NCAA Tournament challenge for Mike Brey, Irish is focus on present, not past

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Moving on may be easier said than done for the Notre Dame men's basketball team.

It's a danger coach Mike Brey must be cognizant of the next few days.

Over their time in Brooklyn at the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, the Irish expended energy and emotion in gallons.

By late Saturday night, after a championship game loss to Duke that easily could have been reversed, their tank was empty.

Bone dry.

Notre Dame has the better part of four days to re-fuel and be back at top form for their NCAA Tournament debut against Princeton Thursday.

It's like a guy who lost a belt-hole size on a three-day crash diet. He can't celebrate with a strawberry shortcake, or he'll waste everything he accomplished. He has to continue the focus, keep his eye on the ultimate goal and maintain the same discipline that got the initial results.

In other words, the Irish better not have left their game in the Big Apple.

Less than 24 hours after the emotional loss to the Blue Devils, with forward Bonzie Colson still hobbled a bit and forgoing the media meeting in favor of treatment on his injured ankle, the Irish were a subdued bunch as their tournament path was plotted Sunday.

Would it have been a better big-picture scenario if Notre Dame had lost to either Virginia Thursday or Florida State Friday, rather than going the distance and investing so much physically and emotionally? It's not like the tournament run enhanced its seed (the fifth-seeded Irish were projected as a No. 5 seed before the tourney).

Heck no. That's not the way Brey operates.

“It's a chance to hang a banner,” Brey said of his rationale for putting such an emphasis on the conference tournament each year. “One of the neat things we were able to talk about after (beating) Florida State was, 'Fellas, we could have another banner hanging up; and cutting nets down.'

“You're playing for a championship. We look at it as a separate issue, then we deal with the NCAA Tournament.

“The program has gotten to the semifinals (in the ACC and Big East tournaments). We were used to getting close. Now, we've played in two out of three (ACC Tournament) championship games. That's something they go for. It's never been a mindset to get yourself ready for the next week. Does it wear you out? We don't even worry about that. 'Let's see if we can win the thing.'”

The hangover from a rough night was still obvious Sunday – with Brey, as well as his players.

“I think we're spent still,” Brey said. “I saw our reaction (on TV when Notre Dame's pairing was announced). I was too exhausted to go up in the crowd (at the team's watch party). Our reaction was not disappointed with the seed, it was (Brey makes the gesture of polite clapping), because that's how we feel right now.

“By Tuesday, we'll be bouncing around pretty good.”

Rest and rejuvenation – without classes, because students are on spring break – have been ordered for the Irish.

“(Recovering is) easy when you've got great captains and veterans like Steve (Vasturia), V.J. (Beachem), and even Bonzie (Colson) and Matt Farrell,” said sophomore Rex Pflueger, one of the Irish who thrives on emotion. “They're always there for me.

“I play with a lot of passion and a lot of emotion. Bonzie plays with more passion than anyone I've ever played with. He's always there to calm me down.”

“We were (near empty Saturday night), but I don't feel we could ever get fully depleted with the confidence and the veterans that we have. They do a great job keeping us level-headed – never get too high or never getting too low on ourselves.”

Then there's Vasturia, who wouldn't crack a smile if someone bought him a pony for his birthday.

“We've got a couple days here to rest and get our legs back,” Vasturia said. “We've got a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. If you can't get excited for that, I don't know what you can get excited for.

“This is a great opportunity. Everybody in this locker room is excited to get to play another game.

“I always try to stay even-keel. Whenever you play sports, you're going to face adversity – highs and lows; ups and downs. You've gotta be able to handle them, take the next step, and keep going.”

“We'll use (the loss to Duke) as motivation,” said Farrell, embarking on his second tourney. “I've got all these guys around me. We all want the same thing. We all want to win it together. It makes it easier to get prepared.”

As long as they're all able to fill up the tank in time.