March Madness: Quick turnaround aside, Notre Dame was ready to roll again in California
SAN DIEGO — Win or lose Friday in its first-round NCAA Tournament West Region game, Notre Dame’s senior core had already proven something to the head coach.
It wasn’t enough for Dane Goodwin, Prentiss Hubb and Nate Laszewski to get to the NCAA tournament for the first time in their college careers. Doing that would be big. But what would be bigger for coach Mike Brey was if the three actually made a difference in a game when they had to make a difference.
Each did that in Wednesday’s double-overtime victory over Rutgers, which is why No. 11 seed Notre Dame (23-10) was in California a few hours later preparing for Friday’s first-round game against No. 6 Alabama, a game that ended past Tribune deadline.
“Those seniors have talked about getting here,” Brey said Thursday. “Now you’ve got to deliver. Can you deliver or is getting in enough?”
It wasn’t enough. Hubb played one of his better all-around games (see below), Goodwin shook off some early sluggishness to hit a big 3-pointer to tie it in the first overtime while Laszewski quietly had a massive game with 18 points and six rebounds in 37 minutes off the bench.
“You talk about wanting to be here, but can you deliver?” Brey said. “That was a big breakthrough.”
Big because playing in the NCAA tournament is way different than playing a regular-season game, or playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. The game feels different. Every possession feels different. The vibe in the arena is different.
The Irish didn’t know what they didn’t know about the NCAA tournament. Now they do, which could help Friday.
“It’s anybody’s game regardless of who it is,” Hubb said. “Both teams are just going to have to step on the floor and play. Doesn’t matter what seed you are. The numbers go away. It’s just us versus the other team.”
Not even two hours after Wednesday’s win went final, Notre Dame was on a flight headed for California. It was maybe somewhere over Kansas or maybe it was New Mexico, that the adrenaline of winning an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 2017 ceased and thoughts about getting another one commenced.
“We were all fired up,” senior guard Cormac Ryan said of the start of the flight. “We had some time to cool our heels a little bit and relax, take it all in. As soon as we touched down in San Diego, we were all happy that we accomplished what we wanted to do in Dayton and laser focused on the task at hand.”
Brey spent nearly the entire flight watching Alabama film. He got about three hours of sleep on Friday morning/afternoon.
No way to the NIT
Brey joked earlier this week about not going to the OTHER post-season tournament — the National Invitation Tournament — and doubled down on it again during Thursday’s media availability window.
Notre Dame was one of the last teams in the field of 68. Had it fallen outside of that, its season would’ve been over. Last time the Irish were close but not close enough to an NCAA bid in 2018, the team’s veterans huddled for nearly an hour deciding whether to accept an NIT bid. They did, and then beat Hampton before losing to Penn State in the game where former Irish power forward Bonzie Colson rebroke his left foot.
No decision this year was needed.
“There was no way this team would have played in the NIT,” Brey said. “We chased this as a goal for so long. The NIT is good for some (teams’) rotations, but not this rotation.”
Brey has always tried to get his team to look at the positive in times of negatives. He couldn’t go there Sunday when it looked like the Irish might not get in.
“I was trying to come up with a speech if we didn’t get in,” he said. “I didn’t have one.”
Staggering stat line for Prentiss Hubb
Lost in everything that happened in the heart-stopping, high-stakes win over Rutgers was a sneaky/staggering stat line offered by Hubb.
Hubb had nine points, five rebounds and a game-high seven assists in 43 minutes. The league leader in the ACC this season in assist/turnover ratio (4.4 in conference games) also finished with zero turnovers.
He’s believed to be the first player in NCAA tournament history to have seven assists with no turnovers in at least 43 minutes.
“I didn’t even know that was like a stat, like a thing,” Hubb said. “Just being there for my teammates and just being that point-guard presence. If I’m not turning the ball over, we’re all going to keep flowing.”
Brey’s been in Hubb’s corner for the kid’s entire collegiate career and couldn’t help but be impressed by what he did in that atmosphere in that high-stress/stakes of a game. Says a lot about the kid’s character.
“He was fabulous,” Brey said. “He’s just really bought in after a rough start (to the season) just running our team.”
Hubb also wanted a bounce-back game Wednesday after committing a team-high five turnovers in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals loss to Virginia Tech. He bounced back.
Cormac Ryan just excited to play
Ryan’s comment from late Wednesday — actually Thursday morning — about his thoughts on playing Alabama (“Can’t wait!”) got some play in Thursday’s press availability when a reporter asked Alabama coach Nate Oats about it.
Oats wasn’t going there.
“I don’t know the context of Cormac’s thing,” Oats said. “I don’t want to talk too much to that. Everybody can’t wait to play the next game in March. Shoot, their whole team should be excited to play us.”
Exactly. Ryan could’ve been asked about playing anyone – the Golden State Warriors, Bethel College, Marian High School – and his reaction would’ve been the same. There was nothing else there. It’s March. The Irish had a chance to play another game. That’s great. That’s it.
One of the eight opening-rounds sites this season, Viejas Arena is on the campus of San Diego State. It actually is dug into a canyon overlooking Mission Valley and sits on the site of the school’s old Aztec Bowl.
Like Mayan Ruins, you still can see the old concrete seating sections, which hug each side of the 12,414- seat basketball structure. A 10,000-seat natural grass football stadium, the Aztec Bowl was built in 1933. It closed in 1995 and is in the National Register of Historic Places. The arena basically was built atop the top rows of concrete stands.
Viejas Arena is built a lot like Iowa’s Carver Hawkeye Arena in that the only fan entry points are at the top of the arena. Concession stands and restroom facilities are outside around the arena’s pavilion.
So is the media work and dining areas, both housed in oversized party tents just off a basement entrance. It’s unique and different and, late in the day once the sun has been beating down on the tents for several hours, a little uncomfortable in terms of temperature.
Then you remember you could be covering an NCAA tournament game in Buffalo or Milwaukee or Pittsburgh.
No happy holiday
Can we stop just for a moment trying to draw a storyline parallel to Saint Patrick’s Day and Notre Dame men’s basketball playing well or even winning on the Irish holiday?
Though Notre Dame’s win over Rutgers did come two minutes into the holiday on Thursday morning — the game still officially was played on March 16 — it’s been waaaaaaay too long since Notre Dame actually won a game on Saint Patrick’s Day.
You have to go all the way back to the first round of the 1989 NCAA tournament, an 81-65 victory over Vanderbilt at the Providence Civic Center, to find the last time the Irish won on what many consider their day.
After that win, Notre Dame lost six of the next nine NCAA games that were played the day before or the day after Saint Patrick’s Day before beating Michigan in 2016. Including that game, the Irish are 2-1 on days before or after the holiday since with the most recent game, in 2017, a loss to West Virginia in the second round.
► Indiana and Texas Southern, which each won NCAA Tournament First Four games on Tuesday, lost first-round NCAA tournament games Thursday by an average of 28 points. Notre Dame and Wright State, which won First Four games Wednesday, continued NCAA play Friday.
► Notre Dame entered Friday’s game against Alabama with an overall NCAA tournament record of 40-40.
► The 26 points that graduate student/power forward Paul Atkinson, Jr., scored Wednesday against Rutgers were the most ever for a player making his Notre Dame debut in the tournament. It was Atkinson’s second overall tournament game. He played his first while at sophomore at Yale in 2019.
► Notre Dame’s open practice, which commenced at 5:40 p.m. local time Thursday, 8:40 back home, was barely that. The Irish stretched out and took shot around a little bit and that was it. Brey even used the time to slide over to the seating area and pose for some picture with what looked like San Diego State fans.
After what happened Wednesday, and the overnight flight out, the goal was to keep the guys off their feet as much as possible.
► Give CBS television analyst Avery Johnson a hustle award. Johnson called Notre Dame’s game in Dayton on Wednesday and was on site in San Diego for Thursday’s media and open practices.
► All eight teams at this tournament site receive police escorts to and from the arena to their hotels. They are ferried through the sprawling freeway system by California Highway patrol officers, some on motorcycles. They’re known as CHiPs, which spawned a television show in 1977 and ran six seasons on NBC.
Kids, ask your parents.
► Friday was the first time Notre Dame played a tournament game in California since 2003. That year, the No. 5 seed Irish advanced to their first Sweet 16 in 16 seasons and lost to No. 1 seed Arizona (88-71) at Honda Center (then called Arrowhead Pond) in Anaheim, Calif. Arizona also is in San Diego this weekend, also as the West Region’s No. 1 seed.
► Friday was the first time that Notre Dame has played a game in the Golden State since a Dec. 8, 2018 visit to UCLA, a game the Bruins won 65-62.
► Expected in the crowd at Viejas Arena on Friday was former Irish center Phil Hickey, who said he planned to pull his kids from school for the day so they could make the drive from their home in the Los Angeles area for the game.
► Some early 2022-23 scheduling nuggets — Notre Dame’s two-game series with Marquette will begin with a game next season at Purcell Pavilion. It was originally anticipated that it would begin at Fiserv Forum. Also, Notre Dame’s third and final game in its series with Kentucky is expected to be canceled, something that was mutually agreed upon by the teams’ head coaches.
► Having NCAA tournament games on television out here at 9 a.m. local time takes some getting used to, almost like when Notre Dame was in Maui for basketball and NFL games kicked at 7 a.m. local time.
► One gallon of gas out here costs $6.19.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI