Analysis: Elite Eights not enough for Notre Dame men

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Doing a slow burn in a crowded Wells Fargo Center locker room one wild Friday night last March, Notre Dame power forward Bonzie Colson was close to boiling over.

It wasn’t the media masses with their microphones and mini-cams pressed so close to Colson that it was nearly impossible for him to move so much as a muscle. The attention that night in South Philadelphia during the NCAA Tournament was a good problem to handle. So there he sat in the middle of the scrum, silent but attentive to just about everything around him.

What got Colson going was the continued line of questioning from said media. Notre Dame had just run off eight unanswered points over the final 26 seconds to erase a three-point deficit and stun Wisconsin in an East Regional semifinal. Less than half a minute away from going home, the Irish were moving on.

Even long-time program followers had to pause come the final horn and wonder if it all had really just happened.

And if so ... how?

Notre Dame had become the only school in the country to get to the Elite Eight a second straight season. That’s territory the program hadn’t been in in nearly 40 years.

Yet the brush strokes applied that night painted Notre Dame as the latest Cinderella story of March Madness. That the Irish had simply rubbed their good-luck charm long enough to stumble into success. First against Michigan, when Notre Dame roared back from 13 down. Then two days later in the closing seconds against Stephen F. Austin. Then Wisconsin and how they must feel so fortunate to be playing with the proverbial house money against Atlantic Coast Conference colleague North Carolina on Easter Sunday night for the right to go to the Final Four.

Feel-good story? Maybe the previous March when a dream season ended with the near-miss against Kentucky. But to do it all again the following year? How about just a good story. One about a program that seemingly had turned the proverbial success corner.

For too long, there had been an invisible asterisk next to the Notre Dame name. Good, solid program from November to February. Consistent in conference play. Steady many seasons. Head coach won some top league honors. So did some of his players.

But come March?

Poof!

Those times might finally be changing.

Despite all that’s been accomplished, the Irish are nowhere near the preseason Top 25. They may be ranked closer to the bottom of the ACC than the top. But heart and drive and desire, something Colson believes the Irish have this season in handfuls, usually go overlooked in the fall, only to resurface come spring.

They were in 2014-15. And 2015-16. Maybe again this winter.

“Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve been doubted,” said Colson, a key contributor to an Irish team that won a school-record 56 combined games over the last two years. “That just motivates us to work harder. We play with that edge and it starts with the doubt that people have about us.”

Colson accepts that the first two seasons of his collegiate career have been blessed. An ACC tournament championship – the first of its kind in school history – as a freshman. Twenty-four wins, a top five league finish and another Elite Eight as a sophomore. Wins over Duke. Over Carolina. In March. Notre Dame also has won as many postseason games the last two years (six) than it did in coach Mike Brey’s first 14 seasons. Combined.

“You can’t take that for granted,” Colson said. “We’ve had that little taste; we want a little more. It’s not going to be easy, but we have people who are ready to get it done.

“Let’s do it again.”

Doing it again won’t be easy. Power forward Zach Auguste and his steady stream of double-doubles for points and rebounds are gone. Point guard Demetrius Jackson became only the second player under Brey and the first since Troy Murphy in 2001 to leave school a year ahead of schedule for the NBA.

In their place, juniors Matt Farrell and Martinas Geben rotate into roles as full-time starters. Both better deliver. The bench might be an issue. So too might the backboard.

For every two steps forward, there may be a step back. Roles may change. So might the rotation. The ACC will be as unforgiving as ever. But the Irish will work through it all with a confident eye on the end. That’s where they’ve been at their best the last two years.

“When you believe in yourself the way we do, we could be better than last year,” said sophomore guard Rex Pflueger. “Once it comes around to March, like Coach Brey said, that’s Notre Dame’s time.”

A confidence created during the last two postseasons could be enough to slingshot this program prepared to enter newer, even more unchartered territory.

“People always really respected our program before – we were solid, how we did it, how we groomed guys,” said Brey, 356-177 in South Bend. “The last two years have kind of kicked us into a new level of stuff.

“It drives the confidence of that locker room.”

Nobody saw 32-6 or the near-miss against Kentucky coming in 2014-15. Nobody saw two dozen more wins and another Elite Eight coming last season. The bar is raised, one the Irish hope to again elevate over this winter.

“The group that we had last year, we don’t want that to be a one-time thing,” said senior captain Steve Vasturia. “We believe we can make a deep run and we believe we should win every game that we’re in.

“We’re not satisfied.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Bonzie Colson, left, and V.J. Beachem, have driven Notre  Dame to an NCAA Tournament Elite Eight appearance each of the last two years. Can they make it three?SBT File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN