Notre Dame basketball headed back to NCAA Tournament as No. 11 seed
A college basketball dream one year in the making has been realized.
Notre Dame is going back to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for the first time since 2017. The Irish (22-10) open tournament play Wednesday in one of the First Four games in Dayton against Rutgers. The winner of that game advances in the West Region to play Friday against No. 6 Alabama in San Diego.
Notre Dame and Rutgers will tip Wednesday night at 9:10 p.m. (approximately) at University of Dayton Arena. The game will be televised on truTV.
Mike Brey didn't waste time Sunday after the announcement making sure his team knew that UCLA went from the First Four to the Final Four last season. Why can't Notre Dame?
"Sometimes when you get a chance to play and win a game in Dayton, it can jump-start you a little bit," Brey said. "To scratch our way back into this, let's do it. To get there is great.
"It's been a one-year march to get back to March Madness."
Notre Dame tournament seeding, Rutgers history
The Irish are a No. 11 seed in the field of 68. It’s the first time since 1990 that Notre Dame enters the tournament as a double-digit seed. That year, the last under former coach Digger Phelps, Notre Dame was a No. 10 seed. The Irish will be the lower seed for the first time under Brey, who takes this program into the NCAA tournament for the 13th time in his 22 seasons.
It’s the 37th trip to the NCAA in program history.
Former Big East colleagues, Notre Dame leads the all-time series with Rutgers, 20-13, 15-10 in the Big East. Wednesday is the first game between the teams since an eight-point Irish victory on March 13, 2013 - their last year in that league.
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Notre Dame has won three straight and four of the last five against Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights finished 18-13, 12-8 and sixth place in the Big Ten. They lost four of their final six.
No journey to get there may have been more taxing than this one. It was one the Irish first made plans to make at this time last year – March 2021 when they gathered just as they did Sunday – at the home of the head coach to watch the selection show. Together. So they could chase this together.
Shaky Selection Sunday
Sunday was supposed to be a day of little drama. A day to kick back and chill, have some food and dream about where the Irish might be placed after doing the needed work over the previous six months. But after losing two of their last three and three of six, including a conference tournament quarterfinal loss Thursday to eventual champion Virginia Tech, Notre Dame’s seemingly safe and solid spot in the field became shaky. Really shaky.
"I think everybody was uptight," Brey said. "We were probably wondering what our destiny was. There was a lot of anxiety."
Yes, there was.
"We," said senior guard Dane Goodwin, "had to sweat it out."
Brey said there was no big celebration at his home. It was more matter of fact. Like, yeah, we're in. Now let's go to work.
Sunday’s dream had the very real possibility of turning into a nightmare. All the bracket talk the last two days was about how Notre Dame should NOT be in the field. Turns out the Irish didn't have to wait long. Their West Region bracket was the first revealed. Barely three minutes into the selection show, Notre Dame knew it was in.
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It has to go to Dayton and play in a play-in game for the first time in school history, but it's in. So let's go.
A year ago, Brey wanted his team to see what it was like when teams earned the bid. The joy. The happiness. Even, the relief. It was something that Brey believed the Irish could chase and should chase. They were a veteran outfit returning in 2021-22 and getting to the NCAA tournament was the logical next step.
"Watching it last year was not very fun for us," said Irish power forward Nate Laszewski.
Brey cautioned then and again throughout the summer that getting a bid would be the most difficult task to accomplish in their basketball lives. Earning a bid is hard, he’s often said, and nothing that should ever be taken for granted.
This one won’t be.
Despite finishing second in the Atlantic Coast Conference for the first time in school history and winning a program record 15 league games, Notre Dame received one of the last 36 at-large invitations. A down year in the league – 12 of the 15 Irish wins came against teams that finished in the bottom seven of the 15-team league standings – and not enough Quadrant One (quality) wins (two) forced Notre Dame to sweat out the final few days heading into Selection Sunday.
But they’re back in.
Only one player on the current Irish roster has played in the NCAA tournament. Graduate student Paul Atkinson, Jr., was a sophomore at Yale when he scored nine points with one rebound in an opening-round loss to LSU in 2019.
"It's a special opportunity," Atkinson said. "It's the biggest tournament in the world. We've got a lot to prove. We'll be excited to do it."
NCAA Tournament history
It’s been a long road back to the tournament after Notre Dame went three straight seasons (2015-17). That includes consecutive Elite Eight appearances (2015-16). In 2018, a victory by Davidson in the Atlantic 10 championship game the afternoon of Selection Sunday pushed Notre Dame from in the field to the first team out. The Irish were team No. 69 that season.
The following year, Notre Dame went 3-15 and finished last in the ACC. A 10-10 conference season followed in the COVID-affected season of 2019-20. The Irish were 11-17 overall last year when Brey first started talking about the NCAA tournament.
If any group could get back, he said over the summer, it was this one. It had to be this one.
“We,” Brey said back in the summer, “could be a great story.”
One that can use a few more chapters written this week.
"We're ready to roll," said Irish guard Cormac Ryan.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI