No coincidence Irish are back in NCAA tournament after addition of associate head coach

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Nov 13, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish associate head coach Anthony Solomon signals to his players in the second half against the Cal State Northridge Matadors at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

DAYTON, Ohio — He walks just about everywhere — from the locker room to the bench before games in Purcell Pavilion, from his Rolfs Hall office to the court before practice, between the two buildings — like a man in no hurry. 

A sage just out for a quiet stroll.

Notre Dame associate men’s basketball head coach Anthony Solomon talks in a similar manner. In deliberate, measured tones, like he already knows what he’s going to say before he says it. The way he works, the way he carries himself is befitting of the nickname he was given long ago. 

Slo. 

Back for his third stint on coach Mike Brey’s staff, the 57-year-old Solomon first met with the media back in July, after he was tasked with overhauling an Irish defense that had sprung numerous leaks the previous year. Solomon talked that summer day, then vowed that he wouldn’t talk again until Notre Dame accomplished something it hadn’t done the previous four seasons. 

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When Notre Dame made it back to the NCAA tournament, only then would Slo offer any interview. No reason to talk when there was too much work to be done. That interview, that trip back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017, would be validation of the Irish defense.

It’s no coincidence that the Irish now have made the NCAA tournament nine times — including three Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights — during Solomon’s three staff tours. 

Solomon knew when he arrived late last spring that fixing the Irish defense would be difficult. Demanding. Sometimes, too much so. But one reason why Notre Dame (22-10) played Rutgers (18-13) late Wednesday in an NCAA tournament First Four West Region contest at University of Dayton (Ohio) Arena was because of defense. 

The way the Irish bought in. The way they committed. The way Solomon gave them a path to follow. 

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It worked because he worked. 

“It’s probably in the top five accomplishments of my coaching career,” Solomon said in that voice barely above a whisper down a back hallway of UD Arena on Tuesday afternoon. “I live for this challenge of, we can defend better. We can rebound better. We can talk better. We can move our feet better. 

“We can do this.” 

Notre Dame did it. Were the numbers elite? No, but you don’t go from indifferent to incredible in one year. In Atlantic Coast Conference games only this season, Notre Dame ranked fourth in scoring defense (66.9 ppg.). It was third in field goal percentage defense (.426) and second in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.296). 

All those numbers improved over last year — the Irish ranked 14th, ninth and 12th in those categories — when the Irish really couldn’t stop anyone. 

“For our guys, it was prioritize and emphasize,” Solomon said. “Those were the words — prioritize and emphasize. Then re-emphasize. We just continued to work on their habits. 

“It’s been tough on us some nights, but we showed signs from where we started.” 

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Those signs manifested during a January/February run through the ACC where Notre Dame got after opposing teams on the defensive end. In seven straight league games, the Irish allowed 65 or fewer points. That's never before happened in any league play for Notre Dame — not in the Big East. Not in the ACC. 

The Irish hit that 65 or fewer number 10 times in league play and 17 times overall. That’s why they were in Dayton this week. The defense drove them. 

“Sixty-five or fewer, that was a beautiful thing,” Solomon said. “That’s when we said to our guys, we’re on track. This is how you need to play in March.” 

When Solomon speaks, in meetings, on the practice floor, during games, it’s wise to listen. But there were times this season when he could stay silent. He didn’t need to preach the principles. He didn’t need to remind guys to keep the ball out of the middle of the floor or be better on ball screens or continue to gang rebound. 

All the words he’d spoken since the summer? The players started doing the same. One night during one game in one huddle, sophomore power forward Matt Zona spoke Slo-ese. 

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“When you start hearing them speak it, then you know it’s working,” Solomon said. “To hear them this time year talking about defense and getting stops, that’s progress.” 

Defending this season was different than it was in the past because Solomon seldom let up. Get a stop one trip? Cool, now go get another. And another. Gang rebound in one game? How about two more? Solomon never let the Irish feel satisfied. He couldn’t. They couldn’t. 

“He’s been a great voice for us, not letting anybody slip up,” said senior guard/captain Prentiss Hubb. “He holds everyone accountable.” 

Defending this season, defending in Wednesday’s tournament game, always circled back to one word that Solomon routinely scribbles on the white board during practices, drops into scouting reports, preaches when it’s time to preach. 

Stand. 

Notre Dame senior guard/captain Dane Goodwin has never played a college basketball game at University of Dayton Arena before Wednesday, but he's no stranger to the building, or the campus.

Solomon made sure to spell it the same way every time he needed to use it, every time the Irish needed to be reminded of it. It would be a lowercase s-t-a. He then would interlock the N and D in capital letters. For the Irish to make a stand, they would have to be connected. All the time. Thus, the N and D. 

Another staND was required Wednesday against Rutgers. 

