Last summer, Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick reflected on the Irish men’s basketball program that has had a remarkable proclivity to overachieve and shine during the regular season … and then gets prematurely stung in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments.
Sophomore point guard Eric Atkins has contributed significantly to a stellar Irish run on the hardwood.
“There is future tournament success coming, I am certain we will achieve that,” Swarbrick said. “Some programs take a while. You knock on the door, you knock on the door, you figure it out and it gets there — and frequently it comes at an unexpected time, a year where you don’t think you’re going to make it.”
What Notre Dame is achieving this year under 12th-year head coach Mike Brey’s leadership goes beyond anyone’s most delusional expectations just two months ago.
Brey has stated occasionally that a “next step” for his program is to play on Saturday night in Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament title. The Irish were on the threshold to do it for the first time last year, holding a 14-point halftime lead against Louisville in the semifinals before falling in overtime.
Meanwhile, in the NCAA Tournament, there is a cold reality: The Irish have been to the Big Dance 26 times in the 52 seasons since 1959, or once every other season (this year will be the eighth time in 12 seasons under Brey, which is well ahead of the curve). However, only four times in those 26 tries (15.4 percent) have they won back-to-back games in the tourney (1978, 1979, 1987 and 2003).
For now, though, a moment needs to be taken to celebrate a group that Brey already is calling “special” and one with “competitive cruelty” when it comes to knowing how to finish:
2 Notre Dame is tied for second place with Marquette in the cut-throat 16-team Big East with 11-3 league marks, and it holds the tiebreaker against the Golden Eagles after romping to a 76-59 victory against them on Feb. 4. Furthermore, the Irish own the lone victory against the leader of the pack, Syracuse (67-58 on Jan. 21). The Irish were picked ninth by the coaches in October — and that was with top scorer and All-Big East candidate Tim Abromaitis in the lineup. Abromaitis’ season ended Thanksgiving weekend with a knee injury.
4 Victories on the road since Jan. 7 against four different programs that have been in the Final Four since 2005: at Louisville (Jan. 7), at Connecticut (Jan. 29), at West Virginia (Feb. 8) and at Villanova (Feb. 18). This from a program that started the season 0-6 in games away from Purcell Pavilion, and lost them by an average of 14.5 points, including 71-55 at Cincinnati on Jan. 4 to open the Big East road campaign.
5 Mike Brey has the fifth most victories in men’s Big East basketball history, which began in 1979. He is 130-86, which put him over the .600 mark at .602. That’s like a major league baseball team going 98-64 — it will be in the playoffs virtually every year with that kind of success rate. He should be the front-runner to be the Big East Coach of the Year for the fourth time in the last six seasons.
The only coaches ahead of him all time are Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame members Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, John Thompson Jr. and Lou Carnesecca, all in the .600 to .660 range. The latter has 139 wins, which should be eclipsed by Brey next year to move into fourth place.
7 Threes converted by freshman Pat Connaughton at Villanova (on 12 attempts), a season high by a Notre Dame player, eclipsing the five he had in the 76-59 victory versus Marquette on Feb. 4. The 6-5 rookie swingman also grabbed nine rebounds against the Wildcats and epitomizes the fearless confidence and a cruel dagger that this team possesses.
8 Consecutive Big East wins, tying the school record set during Brey’s first season in 2000-01 when he had future first-round picks Troy Murphy and Ryan Humphrey in the lineup, plus current NBA guard Matt Carroll. That Irish team finished 11-5 in the Big East, while this one is already 11-3.
10 Double-doubles posted by junior big man Jack Cooley — including four straight after recording 18 points and 13 rebounds last night at Villanova. Eight of those games have occurred in the Big East. Four times he has been on the Big East week honor roll, and last week he was the Big East Player of the Week for the first time. He might repeat as BE Player of the week after tallying 22 points and 18 rebounds earlier this week against Rutgers, prior to the Villanova game. In the last four games he has averaged 20.8 points and grabbed 14.2 rebounds — while converting 33 of his 45 field goals attempted, a 73.3 percent clip.
Oh, by the way, he played 42 minutes at Villanova. In preseason conditioning tests, it was determined that his VO (volume of oxygen) intake would limit him to no more than 25 minutes per game. That probably doesn’t make the opposition breathe easier.
20 Points from which Notre Dame rallied (39-19) to win at Villanova. The Notre Dame media relations department is currently looking into whether that is the biggest comeback victory in the program’s history. My own recollection is that on Jan. 25, 1982, the 4-10 Irish rallied from 18 points down to defeat No. 8 Idaho, 50-48. Notre Dame also came back from two 17-point deficit against No. 1 teams to win. The first was Jan. 19, 1974, the famous 71-70 conquest of UCLA in which the Irish trailed 33-16 in the first half (and 70-59 with 3:22 left). The second was Feb. 26, 1978 when Notre Dame trailed 34-17 against Marquette before posting a 65-59 win.
The last time we can recall the Irish taking a lead after being down 20 was March 14, 1974 in second-round NCAA Tournament action. The 25-2 Notre Dame team with future first-round NBA picks John Shumate, Adrian Dantley and Gary Brokaw fell behind 28-8 against Michigan, took a brief two-point lead in the second half, but ended up losing, 77-68.