Farrell. “We were poor and then throughout the season, we just kept finding ways to win.”

Finding ways, staying focused and being tough enough to answer adversity eventually would pay off. It has in postseason.

The Irish have won three of four, each in unique ways. Notre Dame erased a 16-point lead with 11 minutes remaining to beat Duke in overtime in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. It raced back from 12 down in the second half of last week’s first-round tournament game against Michigan. It was down five with about 100 seconds remaining two days later to Stephen F. Austin.

The Irish made the winning plays each time. They made that tough stuff look easy. That toughness allowed them to keep believing. Delivering. One way or another, they were going to find way.


“We’ve had to fight through some stuff coming off last year’s team,” Auguste said. “We’ve gone through a lot more this year than last year.

“We had to re-establish what we were going to be and who we were going to be. It has been (hard).”

In many ways, it was easy for the Irish to run away with those 32 wins and get to the Elite Eight last year. Coming off a 15-17 record and no postseason the previous year, nobody expected anything from this program.

Anything less than getting to at least the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament would be unacceptable. They’re here. And want more.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Farrell said. “It’s a great edge for us.”

One that keeps getting sharper as the month gets longer. Following the Miami game, the Irish vowed to be better tomorrow. Now there are no more tomorrows. Better be better tonight if you want to still be playing tomorrow.

“This,” Auguste said, “is our one life left.”

The Irish are determined not to let it get away.

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI

NCAA Tournament

East Region


WHO: No. 6 seed Notre Dame (23-11) vs. No. 7 Wisconsin (22-12).

WHERE: Wells Fargo Center (19,500), Philadelphia.

WHEN: Friday at 7:27 p.m.


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at

WORTH NOTING: Wisconsin beat No. 10 seed Pittsburgh in the first round and No. 2 Xavier in the second round last weekend in St. Louis. …. The Badgers trailed the Musketeers by nine points with 6:19 left before tying the game in the closing minute and winning on a Bronson Koenig 3-pointer at the buzzer. … Wisconsin finished 12-6 and in a four-way tie for third place in the Big Ten this season. .. The Badgers ranked 11th in the league in scoring offense (68.1), first in scoring defense (63.9), 10th in free throw percentage (.704), 11th in field goal percentage (.426), eighth in field goal percentage defense (.427), ninth in 3-point field percentage (.351) and 12th in field goal percentage defense (.375). … Long-time Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez served as defensive coordinator on Notre Dame's last national championship football team in 1988. Alvarez is in his 12th year as A.D. after 16 seasons as football coach. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 18-10. The teams first met Feb. 8, 1927, a 19-14 Irish win. The teams have met one time since 1968 – a 58-51 Irish win to capture the championship of the 2010 Old Spice Classic in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. … Notre Dame is 2-0 all-time against Wisconsin in neutral-site games. … The Irish have won seven games this season when trailing at halftime. … Notre Dame advanced to its second-straight Sweet 16 with wins over No. 11 Michigan and No. 14 Stephen F. Austin. …Zach Auguste has 21 double-doubles for points and rebounds this season, including seven of his last eight games. … Notre Dame has won four of its last five after losing three of four late in the regular season. … The Irish have committed 64 turnovers in their last three games. … Notre Dame has a school-record 55 wins over the last two years. … The winner of this semifinal meets the winner of No. 1 seed North Carolina and No. 5 Indiana on Sunday for an East Regional championship and spot in next week’s Final Four at NRG Stadium in Houston. … Tip time for the NCAA Regional Final game Sunday on TBS is 8:30 p.m.

WORTH QUOTING: “Seems like every year, nobody talks about Notre Dame in the Selection Sunday or that first week, but you get to the second weekend, there they are.”

-Wisconsin coach Greg Gard.