Noie: Initially in, Notre Dame left on outside of NCAA Tournament looking in

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Battling back to its feet from a series of staggering gut punches throughout a trying college basketball season, Notre Dame was delivered the ultimate knockout early Sunday evening.

It will be tough to get up from this one.

For much of the weekend, really ever since the Irish regular season ended Thursday with a loss to Duke in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Notre Dame was in the NCAA tournament field of 68. The Irish were going back to a place they had been the previous three seasons. They would get the chance to right a regular season that had gone so wrong.

Notre Dame was less than three hours away from being awarded one of the 36 at-large bids. And then, thanks to one game, one of the last games of over 10,000 played played by the 351 Division I teams this season, cost Notre Dame.

Cost Notre Dame everything.

E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.

Bam!

Good night.

When Davidson upset top-seeded Rhode Island to win the Atlantic 10 championship around 3:25 p.m., it forced the NCAA selection committee to eliminate one team from the at-large group. That team, said Creighton athletic director and tournament selection committee chair Bruce Rasmussen, was Notre Dame.

"They just didn't have enough on their resume to be an at-large," Rasmussen told TBS.

Understood, but the way this unfolded. Man, it's hard. Really hard.

"After a season of gut punches, that was yet another gut punch," Irish coach Mike Brey said. "I'm kind of proud of them, but hurting for them at the same time.

"We've had all kinds of things happen and on the most important day, it was a heartbreaking day. It's a tough one to swallow."

Rasmussen then offered another kick to the Irish gut when he revealed that the last team in the field was ... Syracuse. The same Syracuse team that Notre Dame beat - at the Carrier Dome - without its two best players. Notre Dame and Syracuse finished with identical 8-10 conference records. So one league loss that could have been a win and Notre Dame would have been in. Should have been in.

The 36 at-large teams were revealed in alphabetical order on TBS, which also carried some drama. When studio host Ernie Johnson got to where the Notre Dame name should have popped up, he paused and asked the live studio audience if this was where they would see Notre Dame.

Then paused....

The name of Ohio State appeared, which meant Notre Dame was out.

Another gut punch.

"Next time I see him, "Brey told the Tribune of Johnson, "I'm punching him in the face."

He was joking. He was serious. It was that kind of night.

Next up for the Irish (20-14) is a first-round National Invitation Tournament home game. A No. 1 seed in the 32-team tournament, Notre Dame will host No. 8 Hampton (19-15), a member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Tip time Tuesday at Purcell pavilion is 9 p.m.

It’s not what anyone around the program wanted to do or hoped to do, but it’s all it has left for this month, for this group, for this season.

Grin and bear it. Grin and win it.

That’s likely a tough task for a senior class that’s the winningest in program history. A senior class that won an ACC tournament championship. A class that has consecutive NCAA tournament Elite Eight runs.

This consolation prize their last time through is of little consolation. March Madness? More like March Sadness for Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell and Martinas Geben and Matt Gregory and Austin Torres.

It was one weird week for Notre Dame leading into Selection Sunday. Having won five of its final eight, and then two ACC tournament wins kept the Irish on the minds of many throughout college basketball. In or out? Out or in? With the return of Colson, who missed 15 league games over eight weeks while recovering from a broken foot, Notre Dame made a late run at an at-large bid.

With a healthy Colson, who was preseason league player of the year, and a healthy Farrell, who missed five league games with an ankle injury, Notre Dame felt it could play with anyone in the country. All the Irish wanted was the chance to prove it. They could be the feel-good story for an NCAA short on them.

However the decision fell for the Irish, it wasn’t going to be a surprise. They were good enough to get in, yet not good enough to remain out. Had they found their way into the field, it would have been an invitation long on emotional and feel-good vibes and short on quality wins. Resume wins. Season-making wins.

Notre Dame went 1-7 against ranked teams this season. It finished 2-9 in league games against teams with winning records. It lost four league home games. It didn’t really beat anyone the last two months of the season that it wasn’t supposed to beat. There were no “wow’ wins. A lot of good wins, a lot more wins that were supposed to be wins, but not a lot else.

And losses to three teams with crusher Ratings Percentage Index numbers — Ball State (120), Indiana (129) and Georgia Tech (159) — likely was too much for Notre Dame to overcome. It could have absorbed those early losses to those in-state teams if it would have eventually earned those back somewhere along the ACC line.

The Irish never got those back. Those four home losses in league play — to Louisville, Miami (Fla.), North Carolina and Virginia Tech — likely sealed Notre Dame’s postseason fate. The Irish didn’t have to win all of them, but they had to get at least two of them. They got none of them.

As a result, Notre Dame is headed back to that other tournament — whisper voice, N-I-T — for the first time since 2009. The Irish are 26-10 all-time in the NIT.

It was an unusual Sunday for Notre Dame in myriad ways. Unlike the previous three, there was no official team watch party, where the Irish would gather around the televisions in Club Naimoli, high above the Purcell Pavilion main floor. The Irish were left on their own until right after the announcement. Then they were required to do something they’ve never done after the pomp and circumstance of a Selection Sunday.

They practiced. For about 40 minutes, Brey had his guys run off the frustration of being left out of the NCAA and get the focus back to make a run in the NIT.

Players were unavailable for comment as of Tribune press time. The quotes would have been predictable. They were disappointed at the outcome. They’re honored for the chance to keep playing. They want to go prove people wrong. They want to make a run in the OTHER tournament. They would love to get back to Madison Square Garden for the first time since 2013. Win it all. Hang a banner. That would mean something.

But it won’t mean as much. There’s a heck of a party that’s about to start, and the Irish aren’t invited. That hurts. But that’s life in college basketball.

Notre Dame just didn’t do enough when enough needed to be done.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

The return of power forward Bonzie Colson was thought to be enough for Notre Dame to earn an NCAA tournament bid. The selection committee thought otherwise. Notre Dame will not participate in this season's tournament. (SBT File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)