Noie: How will young Notre Dame handle bright lights of big city?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It was one of the wackiest weekends in Notre Dame men’s basketball history, one that included a soul-crushing setback that often takes teams weeks to recover.

Except less than 24 hours later, it was as if that Saturday night in December at Madison Square Garden against a nationally-ranked opponent never happened. Like it all was a dream. Or a nightmare.

On Tuesday, Notre Dame (6-1) returns to the Garden, once their conference tournament home away from home, to face Oklahoma (6-1) in the first game of the annual Jimmy V Classic doubleheader. It’s the first time that Notre Dame is back in the building since Dec. 21, 2013, when everything unraveled in the final minute against then-No. 2 Ohio State.

In the hours that followed, everything about the program, about that season, changed.

Everything seemed fine for Notre Dame, which led 58-50 with 48 seconds remaining. It was going to be a big non-league/neutral-site/resume-building win for a team that earlier in the year lost home games to Indiana State and North Dakota State. Just when it looked like this one was locked down, it wasn’t. The Irish couldn’t take care of the ball against pressure, couldn’t make free throws under pressure, couldn’t figure out a way out as the window to escape slowly closed on a 64-61 loss.

The drama for the Irish was just beginning.

Afterward, coach Mike Brey officially informed the team what he had known for days — that guard Jerian Grant would not be back for the spring semester following an “academic misstep” taken earlier during the fall semester. While the team charter prepared to return to South Bend, Grant would head downstairs to Penn Station and hop a train home to Maryland. But first, in one strange scene, Grant was the one Irish player picked to speak at the post-game press conference.

Um, awkward.

Hours later, he’d be a former Irish for one semester.

News of Grant’s dismissal completely overshadowed the loss. Really, wiped it out. Suddenly, not being able to keep that late lead didn’t matter. Not doing what was needed to close out a close game didn’t matter. Losing in a manner that no Irish team under Brey before or since had lost didn’t matter. Second-guessing a coaching decision here and there didn’t matter.

Everything about that team and about that season changed. After the game, Brey walked the midtown streets to clear his thoughts, to develop some sort of plan moving forward. He knew then that it was going to be a rough road. Without Grant, the one guy everything was geared around, Notre Dame staggered to a 6-12 finish in its first trip through the Atlantic Coast Conference. That 15-17 season couldn’t end soon enough.

A year later with Grant back in good academic graces, Notre Dame won the ACC tournament and got this close to its first Final Four since 1978.

Now, Notre Dame’s back in midtown and back in the Garden, which was its post-season conference tournament home for nearly 20 years. The building has so many good memories. Like the school’s 59 program wins in various Garden games. Like crushing Cincinnati by 38 points in a Big East quarterfinal. Like experiencing four-straight Big East semifinal Friday nights when they played “God Bless America” between games and when there often were former U.S. presidents (Bill Clinton) and Big East royalty (Patrick Ewing, Pearl Washington) backstage.

Those were good days for the Irish.

But that 2013 moment lingers. The Irish weren’t able to move past losing Grant because they were too young. This year’s team, at least right now, also may be too green to handle the bright lights of the big city.

Power forward Juwan Durham is the only current Irish to have played a college game in the Garden. Nobody else on the roster has taken the freight elevator up five flights to the arena’s main floor. They haven’t played under the special theater lighting. They haven’t soaked in the sights and smells of the building. It’s like no other arena around.

There’s a buzz. You can feel it. Notre Dame has played in and won games over in Brooklyn, but it’s not the same. Barclays Center isn’t the Garden.

Tuesday also is the first time that Notre Dame plays a regular-season game outside of Saint Joseph County. It’ll do it on the biggest of stages. On national television. Against a power-conference opponent. That’s a big first step to experience the type of atmosphere the four Irish freshmen are going to experience.

Maybe it gets to them. Maybe they’re not ready. Then again, maybe they won’t know any better. Maybe they treat the Garden and all that comes with it like being back at Purcell Pavilion and they go and do what Brey wants them to do — let it rip and go play.

Whatever happens Tuesday, the Irish will be better because of it down the road just as they were after that night in 2013. It didn’t happen right away for them that year, but it happened.

Jimmy V Classic

WHO: Notre Dame (6-1) vs. Oklahoma (6-1).

WHERE: Madison Square Garden (19,812), New York.

WHEN: Tuesday at 7 p.m.

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

MEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Florida and West Virginia play the second game of this one-night doubleheader to honor the late Jim Valvano. … This is Notre Dame’s second appearance in the Jimmy V Classic following a 68-59 victory over Kansas State on Dec. 4, 2007. … Oklahoma returns three starters off last year’s team that finished 18-14, 8-10 and tied for sixth in the Big 12. … The Sooners were picked this preseason to finish eighth in the 10-team Big 12. … Oklahoma averages 73.4 ppg., and allows 65.1. Opponents are shooting 37.1 percent from the field, 36.1 percent from 3. … Oklahoma’s loss is to Wisconsin in the Battle for Atlantis. … The Sooners have played only two home games. … This is the first-ever meeting between the schools. … Notre Dame plays its next three games away from home after opening with seven straight at Purcell Pavilion. After seven games in 22 days, the Irish are in a stretch of three in 20. … Irish power forward John Mooney has double-digit rebounds in each of the last four games. … This is the first game for Notre Dame against a Big 12 school since an 83-71 loss to West Virginia on March 18, 2017 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It’s the first regular-season game against a Big 12 school since Notre Dame lost to former conference member Missouri, 87-58, on Nov. 21, 2011 in the first round of an early-season tourney (CBE Classic) in Kansas City, Mo.

QUOTING: “Nothing like taking your young guys to Madison Square Garden for the bright lights and the first (road) stage. What the heck? We’re going for it. Let’s go play.” — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.