Noie: Notre Dame men's basketball embraces next challenge of NIT - sort of

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Riding waves of emotions after everything went down the way it went down early Sunday evening, Notre Dame had an additional element enter the equation when the coaches exited the locker room and left the players to ponder their immediate predicament.

Ownership.

Time to run with it or give it up for good?

Coach Mike Brey talks often of the concept, which the seniors first take every summer when it’s time to choose sides for nightly pickup games. In-season, it drives the main guys to get it in gear when times get tough (and they did this season) and sneaks into huddles when players are free to say something if they have something to say.

As the season stretches from October to December, January to March, it becomes less about what Brey says and more about his guys. It becomes their team. Their locker room. Their program. The coaching staff is there to guide them through the rocky times (and there were some this season), but it gets to the point where the players police themselves.

Ownership.

Like last week at Barclays Center when the Irish looked on empty and trailed by 13 points at halftime of an Atlantic Coast Conference second-round tournament game against Virginia Tech. You guys figure it out, Brey barked at the break. The Irish did for the win.

Then again like Sunday.

Left on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament, Notre Dame also was left at a crossroads. Should the Irish (20-14) embrace the chance to chase a postseason championship as one of four No. 1 seeds in the National Invitation Tournament, or should they pack it in with a definitive end-of-season divorce?

With spring break on campus and snow falling Monday morning, being stuck in the Bend as a college kid this week can be depressing. Especially for the Irish, who have so much time to sit and think about what might have been. And what is. The eyes of the college basketball world are on one tournament, but Notre Dame is relegated to the other.

Why not just get away and get somewhere warm? Be done with basketball. Pretty tempting.

The decision on how to handle it had to come from the team’s core leadership, a senior class that will leave the winningest in program history. Stay and play or get up and go? Brey didn't offer anything in terms of advice or motivation.

“It ain’t me getting them; it’s them getting them now,” he said. “This group has had ownership of itself for a long time. They’re going to make the decisions on preparation.

“There’s no motivational speech by Coach right now. It’s our senior class saying let’s keep doing this thing or not.”

Notre Dame will keep doing it and opens first-round NIT play Tuesday at home against No. 8 seed Hampton (19-15). But the decision to chase a postseason championship was not as easy as many think. There was some back-and-forth between players. Some uncertainty. Doubt. Some soul-searching from a senior class weighed down by seven NCAA tournament wins and a pair of Elite Eight appearances in its postseason pockets.

Notre Dame hasn’t been to the NIT since 2009, and didn’t plan to go back anytime soon. Certainly not with this group. Not this season.

“It’s pretty established in the locker room that nobody wants to play in the NIT,” said senior power forward Martinas Geben. “We don’t set our goals to play in the NIT. We’re trying to make the most out of it just like we were trying to make the most out of it through the whole season.”

A trying season. A turbulent season. One that saw the Irish field nine different starting lineups and play 15 of their 18 Atlantic Coast Conference contests without leading scorer and rebounder Bonzie Colson. One that saw them play five others without senior captain Matt Farrell. One that saw them survive a seven-game league losing streak to still piece it all together and reach a point where they were the 69th team in the NCAA field of 68.

Colson’s healthy. Farrell’s healthy. The Irish have won seven of their last 11. They’re back to being nearly whole for the first time since the New Year. The opportunity to stay nearly whole and keep playing was too much to ignore.

Shut it down? Not now.

“This group hasn’t really played together a lot,” Farrell said. “To not play would be a (bad) reflection of not only our team, but our university. To just drop out and not play after everything we’ve been through all year, that’s something we’re not prepared to do.”

What the Irish are prepared to do — what was the focus of that locker-room discussion Sunday night — is keep playing. Keep winning. Win three home games and advance to the tournament’s Final Four. Get a chance to get to Madison Square Garden, a place this program hasn’t been since 2013. To make all of it happen — any of it happen — the Irish had to make certain everyone was totally committed to the cause.

Not just a little bit. Not just a lot. A whole lot. From the senior leaders to the underclassmen, to the managers, the Irish determined that if they’re going to do this, they have to do it right.

“We want to make sure we’re 1,000 percent in,” Geben said. “We don’t want to have a letdown one or two games in where we’re not focused and showing up for competition and getting blown out, which would make an even more disappointing end to the season.”

So the Irish will play. They plan to play well. After maybe some coaxing and convincing, they want to do this. They need to do this. It’s not about sticking it to the NCAA selection committee, or hanging a championship banner that they can point to in reunions down the road.

What they really want is one final chance to do this together. One more run, however long it might last.

“Some people don’t realize that with everything we’ve gone through, but it’s about our group,” Farrell said. “The culture here, we enjoy being around each other. We have fun playing with each other.

“That’s why we’re going to play and we’re going to play hard.”

And own it. All of it.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

A postseason National Invitation Tournament is all that Notre Dame has left to look forward to this basketball season. Is that enough for a group that's known winning? We'll find out. (Tribune File Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)

National Invitation Tournament

First Round

WHO: No. 1 seed Notre Dame (20-14) vs. No. 8 Hampton (19-15)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Tuesday at 9 p.m.

TICKETS: Plenty available. All tickets cost $10 and are general admission (open seating).

TV: ESPN.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM/96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI

NOTING: Hampton is a private school with an enrollment of 3,800 located in Hampton, Va. … The Pirates enter postseason having won 10 of their last 11 games. They lost in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship to North Carolina Central. … Hampton was picked to finish fourth with two first-place votes in the 13-team league. It earned an automatic NIT bid after winning the MEAC regular season at 12-4. … This is the fifth-straight season and sixth in the last eight that Hampton plays in postseason. It advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2011, 2015 and 2016. This is its first appearance in the NIT; Notre Dame has played in 11 previous NITs. … Hampton finished third in the MEAC for scoring offense (80.0), sixth in scoring defense (76.3), first in scoring margin (+3.7) free throw percentage (.777) and assist/turnover ratio (1.2), second in blocked shots (3.7) and third in field goal percentage (.452) and field goal percentage defense (.420). … Eleven Pirates average at least 11 minutes per game. … Sophomore guard Jermaine Marrow leads the team in scoring (19.0 ppg) and minutes (34.5). … Hampton and Notre Dame have never met. … Tuesday’s winner advances to the second round against the winner of No. 4 Penn State and No. 5 Temple at a date to be determined.

QUOTING: “Sometimes life sucks.”

-Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell on not getting back to the NCAA tournament for a fourth-straight season.