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Column: Dejection In Dayton

DAYTON, Ohio — This dispatch from the road comes via a Comfort Inn where a late checkout was required to digest both the powdered eggs from the continental breakfast and the giant chicken embryo Notre Dame laid Friday night in the NCAA Championship.

Irish head coach Mike Brey watched his team stumble again in the NCAA Tournament.

Once again the Fighting Irish, seeded 7th in the West Region, checked out early, leaving its fan base mad in March and with severe hoops indigestion in the wake of a 76-58 loss to 10th-seeded Iowa State. Perhaps the only consolation after such an embarrassing performance is that Notre Dame doesn’t have to deal with Ohio State Sunday.

But there’s a litany of other problems to tackle for head coach Mike Brey, whose career narrative failed to produce a plot twist. The man responsible for extracting the most out of average teams and finding regular-season success over the years in a taxing Big East Conference leaves the Big Dance having watched his team trip and go flying into the punch bowl.

Brey admitted that the big picture, which was about to include a fifth tournament loss in the team’s last seven NCAA Championship contests, weighed on his mind during intermission.

“I think about it all the time. I thought about it at halftime,” he said. “How do you take the next step? We’ve kind of maxed it out in all the other areas. How do you do that? We’ll keep thinking about it. I think the first thing to think about is not the NCAA tournament next year, but who are we going to be in this new league and can we earn a bid again out of the ACC? That’s probably the first matter of business.

“This is the one thing that I guess still drives me on a daily basis to get there and how do we manage it better and how do we better prepare and how do we handle it better?”

The Irish turned the ball over 17 times (averaged 11 per game going in), couldn’t stop Iowa State’s penetration and were a step too late defending the perimeter. They were frantic on offense and lethargic on defense. Senior forward Jack Cooley, whose calling card this season has been rebounding dominance, grabbed just five while managing to come up with a collection of helter-skelter baskets for a co-team-high 14 points. The trio of junior guards Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant and sophomore guard/forward Pat Connaughton combined for just 19 points, and Notre Dame’s bench had very little to offer.

The Irish did finish with a 35-27 rebounding edge, but it wasn’t nearly enough to offset all the other miscues. For the most part, a bigger Notre Dame squad was pushed around from tip-off to tap-out, lacking toughness and resolve.

Cooley’s fourth and final appearance in the tournament had completely unraveled by the 13-minute mark in the second half, when the Cyclones pushed their lead to 18 points after big man Georges Niang beat Cooley to the rim. During the ensuing Irish timeout, Brey emphatically suggested that Cooley hit the bench. In the locker room afterwards, a red-eyed Cooley, pausing often to collect himself, couldn’t muster much of a defense.

“It was just a little frustration boiling over,” said Cooley, an All-Big East First Team selection who didn’t react well at the time to being taken out of the game. “It was the accumulation of how well our season went only to have this go all wrong. I understand what he was saying. It’s nothing personal; it’s just what happened.

“We weren’t all mentally there. I don’t really know what happened tonight. It was such a shock. I don’t know that everyone was as fully invested in this game as we needed to be.”

That’s what’s so astonishing. Even after recent NCAA flameouts, this program still lacked motivation, maturity and focus to get over a constantly growing hump. Postseason clunkers have become tradition in the last decade in South Bend. After 13 seasons in charge, Brey is still trying to put his finger on the root cause.

“Our history of our program has not been good in this thing; I’m aware of that,” Brey said. “We strive to do better at it and I still feel we have some pretty good momentum and we have good players coming back and good young players [coming in].”

There’s a glaring disconnect between Brey’s loose vibe, which seems to be a veneer masking the pressure he's certainly feeling now, and the crippling tightness his team exhibited in Dayton. So soon after this March meltdown, it’s hard to see any momentum heading to the ACC.

Maybe a change of scenery will do the Irish good. Or perhaps the East Coast basketball powers smell chum floating drifting their way. One thing is for certain: Brey's swimming against a strong current heading into his 14th season at Notre Dame. And as much as he appears to be the right fit, the right personality and an overall likable guy, he's in danger of losing an already dwindling fan base completely.

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