Noie: NCAA men's tournament needs Notre Dame, but is that enough to snag bid?
Everybody who breathes basketball and brackets this time of year has offered many opinions without any answers about the NCAA tournament fate of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.
Final word surfaces Sunday just after 6 p.m. when the field of 68 is revealed. Are the Irish in? Are they out? Will their consecutive run of NCAA tournaments stretch to four or will they have to put on a happy face and attend that other postseason party, the one that will not be named?
Daylight Savings Time swiped an hour of sleep Saturday from everyone, but Irish fans, coaches and players likely lost a whole lot more than just those 60 minutes of slumber the last few days. Ever since Notre Dame was eliminated Thursday from the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament with a quarterfinal loss to Duke, wonder and worry worked overtime.
How many candles were lit at the Grotto? How many Our Fathers were said at the Basilica?
On Saturday, Notre Dame was one of about 12 teams looking to shoehorn its way into the last six or so remaining spots.
Nothing on Notre Dame’s resume screams absolutely, positively NCAA tournament team. Not its record of 19-14 (the Irish won 20, but the game against Division II Chaminade does not count toward tournament consideration), not its numbers (Basketball Power Index of 33, Strength of Schedule 44, Ratings Percentage Index of 65), not its 1-7 record against ranked teams. Not its 2-9 effort in the ACC against winning teams. Certainly not the RPI-crushing losses to Ball State (120 RPI), Indiana (121) and Georgia Tech (159).
Nearly every data point on the Notre Dame team sheet in the hands of the 10-member tournament selection committee says this – good, not good enough. Even putting a scare into top-ranked Virginia on its home court and a pair ACC tournament wins never nudged Notre Dame from the dreaded “Last Four Out” line in many Bracketologies. That’s why for the first time since 2005, when it came close but not close enough, it has to sweat Sunday’s selection.
A Notre Dame team at full strength all season that went 20-14 overall, 8-10 in the ACC and lost four league home games normally wouldn't have a shot on Selection Sunday.
This season was anything but normal. Anyone catch the halftime show of this conference tournament game or that one last week? Tune to talk radio? Hear the interviews with selection chair Bruce Rasmussen? Notre Dame was THE story in college basketball for its unique tournament position. One that has no peer.
How will the selection committee evaluate the Irish? There’s no precedent, no road map for any of it. Never in recent tournament history had a team that was ranked as high as the Irish (No. 5) when all the pieces were in place, a team that’s obviously among the 68 best when complete, one that lost possibly one of the country’s best players for 15 league games and its second best for five league games, done enough to still be considered for one of the 37 at-large bids.
College basketball may not find a better story from a known name — be it the team, the coach, the top player, the senior point guard, the senior power forward enjoying a career year, etc. — than Notre Dame. At a time when the NCAA has taken a public-relations beating with the on-going FBI corruption case and Louisville being stripped (no pun intended) of its 2013 national championship banner for its off-court shenanigans, it needs a feel-good story line.
The NCAA tournament needs Notre Dame.
Good for the game
The NCAA tournament needs coach Mike Brey and his look of a Wall Street banker trying to get it all back on track after a three-day bender. It needs power forward Bonzie Colson doing Bonzie Colson stuff and the fire and fury of point guard Matt Farrell. It needs more Martinas Geben and his two-handed, wreck-the-rim dunks. It needs Notre Dame and its recent tournament past of playing high-wire games.
Remember the overtime affair against Butler in 2015, when former Irish swingman Pat Connaughton swooped in from nowhere to swat a potential Kellen Dunham game-winning 3-pointer to force overtime? How ‘bout the Midwest Regional final that year against Kentucky, which some believe to be among the best tournament games in the last 10 years? Or the following March when a Rex Pflueger tip-in broke Stephen F. Austin's heart and sent Notre Dame back to the Sweet 16? Or the great escape against Wisconsin when Notre Dame scored eight points in 26 seconds to flip a two-point deficit into a five-point win?
When the tournament’s curtain closer, “One Shining Moment” rolled that year, Notre Dame owned it. Teams are lucky to have one clip of a big shot or a big moment in the video. There were 10 featuring Brey and the Irish. It became the program’s unofficial infomercial.
As Brey says in the voice-over during player introductions back inside Purcell Pavilion on game days — when the stage is big and the lights are bright, the freakin’ Irish deliver. Maybe not this season, but in the NCAA tournament recently, they’ve delivered. Compared to other teams with similar so-so, shaky resumes, that has to matter. That likely kept the Irish in the discussion for one of the last at-large spots.
Then there's the selection committee, one with a heavy Notre Dame influence. Three of the 10 members — Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir, Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips and Kevin White, the athletic director at Duke — all worked closely with Brey during their days at Notre Dame. Phillips was the athletic department administrator for men’s basketball. White brought Brey to South Bend in 2000.
If Notre Dame finds a way into the field, that would make for a good conspiracy theory/favor angle.
It would be the ultimate solid.
The only way Notre Dame sees its name on that big board of 68 on Sunday is if it gets shipped to University of Dayton Arena as one of the First Four. That's fine. Give the Irish that game to prove they belong. Brey promised last month when his team was staggering toward missing postseason altogether that if they were fortunate enough to have done enough to get to Dayton that he’d be so happy that he'd go early. He'd even buy the media doughnuts.
A couple of chocolate-frosted aside, if Notre Dame wriggles its way into the field, Brey better up the ante on that offer. Say, a Porterhouse at Pine Club, or a couple cold beverages a few doors down Brown Street at Tim’s.
Notre Dame would be among the best NCAA tournament stories this week. Maybe next.
But even the best of stories don’t always have the happiest of endings.