Noie: Can a Strategic Sunday point Notre Dame in proper postseason direction?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

If you were in the room that night, you remember the anticipation, the excitement, the energy that surged through that space.

Twenty years ago this month, on the most important Sunday of the college basketball season, members of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team gathered in the theater room at the home of their then-first year head coach. They snapped up spots on couches. They sat sprawled over ottomans. They perched atop the high-top chairs that lined the walls. The assemblage spilled out of the room and across the expansive lower level in the Granger home of Mike Brey.

A few seconds before six, everybody went silent before the NCAA tournament selection show popped up on the projection screen (this was before high-definition TVs and theater-like surround sound). Everyone waited for something to happen that hadn’t the previous 10 years. Names of schools were revealed. All the usual names were shown. Then a new one appeared.

Notre Dame.

The NCAA selection committee ticketed that team to Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo., where it would face Xavier in the first round later that week. When that matchup was finalized, there were hugs and high-fives and smiles all around from the Irish. The proud basketball program was back.

That night was the first step toward a fine future, when those Sundays would become a fixture in a program where it was once so foreign.

Over the next two decades under Brey, 11 additional trips to the NCAA tournaments followed. There were times when Notre Dame wasn’t sure that it would see its name on Selection Sunday, others when it was a lock. The Irish would gather at various basketball spots for those Sunday shows — in the locker room lounge at Purcell Pavilion, high above the court in Club Naimoli. Never again did they use the coach’s home as its NCAA command center.

Until Sunday. Brey no longer lives out in Covington Shores having downsized for a home just over the state line in Michigan, yet still one with a pool out back.

Brey plans to have his players over Sunday for the selection show. There’s zero chance of Notre Dame seeing its name in the field of 68. It’s season is over after going 11-15. It will be the fourth straight year with no NCAA trip. It’s the longest stretch under Brey, who just completed his 21st season.

All indications point to a 22nd.

Sunday won’t be so much a pity party as it will be a strategy session. Brey wants his guys to watch the show. He wants them to see other teams and how they react to being selected. He wants them to be one of those 68 next year. He wants them to again do what so many Irish teams have done in the past. He often says it best — dream big dreams.

They’ll gather and document the day so they can look back on it a year from now and say that that’s where this next run they all believe is coming started.

“I want to see if that can be a reference point for us a year from now,” Brey said. “If we’re good enough to earn a bid.”

A tough ask

Notre Dame’s disjointed season that balanced between average and awful ended Wednesday with a 42-point loss to North Carolina in the second round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. At one point, the Irish trailed by 50. Afterward, in the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum locker room, it wasn’t about what had happened as it was about what has to happen to get back to the NCAA tournament.

That lingering sting can sit with the Irish through the spring and summer and into preseason. Anytime anyone gets a little too complacent, remember 101-59.

“That’s just the worst feeling,” said guard Prentiss Hubb, one of two captains (Cormac Ryan) expected to return next season. “We always have to have this feeling, like, as soon as we get back to South Bend and start workouts again that we lost by (freaking 42) points.

“There’s nothing more we can do about this loss.”

Except own it. Affix the final stats sheet to their cubicles in Rolfs Hall. Run a loop on the monitors in the facility entry of North Carolina’s second-half tsunami. Use it to fuel themselves to be better every day in the offseason and right through 2021-22. The Irish want to play in the NCAA tournament in 2022 for the first time since 2017. But it’s going to take a lot more than hope for that to happen.

“We’ve got to work as hard as we ever did if we want to make the tournament and have respect in the league and the NCAA,” Hubb said. “We all as a whole each need to sit down and look at our game and how we can fit in with this team and just work.

“It’s the only thing we really can do.”

Spinning away from Wednesday’s loss and into next season, Brey compared the team he’ll have in 2021-22 to the one he had in 2006-07. After missing the tournament three straight seasons then, the Irish broke through with a 24-8 season.

“We had to go back in Year Seven and we did and had some momentum,” Brey said. “I’m right on that mat once again — been there, done that. Year 22 is like Year Seven, right?”

Brey’s never been one for opening statements to start his pressers, but he likely already has his preseason one down come October. It’s the same one he’s used during previous March misses — ”Gotta get back to the NCAA tournament. Any questions?”

For this core, there’s plenty. That 2007 team featured senior guards Russell Carter and Colin Falls, both of whom earned first team All-Big East honors. There’s not a future first team all-league guy — let alone two — on this current roster. Only Hubb has earned all-ACC postseason honors. He was a third team pick this season. That team also had power forward Rob Kurz as a team captain. There’s nobody on the returning team that comes close to Kurz as a player, as a teammate or as a leader.

That 2007 squad also added two freshmen — power forward Luke Harangody and point guard Tory Jackson — who brought a different intensity level. They each had an edge about themselves, an edge that rubbed off on teammates. There are no sharp edges with this returning group. Right now, it’s one big (dull) circle.

That 2007 team jumped from a 6-10 Big East mark in 2006 to 11-5. Going 11-5 in 16 league games (.687 win percentage) would be akin to next year’s team going 13-7 (.650) in the 20-game ACC schedule. This core never has won more than 10 league games in a regular season. In a mediocre ACC year this winter, it labored to win seven.

This junior class, which was supposed to be the program cornerstone, has a combined record of 20-36 in ACC play their first three years. They’ve never finished better than break-even. This core has never played in a postseason tournament. There’s no reference point. There’s only potential. We’ve seen potential the last three seasons. It hasn’t developed or delivered to the program’s standard.

But there’s no other choice. Not for this head coach. Not for this core. Not for the immediate future of this program. It’s NCAA tournament or time to start over. Brey will be the first to admit that. If he can’t be the guy to deliver next season, it might be time to find another guy.

“The line is drawn in the sand,” said Brey, whose contract runs through 2024-25. “A year from Sunday, we need to show up in that bracket. Plain and simple.”

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey already has started planning/preparing for the 2021-22 season after this one ended Wednesday in the second round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.