“Nothing’s changed in terms of taking that,” Solomon said. “And we know how to spell it.” 

A sort of homecoming 

Wednesday wasn’t just another college basketball game in another basketball arena in the long career of Irish senior guard/captain Dane Goodwin. 

In many ways, it was a homecoming. For the first time in his collegiate career, Goodwin would play in his home state of Ohio. He's a native of Upper Arlington, about an hour’s drive to the east of Dayton. Playing in University of Dayton Arena against Rutgers meant that Goodwin would play a college game on the same floor where his father played. 

Goodwin’s father, Damon, was a standout guard for Dayton (1982-86). He averaged 10.0 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 119 career games. He helped lead the Flyers to NCAA tournament appearances in 1984 and 1985. He was a seventh-round NBA draft pick of the Phoenix Suns and recently finished his 27th season as head coach of Capital University, located in Columbus. 

Like his son, Damon Goodwin wore No. 23. 

“Over the last few days, I kind of realized it was a possibility,” Goodwin said of playing in the First Four in Dayton. “It’s going to be really cool.” 

Goodwin’s mother, Danielle, also is a Dayton graduate, as is his older sister, Addison. He’s never played on the UD Arena floor, but back when he was in high school at Upper Arlington, that team would participate in UD summer camps. 

He knows the campus and the area well. He knows the arena well. It’s where his father was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in January 2010. 

“Just have really good memories of that place,” Goodwin said. “Looking to create another one here on Wednesday.” 

Tricky travel 

Participating in the First Four requires teams to work through a different kind of travel plan leading into the tournament game. 

The traveling parties for Notre Dame and Rutgers both were required to check out of their respective hotels prior to leaving for the arena early Wednesday evening. Notre Dame stayed south of the city just off Interstate 75 at a Hilton Garden Inn. Wednesday’s winner would have a 737 charter waiting for them at Dayton International Airport to get them to San Diego. 

There, a first-round game against No. 6 seed Alabama on Friday at 1:15 p.m. local time awaited. The winning team wasn’t scheduled to arrive in California until close to sunrise — or even after — Thursday morning. On Wednesday, Indiana, which won its First Four game on Tuesday, didn’t land in Portland, Ore., until just after 6 a.m. local time. 

The loser of Wednesday’s game would have to check back into their hotel before returning home Thursday. For the Irish, that would mean another bus trip back to Northern Indiana. 

NCAA tournament travel guidelines stipulate that if teams are within 350 miles of a game site, it has to bus to the game. Two charter buses brought the Irish traveling party to Southwest Ohio on Monday. 

South Bend is 210 miles from Dayton. 

Notre Dame also bused to its two NCAA tournament sites – Pittsburgh and Cleveland – in 2015. 

Selective memory 

Notre Dame director of basketball operations Scott Martin offered only a wry smile Tuesday when asked if he had any thought of being back in UD Arena. 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Martin joked. 

But he did. Notre Dame was back in the building that sits next to I-75 and near the banks of the Great Miami River for the first time since March 22, 2013. That was the night that Notre Dame, ranked No. 23 in the national polls and a No. 7 seed, lost a first-round tournament game to 10th-seeded Iowa State, 76-58. 

The leading scorers that night? Power forwards Jack Cooley and Tom Knight, who each had 14 points. Martin, a sixth-year senior that year, averaged 7.9 points and 5.9 rebounds in 29.7 minutes that season, which for him ended after 18 games because of lingering knee issues. 

Heading into Wednesday’s game, that was the last time that Notre Dame did not win its first tournament game. 

Tournament tidbits 

►The National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) named Brey, a past board president, the District 2 Coach of the Year on Tuesday. Brey has earned three conference coach of the year honors — all in the Big East — and was the national coach of the year in 2011. 

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey earned NABC District 2 coach of the year honors on Tuesday.

►Goodwin and freshman guard Blake Wesley were second team all-district selections. 

►Notre Dame entered Wednesday’s game 39-40 in NCAA tourney play. Wednesday was its 37th appearance in school history. 

►After coming off the bench in the ACC tournament quarterfinal loss to eventual tournament champion Virginia Tech, Goodwin was expected to return Wednesday to the starting lineup. 

►Irish legend Austin Car’s NCAA tournament scoring record of 61 points, which still stands today. was set at UD Arena in 1970 against Ohio. 

►Notre Dame went 9-2 during the regular season in Wednesday games. 

Notre Dame guard/captain Prentiss Hubb didn't want to let his first taste of the NCAA tournament end early.

They said it 

“It makes me want to go harder. It’s taken a long time and this is my last year. I can’t get it back. All I’ve got to do is go out there and leave my all out there. It’s our time.” 

— Hubb on playing an NCAA tournament game for the first time in his collegiate career. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI