Notes: How will stories of NITs past stay with this Notre Dame men's basketball team?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – It wasn’t a gather 'round the fire with some hot chocolate and a blanket on a cold winter’s night scenario, but Notre Dame coach Mike Brey did bring his squad together earlier this week to share some postseason stories.

Stories that may impact how the Irish handle the National Invitation Tournament. Late Tuesday night, one year to the day that the Notre Dame charter flight was battling blizzard-like conditions to land at Buffalo-Niagara International Airport in preparation for the 2017 NCAA tournament, the Irish hosted Hampton in a first-round NIT game.

Would the senior class core play like it still wanted to play college basketball, or would it pack it in and simply go through the motions with little emotion?

Both scenarios have played out during Brey’s tenure. As Notre Dame picked up the pieces of its shattered NCAA tournament dream earlier this week, he shared tales of two of his former teams.

In 2005, the Irish thought they had done enough to merit inclusion in the NCAA tournament. They finished 17-12 (OK, a little shaky), but managed a winning record (9-7) in the Big East. They won six straight at one point, but limped to a 3-5 finish. That included a Big East tournament loss to Rutgers.

Notre Dame was not one of the teams selected to the NCAA, and instead was handed a first-round NIT home game against Holy Cross. The Irish played like they didn’t want to be there and fans turned out the same way. In front of a crowd of 2,517, the Irish, who Brey said “really weren’t interested” lost, 78-73.

“It was really a tough end to a season,” Brey said. “When they came back for reunions, they said they’d wished they would have handled that better.”

Handled it like the 2009 team, which has many similarities to this one. Notre Dame also was ranked at one time in the Top 10 (No. 8) that season and played in the Maui Invitational championship (it lost to eventual national champion North Carolina). It also suffocated under an A-level league schedule and lost seven straight games. Both teams finished 8-10 in league play.

That one also was sent to the NIT. Notre Dame won three straight games, including a home contest against Kentucky that drew 11,352, to advance to the tournament’s Final Four at Madison Square Garden. Notre Dame lost to Penn State in the tournament’s semifinals.

Brey said that team, which featured current Irish assistant coach Ryan Ayers as a senior swingman “made the most of the NIT.”

So what’s in store for this group? A deep dive into the NIT or a thanks-but-no-thanks cameo?

“I’m hoping this group with be a little more like Ayers’ group,” Brey said. “This group loves playing together.”

Change it up

Fans who paid the flat $10 fee for general admission to Tuesday’s game likely noticed that it wasn’t a typical men’s college basketball game.

The NIT implemented several new experimental rules changes. Instead of two 20-minute halves, games are played with four 10-minute quarters. The lane was widened four feet to NBA regulation and the 3-point line extended 20 inches to 22 feet, 1.75 inches. It’s the same distance used in FIBA international play. The shot clock also resets to 20 seconds instead of 30 following an offensive rebound.

“That’s going to be fun,” Brey said of the changes, which he termed “funky” and may be considered for future college basketball regular seasons.

A long-time member of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) board, Brey has pushed for a wider lane to better open the floor and limit all the banging near the bucket. The wider lane is similar to the one that Irish power forward Martinas Geben played on last summer during the World University Games.

Geben wasn’t all that pumped about it.

“Actually, it’s more space for me to be in there three seconds,” he said. “So, if anything, it’s actually hurting me. I’m indifferent.”

Brey wished the tournament had one additional change.

“I think we should play with the red, white and blue ball,” he said.

Notre Dame played Tuesday with its usual Wilson brown leather ball.

Moving on

Learning that it was the last team eliminated from the NCAA tournament field of 68 won’t be any additional motivation for Notre Dame to prove the selection committee wrong.

“There’s no excuses,” said guard Matt Farrell. “We didn’t do enough to get in. Sometimes life sucks. We’re not going to sit and sulk about it. We have another opportunity to keep playing the game that we love.”

At the same time as Notre Dame prepared and played its NIT game, the NCAA was holding the first of its two nights of competition in the First Four in Dayton. That’s where the Irish could have been, but for them, it’s like it’s not even happening.

Not Tuesday’s two games. Not Wednesday’s two games. Not the real start of the tournament Thursday. Who’s advancing through the bracket over the next three weeks? Who cares?

“We have to find a way to completely disassociate from the NCAA tournament,” Geben said. “We’re going to see it all over social media and TV, but we’ve gotta stay away from it and worry about it and do what we have to do.”

Crowd of crickets?

In preparing the Irish to play with the different rules of the NIT, and having to play a tournament that is off the casual college basketball fan’s radar, Brey also prepped his team to accept that when they ran out of the locker room for the pre-game layup lines Tuesday, they’d be greeted by a sea of … empty blue seats.

The game was played about 48 hours after the tip time was announced, which means a tough turnaround to sell tickets. And the student body, which really didn’t show in full force much during the regular season, is on spring break.

“That’s a little bit of a dagger,” Brey said. “It’s not going to be the same crowds that we had for the ACC season, but that’s the way it goes.”

Notre Dame had four sellouts and averaged 8,406 in the 9,149-seat Purcell Pavilion during the regular season. It also lost five home games, most since 2013-14 when it lost six.

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI